Record of the Week: Adrianne Lenker’s ‘Bright Future’ Live from Greenwich Village with Nick Hakim special

Adrianne Lenker Live from Greenwhich Village with Nick Hakim special
Credit: Gus Philippas

Adrianne Lenker is reaching the status of folk hero. Her band, Big Thief, bucks all conventional music business wisdom and releases 20-song double albums with long winding titles and singles that are over six minutes. Because they have been true to themselves, they have released a string of albums that have been widely acclaimed and universally loved.

The stick-to-your-gut yet freewheeling attitude core to Big Thief is one that Adrianne Lenker brings to her new solo album, Bright Future, our Record of the Week. It’s an album where Lenker ventures further into her own musical unknown, playing piano for the first time and recording the entire thing in the AAA method — Analog Analog Analog, keeping in every mistake and imperfection. “I wanted to make this record feel like you’re in the room with us,” she said.

In order to actually bring you into the room, Lenker recorded three Bright Future songs and an interview from a studio in Greenwich Village. Her friend and collaborator Nick Hakim was also there.

On using piano on this album

“It just felt natural. I’ve been on a beginner’s journey with piano lately. But I’ve come to really like the sound,” said Lenker.

“It’s different than a guitar because it’s kind of linear. Guitar has all these voicings and shapes that aren’t linear. It’s different in timbre. It’s like a different sound, entirely different feeling…and it’s not so hard on your hands. Softer. But piano brings something out in me that’s totally different.”

On being completely analog

“We recorded using the AAA method. So we recorded to tape and then we took that tape and mix it to another tape reel. And then we took that tape and we master it to another tape reel, the master tape and then cut the vinyl right from that tape,” Lenker explained. “It never went through a computer ever. It never went digital. Never went through a digital signal.”

“The intention was to, get away from screens. I don’t really like the light that comes out of a computer screen so much. And I like the physicality of the tape. I like the limitations, and I like the what it does to the sound.”

I asked, “Why leave the imperfections in?” Lenker responded, “Oh, because I don’t think there’s anything wrong with them. And I don’t think it sounds bad. If I were to take it out, it would just be for an idea that I think something should be rather than what I am actually drawn toward. If it’s not pulling me out of the song, it can be there. I really wanted this record to feel like you’re in the room with us. And if you’re sitting there and I’m playing your song, there might be something that happens in the background and it just adds to the experience of adding dimension.”

The artist went on to say: “I was reading this George Saunders book about writing. And when you describe a detail of the room, like, ‘There’s a white cat that’s stretched out twice the length of its body on a couch’ or something, suddenly you believe in the room. You see it. And there’s something about hearing a little creak here, or somebody sighing, the dog scratching, the tea kettle going off or whatever it is. Even mess-ups and mistakes. When a group of people are playing music, if one of them says the wrong word, my experience isn’t ruined. So why do we think that with recordings that we have to erase all sign of life?”

“I see you as such an analog person,” I said. “Like, I can’t imagine Adrianne Lenker sending an email.”

“Well, yeah, I don’t send many,” said Lenker. “My email style when I do send, I’m so frantic from being on the computer that it’s usually very funnily worded and spaced.”

On the song “Real House

This album includes more personal details than on other albums, I remarked to Lenker. Evoking a vivid scene that includes her mother in the opening track, “Real House,” I asked Lenker about a quality of her mom that she recognizes most in herself.

“Gosh, she doesn’t ever speak badly about other people,” said Lenker. “Growing up, I never heard her gossip. I can’t say that I’ve done that in my life. I have this my dad’s side in me too, Greek and Ukrainian. My mom is this creature unto herself. She just radiates, like, I can’t even explain it. She’s just such a beautiful person. And it’s so pure and effortless. Like she’s full of so much grace for other people. I aspire to that.”

Also in “Real House,” Lenker refers to being scared as a child:

When I was seven
I saw the first film that made me scared
And I thought of this whole world ending
I thought of dying unprepared

“Real House”

What was that film that scarred her? “Deep Impact,” she told me. “The movie about the comet hitting the Earth and everyone holding each other as it crushes them. It definitely made a deep impact on me.”

On the song “Evol”

I wondered what inspired Lenker’s lyric “The giver takes, the taker gives” in the song “Evol” and she answered outright: “69.” Could she elaborate?

“I honestly have never said that before. But you know what? It makes sense,” she said. “Honestly, that line is something I’ll be thinking about. It’s an each-part-contains-the-whole type of thing. That’s the whole point of this song. The negative space is present. My friend Genesis, who’s a photographer, was talking to me about how absence is not vacancy.”

Lenker continued: “How the duality inherent in everything and how we’re kind of in this overlay. There’s what’s really there, what’s really happening, and then there’s this whole intricate overlay, this web that humans have created, that you can almost exist entirely in the overlay and forget that this… It’s almost kind of like the matrix in the real world type of stuff, you know?”

She said “Evol” was influenced by the concept of how “when you’re actually truly receiving and I mean, like really receiving, you’re giving a gift to the person who’s giving. And when you’re truly giving, you’re receiving. Because you’re receiving the receiver receiving.”

Also this song is about word play, about how “‘love’ [spells] ‘evol’ and how ‘devil’ is ‘lived’ and ‘god’ [is] ‘dog.’ That was the earliest one, too. Because my mom always knew I loved the dogs I’ve had my life,” said Lenker. “And she’s like, ‘Yeah, it’s God backwards.’ It makes sense to me because I think the closest thing to God’s love I’ve ever felt is the love of a dog.”

A song she’s been listening to a lot lately

Lenker said she currently can’t get enough of the song “I Believe in You” by Talk Talk.

“I was very obsessed with that song when my friend showed it to me,” Lenker told me. “I just listen to that song on repeat. The recording itself, the whole capture, the whole thing and the way the singing. Everything. The cadence, the phrasing, the dynamics, the weirdness of the arrangement, the production. It’s just such a vibe.”

Does she remember the first song that she memorized all the words to? “Probably like Sir Mix-a-Lot’s ‘Baby Got Back.’ I still know all the lyrics to that.”

This early song appreciation influences Lenker’s modern music. “Sometimes I sit a cadence like that in a Big Thief song, like ‘Mary‘ or ‘Vampire Empire.’ I’ve always loved stringing a bunch of words together like that. I like the feeling of words is textural. When a lot of them go by it feels textural.”