Adrianne Lenker: Mythological Beauty

Mike Greenhaus on April 2, 2024
Adrianne Lenker: Mythological Beauty

Photo: Germaine Dunes


A few years before the pandemic, Big Thief were traveling through Montana when they pulled into a rustic country house to spend the night. The remote space was super funky, colorful and full of mermaid decor. So, that evening, Adrianne Lenker sat down on the front steps and, despite the heavy wind, started writing a new song.

“I never know if new songs are going to pop out, but one did,” Lenker—who is best known as Big Thief’s enigmatic, heavenly voiced singer and guitarist—says of the tune that eventually became “Ruined.” “Then, I put it away. It was one of those songs that I didn’t really think much of for a while. But I’d show it to people from time to time, and it was on the table to record for a Big Thief album. It was just kicking around, and it became some of my friends’ favorite song over time.”

One of those friends happened to be her close collaborator, producer and engineer Philip Weinrobe, and the angelic, melancholy, piano-driven “Ruined” is now a lead track off Lenker’s latest solo release, Bright Future. The 12-tune LP, which is slated for release on March 22 via 4AD, is Lenker’s first album outside of Big Thief since her 2020 sibling releases, songs and instrumentals, which, as their titles suggest, showcase two very different sides of her music. The album also arrives a few years after Big Thief’s latest set, 2022’s Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You, which helped crystallize the ensemble’s exploratory mix of folk textures, indie-rock energy and advanced-degree musicianship— elevating them to marquee rooms like New York’s Radio City Music Hall after years of slow-burn success.

“It didn’t really fall into place for me until Phil brought it up,” Lenker says of “Ruined.” I was like, ‘I guess I could give it one more go.’ And then I played it on piano for the first time and, when I played it on piano, it fell into place for me.”

As Lenker is describing the tune’s rebirth as a solo cut, the singer is at home in Western Massachusetts. These days the 32-year-old musician, who traveled for much of the pandemic, primarily divides her time between that New England clime, Texas and Minnesota. When she first started crafting what eventually became Bright Future, Lenker admits that she wasn’t thinking about making another album. She had simply been compiling songs for several years and wanted to work with Weinrobe again. So the old friends carved out some time at Double Infinity studio, bringing along an Otari 1/2 inch 8-Track and Studer console. The space’s main room was 150 years old, complete with cherry wood floors, and Lenker invited three musical confidants who had never performed together to join them—multi-instrumentalists Nick Hakim, Mat Davidson and Josefin Runsteen.

“I go into every project not assuming that it’s going to end up something that I want to share or that it’ll end up being an album that I’ll release into the world,” Lenker says. “I’ve found that it’s better not to put that pressure on myself.”

At first, Lenker thought they might make an “ambient instrumental album,” but as they started working, things started inching closer to a proper release.

“When we get together, the only goal is to capture her performances in the purest, most impactful way possible, and I can’t imagine how knowing we were or weren’t making a record would help that process,” Weinrobe, who also produced songs and instrumentals, says of his work with Lenker. “We are just making music. Of course, I think we both knew in the back of our hearts that we were making a record. But we didn’t need the pressure. We had plenty of internal creative urgency. We didn’t require the additional commercial pressure of saying, ‘Let’s make a record.’”

“Ruined,” as well as the breezy “No Machine” and the airy “Cell Phone Says,” had been lying around for a while. Others, like “Evil Already Lost” and “Candle Flame,” Lenker worked up during the sessions. All of the tracks benefited from her ad-hoc group’s embellishments.

Nearly a year and a half later, Lenker is still slightly in shock that the players gelled so well together, though she is eager to rattle off her personal history with each musician. She befriended Hakim at the tender age of 16, when they both attended the same five-week summer program at the Berklee College of Music. She met Davidson after she moved to New York, when she was about 22 and trying to make a name for herself on the Downtown and Brooklyn club circuits; he’s accompanied her on the road and is part of her close musical family. Runsteen is a newer friend, but Lenker is quick to point out their instant connection and creative depth.

“I met her in maybe 2019 or ‘18, just before the pandemic,” Lenker says, detailing their first cinematic encounter in an Italian castle. “It was at some writing residency in Italy, and it was just a week-and-a-half long or so, and she was playing a lot of violin and ripping it up. Then I saw her again at a show in Sweden, where she’s from, and I discovered her solo music. I’d just imagine the three of them playing together.”

As they settled into the space, Lenker and her team started to not only realize that they were on the verge of making a new LP, but also that they had a slew of material to sift through. In total, they workshopped 23 different songs, none of which felt like B sides. They ended up recording and mixing 22 of those numbers and, not wanting to make a double record, left 11 ideas on the shelf. Their mutual friend Stephen Spaccarelli—who Weinrobe calls a “sequencing savant”—compiled the final track list and order. The producer hopes that the leftover tracks, which didn’t fit the overall arc of the set, will eventually see the light of day.

