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?