Adrianne Lenker Wants You to Cherish Your Heartbreak

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

On the cover of her sixth solo album, Bright Future, Adrianne Lenker appears as a blurred cowboy with a fearless gaze, staring directly at the camera as if she’s in telepathic communication with you. The 32-year-old singer-songwriter’s strength has always been her undiluted intimacy; whether she makes it alone or with her band, Big Thief, her tender folk-rock music can dissolve the scene in which you’re listening to it, so it’s just you and her, suspended in charged, holy space. Her songs are simple, mostly just rivulets of guitar and her cracked voice. They tell stories of mortal moments — a squabble at an ex’s family’s home over Christmas, a head-clearing walk with friends, a last kiss — with a wise, magical grace.

When recording Bright Future, Lenker gathered a few close friends at Double Infinity — an analogue studio “somewhere in the Northeast,” she says coyly — to rehearse some songs she’d nurtured as hatchlings and thought might be ready to take flight. The friends were her co-producer and engineer Philip Weinrobe, plus the Brooklyn musician Nick Hakim, whom she met at Berklee College of Music when she was 16; guitarist Matt Davidson, whom she encountered playing random New York gigs in her early 20s; and violinist Josefin Runsteen, whom she met at an artists’ residency in an Italian castle a few years ago. “No one ever stopped a take and we never wore headphones. We just listened to each other in the room. We would just go and play, and then we’d take a break, go on a walk or a drive,” she says of the recording process. For some artists, collaboration is a battle of egos, but for Lenker, loving, listening to, and sharing space with others is intuitive practice. She finds home everywhere: on the road, in other people.

How did you start making this album? 

I’m always writing and working on songs, and at the very least, I just wanted to archive some songs with Phil Weinrobe. When there’s too much of a buildup, songs start getting away from me. I don’t think it should ever be a given that something will become a record, because how do you know if it’s going to be profound or something that you want to share?

I knew that I wanted piano, violin, and guitar. And when I thought about who could play the fiddle, I thought of Matt and Josefin. And then when I started piano, I thought of Nick and Matt and Josefin. I don’t know, I was just like, Man, they’re, they’re my favorite. How crazy would it be to play with all of them together?

Were these songs accumulated over several years? 

The first song I wrote in 2017 or 2018 — it’s “Ruined,” the oldest one there. When songs are strong, they last the test of time. I have a handful of songs that have been traveling with me, but they’re just waiting. They’re waiting for me to get mature enough to sing them.

Can you tell me a little bit more about that? How do you know when you’ve reached the point when you’re ready?

It’s just something I tell myself when there are certain songs where I play it, and it doesn’t feel amazing. I can’t figure out how make it translate. I put my set list together before I go on, based on what I feel — if something’s not working, I let it go and bring it up every now and again to check on it. Sometimes I write songs well before their time — something that maybe makes more sense for me to play when I’m 50.

“Ruined” I wrote probably when I was 25, but I’m 32 now and it’s the first time I’m ever bringing it out into the world because I feel like I can play it and sing it in a different way. When I tried it with piano, that’s what made all the difference. I think it felt too simple for me to sing. It’s just not as wordy. I feel like I’m starting to leave space.

Across your career, you’ve made music with and about loved ones. You were once married to your Big Thief bandmate Buck Meek. It’s a very vulnerable position — how do you manage it?

​​Well, I do value privacy. It’s felt sustainable because there’s an extraordinary amount of love. Bucky and I are like family and we fell in love, we were together for seven years. We got married, we got a divorce, all while still being on tour. We figured out our way through it day by day.

I know that for all of us, it’s not about maintaining a career or about continuing to have income. What I really have that doesn’t come and go is my love for the craft and for my loved ones. Those are the things I need to nurture first and foremost, and I never want to put out records just for putting out records.

Since you’re constantly on the road, what is one thing you like to do when you visit a new place?

I like to find a diner. You can’t really beat Al’s Breakfast in Minneapolis, even though that’s my hometown. And then recently I went to a place in Montreal called Bagels Etc. It’s where Leonard Cohen used to go, still had a barstool there with his name on it. I think the mark of a good diner is if you can order without looking at the menu — like you don’t have to say, “I want the Tammy.” You can say, “I’d like two eggs scrambled with onions and bacon and a stack of two pancakes with blueberries and real maple syrup.”

I also like finding swimming holes. All around the Southwest and in Texas, the Hill Country, there are some really great spots to swim in the rivers. They’re clear green, not like a murky, moldy vibe.

In a similar vein, how do you try to create a sense of home in the places you’re visiting?

Phone calls on the road, but also popping popcorn and making coffee in the morning. When I’m doing well, it’s usually because I bring candles and a yoga mat. Being able to stretch out is huge because your instinct is just to sit there and wait for the show to happen. My friend recently got me into this platform called Classical Stretch, which is pretty cool. I forget the person’s name, but then the other is Yoga With Adriene. Adrianne doing Yoga with Adriene, I know.

In your song “Donut Seam,” you sing about the earth dying. Do you have ways of coping with climate grief? 

It’s important to remember that yes, there is suffering. And who knows, maybe everything could end. But there are still beautiful things happening in nature now, so we don’t need to live as if it’s dead already. Go swimming and breathe in the air, and romp in the snow. I was also drawing a parallel with love — like, doesn’t it seem like a good time for kissing now that we’re parting? How you can enjoy a kiss and the feel of that person but also have the sense that it’s fleeting.

As someone who’s written so many beautiful songs about the experience, what’s your advice for dealing with heartbreak? 

The poet David Whyte had this little excerpt I loved about how we lose everything over the course of our lives. There’s no way around that. So like, every little heartbreak that happens along the way is just preparation for the big one. So cherish it, savor it, push into it, and let yourself feel it fully, because it’s also beautiful. My friend Steve Fisher has a song that’s like “Maybe I’m just broken/…But maybe, maybe someday I’ll break wide open.” Broken can also mean that you’re bigger, you’re expanded — that you can take in that much more love.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Adrianne Lenker Wants You to Cherish Your Heartbreak