“We were in a Northeast forest and it was the peak of fall, so the leaves were changing and were different colors. There were lots of rivers around—that classic, crisp fall,” Lenker says of the idyllic setting. “There was actually a lot of sunshine, and it was really cozy. The space itself wasn’t an airtight studio where it’s soundproofed and fancy—it was more just a house studio. You could feel the wind blowing through. You could hear things outside. We brought a lot of our own gear as well and we did it all analog and directly to tape. There was a fireplace. When we recorded songs and instrumentals, I was like, ‘This is how I want to record.’ It’s taken me a while to realize I don’t love being in ‘studio’ studios, where they’re super dead and sealed off. I like hearing the birds and being able to hear the rain if it’s raining.”

The album also features the original version of “Vampire Empire,” which Big Thief debuted on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert in 2023 and released as a single. Lenker says that the song naturally lent itself to a rock-and-roll beat and felt right for her longtime band, which features Texas-bred guitarist Buck Meek, Israeli bassist Max Oleartchik and Chicago-born drummer/producer James Krivchenia. It also highlights the fluidity Lenker sees between her projects.

“I don’t usually compartmentalize or put restrictions on what we can do,” she says. “My songs are my songs and what I do with Big Thief is what we do together. It’s based off of what we feel like playing. What I do for my solo records is based off what I feel like as well. There could be a world where there’s five or six songs on my solo record that are also on a Big Thief record or something.”

She notes that she actually intended to include standout Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You number “Simulation Swarm”—whose righteous middle breakdown nods to Dave Matthews Band in their ‘90s exploratory prime—on a solo release in 2020. However, the results didn’t land right, and she repurposed the composition for her group. Likewise, Lenker has issued “Terminal Paradise” and “From” as both Big Thief songs and under her own name.

“Songs are so much bigger than a version of themselves,” she says. “You can hear it when people cover songs—they can exist in so many different forms. I loved this recording of ‘Vampire’ because I had all this energy. The song was fresh, and the feel was really different than how we play it as a band. It gives a momentum to the Side A of the record that I like, and it felt like the right time to put this version out because I can’t imagine myself releasing ‘Vampire’ in five years. I was like, ‘Now is the moment for this song.’ It was funny because, in choosing to keep ‘Vampire Empire’ on my solo album, I actually had to leave off a number of new songs that no one had heard. But something about ‘Vampire,’ in terms of albums, not singles, gives the record a certain playability and momentum—where it sits and everything. I just piece my records together bit by bit when I’m with my band, or on my own, based on what feels good and what feels right as a whole.”


To say that Lenker has weathered a lot of life experience from a young age is an understatement. Born in Indianapolis, she was raised in a Christian cult for the first four years of her life, until her parents parted ways with the organization and settled in Minnesota. Her family remained quite religious and somewhat nomadic for much of her childhood. “I’ve been traveling since I was little,” she says. “When I was a kid, we moved pretty much every year. There was a period of time when I lived in the same house for about four years—that was the longest. But, I’ve always kind of been traveling.”

She points to Bright Future’s opening track—the minimalist, folky “Real House”— as a candid look at her early days.

“That’s what that song is about,” she says. “When we did move into that house where we lived for four years, it was the first and only house my parents ever bought and then they ended up selling it. But I remember it was a big deal, like, ‘We’re buying a house and we’re moving in.’ Before that, it had been townhouses, apartments, living out of our van, living with my grandparents, living with friends and living with other families in a room in their house. I’m discovering that concept of what a real house is in that song. And I’ve come to realize that it’s more so about my body, my mind and my spirit than it is about anything else—feeling at home in the house of my body and then also feeling at home on Earth. I’ve always longed for a real, true sense of home.”

She began writing music when she was only 8 years old and recorded her first album when she was a newly minted teenager. Lenker’s father oversaw her career during her early years, but she began to realize that music could be a true path after she attended that five-week summer session at Berklee when she was 16. She then returned a few years later for college through a scholarship provided by Susan Tedeschi.

In Boston, she met Meek who, like the other future members of Big Thief, moved to the city to attend Berklee. They both eventually relocated to New York to pursue solo careers; through a chance meeting soon after Lenker settled in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, they reconnected and started gigging out as a duo in 2013. Meek and Lenker continued to balance their solo careers with the project that became Big Thief—the Lower East  Side club Rockwood Music Hall served as a hub for their individual and collaborative projects. During a formative time when like-minded acts like Lake Street Dive and The Lone Bellow were working the room, Big Thief started to nurture a grassroots scene of their own.

