Capacity, the intense and excellent sophomore release by Big Thief due out Friday, unquestionably derives from the perspective of the Brooklyn band’s 25-year-old singer and songwriter, Adrianne Lenker. A Minnesota native who spent part of her childhood in a cult, and another part of her childhood pursuing a career as a kiddie pop star before opting to refine her craft at Boston’s prestigious Berklee College Of Music, Lenker had an uncommon wealth of life experience on which to draw upon when Big Thief released its exceptional debut, Masterpiece, in 2016. But Lenker says that she pulled from an even deeper place inside of herself when Big Thief started work on Capacity in upstate New York last summer, around the time that Masterpiece came out.
“This record, I feel, it’s just more intricate,” Lenker said when I spoke to her over the phone last month. “There’s a more intricate layer of translating these things that Masterpiece just set out to uncover. The dark stuff is heavier and darker, the lighter stuff is lighter.”
It was early in the press cycle for Capacity when we spoke, and Lenker had not yet figured out how exactly she wanted to talk about some of the album’s songs. While not strictly an autobiographical songwriter, Lenker does draw on real life for her penetrating, vividly cinematic songs. (This intimacy even caries over to the album art — Lenker’s mother is on the cover of Masterpiece, and her uncle is on the cover of Capacity.) Sweeping lead single “Mythological Beauty” describes an accident that occurred when Lenker was 5, in which a railroad spike from a backyard treehouse struck her in the head and almost killed her. “Shark Smile” similarly wraps entrancing music around a narrative about doomed teenagers who have a tragic misadventure on the highway. The album’s most disturbing track, “Watering,” recounts an assault from the perspectives of both the victim and the attacker.
The line between Lenker and the characters in her songs appears to be blurry in some songs, and nonexistent in others. As a result, talking to Lenker about Capacity, at times, felt invasive, as conversations with strangers about personal trauma tend to be.
You write these beautiful melodies and perform them with a lot of tenderness. But lyrically, there’s a lot of darkness, even violence, in your songs. Why does that clash of moods and tones interest you as a songwriter?
I mean, it’s got to come out somehow. I’m not really filtering what I’m writing about or attempting to write about just the sweet stuff. To me it’s just about shaking myself into a place of getting awake. The dark stuff definitely comes out and there’s a good amount of that on the record.
Your songs don’t always announce themselves as dark, though. With “Shark Smile,” for instance, I didn’t realize what was going on in that song until I looked at the lyric sheet. The music is so beguiling that you don’t initially notice the gut-punch.
That’s interesting. I don’t have that perspective because I can’t un-know what it’s about.
Some of your songs seem to be about specific experiences from your life. “Mythological Beauty,” for instance, is about a childhood accident recounted from the point of view of your mother. Other songs, however, appear to be populated by invented characters. Do you consider yourself an autobiographical songwriter?
Well, I think they’re mostly characters, but in a more abstract kind of way. I feel like they carry or translate the truth of the feeling better than actually describing it. As I grow as a songwriter, I can feel myself expanding, having more vocabulary — not just necessarily word vocabulary but perspective to translate those things. I can’t really just make things up and put them in a song. I’ve never crafted a story to write about. Everything feels true to me. Sometimes I withhold the names because I don’t want to say the name of the actual person. With “Mythological Beauty,” it actually switches perspective within the song. It is from my perspective talking to mostly my mother, but then it switches.
You also do that in “Watering,” in which the first few verses are told from the point of view of an assault victim, and the last verse switches to the perspective of the attacker.
Yeah, that’s right.
It’s a very heavy song.
Yeah, it is. Yeah, I don’t feel … I haven’t given enough thought to how I want to talk about that yet.
Let’s talk about “Shark Smile.” That’s another example of song with a certain tenderness to it — it’s about a bunch of high school kids going on a road trip. And then there’s this shocking, violent ending. Is that song about a real car accident?
Yeah. That year there were several car accidents — all of distant friends or friends of friends, but there were a few that happened all together. It was really strange. I think [the song] implies that it’s two lovers, and they are traveling together. The feeling of freedom and escape is immediately followed by this harsh, abrupt, hitting-the-guardrail-like accident. One dies and the other lives, and the mantra is just, “Take me, too.”
Have you ever seen Two-Lane Blacktop or Vanishing Pointor any of those existential “on the road” movies from the ’70s? Those movies are always about young people taking these long road trips, and they always end with a big fiery wreck. “Shark Smile” reminds me of those movies. It’s a very cinematic song.
I often see things cinematically in my head. I was thinking of Thelma And Louise, especially the ending. I wasn’t thinking of it specifically when I was writing it just then but it feels like that, when the drum ends and it’s something terrible but it’s given this tone of sort of being deliberate.
“Mary” is another stand-out on the record. It seems like a straight-forward love song, but possibly a platonic love song, like the love a mother has for her child.
I wrote it to my best friend so, yeah, it’s definitely is a love song. You can write a love song for anyone. It doesn’t just have to be for someone that you’re having sex with or whatever. For me, it’s a deep love song, because I learned a deeper love for myself through that relationship. The chorus is like a montage to me, I can see images for every line. It’s just going back to your memory but it’s also using the light and wisdom absorbed from that person and some of those experiences alive in myself in the present.
I feel like that’s a constant in your songs — you write about relationships that don’t fit comfortably in a box.
I’m constantly trying to rip open boxes and dissolve walls because I don’t think they need to exist. Relationships are such a huge part of life. Everything is relative to each other. There’s the feeling of separateness. I am this and you are interviewing me for this article about this album. These are just the names we give and they take away so much in a way from what someone actually is. It’s like hollowing it out. Do you know Dennis McKenna?
He was [talking] about hummingbirds, and about how a child is born and then they see this beautiful bird fluttering outside and it’s just so incredible. They’re just like, ‘What is that?’ It’s everything that exists. And then someone says, ‘Well that’s a bird.’ And forever from then on it’s a bird and they know what it is. It totally stops being everything. I think that’s what I want to go for. I’m looking to just to dissolve all of those boundaries and I don’t know how to do it yet.
To even bring up the point of talking about [“Watering”] or giving this attacker some sort of empathy is scary. It’s scary for me to even acknowledge that it’s happening in the song. I think there’s purpose in that. It felt … I think it’s just a really twisted thing, especially when it’s been buried. When time’s passed and it’s been buried, it twists up within the person who experienced the violence. Then they have to carry that around until they can release it somehow or transmute that energy that was put into them, this violent, toxic energy. It takes a while to recognize that it’s there, [and] to even know what it is. Once you recognize in it, it begins a whole other journey of transforming.
I think in “Coma” it’s also … I wrote those two as one piece basically. “Coma” is coming out of that fog and haze of having shut down completely. It just gets buried and then suddenly “Coma” is like waking, suddenly coming out of this. Your head was plunged under the water and then suddenly [you’re] breathing. Suddenly everything looks so abstract: Your car, your house, your table that you chose at Ikea or whatever. Will you even recognize your own skin? The areas of your body, the edges of your own vessel when you’ve disassociated, when you’ve spent time being buried in it?
One of the many great things about music is that you can express things that transcend literalism. Music can say things that words can’t really express as well, even when you have lyrics. It seems to me like you’re trying to evoke something in the listener with your songs that can’t be articulated.
Honestly, I’m not even trying to do that. I’m just trying to evoke something in myself. I want to get to the point where it feels right, and it’s breaking through the numb, icky, gooey film that covers everything. You just put a story, a real story, that feels like the most honest way that you could say it. [And] it’s like, take it or leave it.
Capacity is out this Friday, 6/9 via Saddle Creek. Pre-order it here.