Louisa Laz-Hirsch, a talent buyer for Rockwood at the time, originally found out about the pair after stumbling upon Meek’s lo-fi, dreamy, beachy original “Sam Bridges” on Bandcamp. An embryonic look at what would become a professional partnership, Lenker sings backup on the tune and provides some additional guitar.

“They’d book slots next to each other on [Rockwood’s] Stage 1 or put each other on the bill, and I liked them so much that anytime we’d have a last-minute cancellation or opening I’d hit one of them up to fill in, which they often did,” Laz-Hirsch says. “They were kind of interchangeable—it’d be like, ‘I’m busy tomorrow but my friend Adrianne Lenker can play’ or vice versa. They eventually just decided to do the collab full-time. They were clearly both eager just to be playing all the time and extremely gracious given the opportunity, even when doing us a favor.”

Meek and Lenker became romantically involved and married when the singer was only 24. Their project also expanded to include Oleartchik and, after original drummer Jason Burger left, Krivchenia.

“Big Thief felt like a very organic and balanced merger of each of their solo projects—just with a little more emphasis on Adrianne’s vocals—and brought things to a new level,” Laz-Hirsch says. “There was a cleaner production, heavier kicks, bigger choruses—what happens when a band realizes their hooks hit. They had the attention of all the heartbroken, longing, Bushwick artists and the respect of WFUV and NPR.”

In addition, Rockwood played a role in Lenker’s original connection to Weinrobe. “I first met Adrianne in 2015, when I wandered into the control room at Figure 8 Recording, a studio I had recently built in Prospect Heights,” the producer says. “My friend Sam Owens was at the board and he was recording his college buddies who were all set up in the live room. The band didn’t yet have a name but, within a few weeks, they would settle on the moniker Big Thief. Adrianne and the band were doing takes of a new song called ‘Paul,’ and it was, hands-down, one of the greatest songs I had ever heard. I sat, jaw on floor, in the control room for about four takes—it was magic. A few days later, I was at Rockwood Music Hall and ran into Adrianne and Buck outside. I introduced myself and invited them to dinner at my favorite restaurant across the street, Le French Diner. We closed the restaurant down and stayed up till 5 a.m. listening to music and driving around Brooklyn in their van, Bonnie.”

Weinrobe became a key part of Big Thief’s creative ecosystem, assisting with some live sound work for the band and working on Meek and Lenker’s solo releases.

“It was a series of deepening hangs and a deepening friendship,” he says. “Of course, I went on a full deep-dive into Adrianne’s YouTube videos, especially becoming obsessed with ‘Kerina’ and sending it to everyone I knew. And I recorded Buck’s first solo record.”

Big Thief released their fully formed debut, Masterpiece, on Saddle Creek in 2016 and quickly followed that record up with another album on the label, Capacity, a year later. The records introduced core tracks like the neo-roots classic “Cattails” and the dreamy “Mythological Beauty,” which seemed both musically timeless and reflective of a certain moment in the indie-folk movement. They then signed with 4AD and released two albums, U.F.O.F. and Two Hands, just a few months apart in 2019. Throughout, Big Thief continued to grow as an in-demand live act, selling out club shows, nabbing choice festival spots and nurturing a tight-knit fan base.

However, as Big Thief’s popularity continued to blossom, Meek and Lenker’s romantic relationship fizzled, and they divorced in 2018. Though Meek sat out a few shows while they worked through their emotions, the band stayed together and the former couple described themselves as “deep friends” in a 2020 New Yorker interview.

Lenker and Meek continued to release solo music and Big Thief LPs concurrently. Separately and together, they were on an upward trajectory when the pandemic hit. During the first part of that impactful pause from the road, Lenker moved upstate, beginning to detach from her Brooklyn homebase. She and Weinrobe also started work on what became songs and instrumentals. It was a trying period for the singer who, in addition to wresting with the pandemic, was sorting through a breakup with Indigo Sparke.

“The pandemic-era record, songs, was born in a moment of personal trauma and heartache for both Adrianne and myself,” Weinrobe says. “Of course, it was also born in a moment of collective, worldwide trauma due to the pandemic. The music she wrote and the way we made it really reflected that moment for us.”

Big Thief remained active during the pandemic as well, tracking Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You in Westhampton, Mass., upstate New York, Topanga, Calif., Colorado and Tucson, Ariz. With Krivchenia handling production duties, they enlisted help from Sam Evian, Shawn Everett, Dr. Dog’s Scott McMicken and several other guests. Lenker says that, in some ways, she has been in transit ever since. (Big Thief’s diaspora has included Meek relocating to Los Angeles and collaborating with Bob Dylan and Oleartchik moving back to Israel.)

“As I get older, I realize there’s no permanent home anyway,” Lenker says. “The greatest comfort I can find is my own sense of inner peace—or some sense of myself as a refuge. The loneliest feeling, the most without-a-home feeling I can have is when I abandon or neglect myself or I’m so full of thoughts and noise that I don’t even feel like I can take comfort in just being with myself.”


Bright Future arrives almost exactly four years after the “great pause” of 2020. A stripped-down, meditative set, it feels like a natural bookend to the emotions Lenker started sorting through on songs and instrumentals, though the singer is careful to point out that the album’s title is not entirely reflective of her current outlook on life.

“I don’t know if I feel any more hopeful now than I did in 2020, but [the album title] is more out of necessity,” she says. “I like the idea of maintaining some ability to generate a positive frequency and visualize the possibilities of healing, wholeness and peace—coming into some harmonious place as human beings. But, I also wouldn’t say that I chose Bright Future as a blindly optimistic title. We tend to place associations with things like brightness or darkness, but darkness isn’t all evil. Darkness can be pure, it can be clear, it can be clean. We were all in the womb—it was dark and it was probably one of the most peaceful places we’ll ever know. Maybe there’s some extreme clarity that can be found in darkness. And at the same time, brightness isn’t inherently good. Brightness can be blinding—the sun is a powerful and beautiful thing, but if you get a little too close, then it’ll fry you up. Brightness can be an explosion—it can be city lights, it can be traffic lights. And it can also be a sunrise and it can be beautiful. I don’t think it’s inherently a good or a bad thing. I have a lot of thoughts on [the album title], but I also do like that it has an uplifting ring to it because I think we are in pretty bleak times. So if I can do anything to contribute to helping fix that, then I want to.”

She takes a breath and continues to explain her new record’s underlying theme. “There’s microcosms within this crazy cluster-fuck that are actually thriving,” she says. “There’s a lot of beauty. There are things and creatures and even people whose futures are probably bright and whose days could be filled with darkness. I’m talking even as far as insects and plants. On so many scales, there’s worlds within this world and some people seem to be living in hell and some people seem to be living in heaven—and there’s everything in between. I don’t really know what the future is because I don’t know what time is and I don’t know if it’s linear.”

Weinrobe echoes his friend’s thoughts, explaining Bright Future’s concept in a slightly more straightforward way. “This record, in contrast to songs, is coming from such a different place for the two of us,” he says. “We showed up to the session in such a solid emotional place and we were able to access the music and the process with a holistic joy and optimism that I feel permeates every note on the record. And since we started recording in October 2022, the future indeed has gotten brighter. Adrianne is in a new, beautiful, loving partnership that I’m sure will produce some of the great love songs of our lifetime. And since the recording process, I’ve welcomed a daughter into the world. There’s a ‘bright future,’ indeed.”

In certain ways, Lenker sees her new work simply as her latest attempt to answer the same questions she has been wrestling with in her music since the beginning.

“I’ve been writing on the same thing since I was 10 years old, and I will probably continue to write about [those things] until the day I die,” she says. “I’m reaching toward all that I can’t understand. I’m feeling this desire to be lifted out of the heavy physicality of humanness and to somehow bridge to an immeasurable realm that feels like it could contain the essence of something that is magic, God or another other idea or purpose that is much bigger than us.”

Her mind drifts back to “Real House,” an opening number that feels like a quasi-mission statement for where she is in life. “‘Real House’ is the beginning of an exploration to find that comfort with myself, but it’s also just an account, a very simple sort of autobiographical accounting,” she says.

For much of 2024, Lenker will support Bright Future on the road, offering a mix of solo engagements and jams with some of the players who accompany her on the new album. Her upcoming stops include an international mix of dates, including headlining appearances at high-profile venues like the Chicago Theatre and Brooklyn, N.Y.’s Kings Theatre, as well as Big Ears and the Newport Folk festival. Continuing the balancing act Lenker and Meek have perfected since they originally reconnected just over a decade ago, she’ll also regroup with Big Thief for some gigs and, perhaps, music-making.

“I feel like it’s all about love, pain, fear, longing, life, death, birth and decay—all of these big, seemingly simple themes that are actually the most complex and most mysterious themes out there,” she says of her latest batch of songs as well as her music in general. “I could write albums and albums—and people have written books and books—for as long as humans have been alive, and no one has figured any of it out. My songs are asking questions, examining things. I’m able to look more deeply at things as I get older. And as I go through life, my perspective changes. In some ways, it grows and expands and deepens and, in other ways, we inevitably lose things as we go.”