Adrianne Lenker loves the dirty details. “I was actually just scrubbing my friends’ house from top to bottom, deep-cleaning on the floor with a rag, and it felt good,” says the frontwoman for spectral folk-rockers Big Thief. It’s her way of paying back the Texas couple who let her park the band’s old van in their yard and stay there during a visit while they were busy making art and musical instruments, teaching school, and tending to their son and dog. “Just seeing them do this and give so much love is so inspiring to me.”
It’s also a familiar lifestyle for Lenker, 25, whose family lived in a more than a dozen houses—and a van—during her childhood, after her parents left a religious cult in Indiana.
“I created sort of a stability, a fortress within myself and within my music, that I think has really stayed intact,” she says. “I like to excavate all the time, move deeper into things and confront fears or walls within myself. [That] came out of some of the hardships we went through, but I’m grateful.”
A near-tragedy at one of those houses, in rural Minnesota, lends a storyline to “Mythological Beauty,” an advance gem from Big Thief’s second album, Capacity, out June 9. “I constructed a ladder out of all this shrapnel in the yard,” Lenker says of that vivid memory from age 5. “I was pretty resourceful. One of the pieces was a metal bar with railroad spikes welded onto it, and that fell and hit my head, and I fractured my skull.”
Her mother rushed her to the hospital, inspiring the stunning lyric “You held me in the backseat with a dishrag, soaking up blood with your eye.”
“I’m the age my mother was when she had three children,” says Lenker, who still bears that scar on her head. “My empathy has shifted and widened, and I can see my mother in particular as a whole person. There are things inside of me that come from her. [The song] is this dialogue between mother and child, but it’s not just limited to my mother and me.”
Lenker indeed casts impressionistic and evocative lyrics, her often childlike vocals floating in contrast to her gnarly guitar interplay with Big Thief co-founder Buck Meek, underscored by bassist Max Oleartchik and drummer James Krivchenia.
Capacity largely proves more delicate and acoustic than last year’s Masterpiece, where guitar shards lashed “Real Love” (a view of domestic violence) and the title track. “We were playing really loud,” Lenker says, “just following the songs, never trying to be a rock band—or a certain kind of band.”
It’ll be intriguing to see what kind of band emerges this summer on larger stages that include Solid Sound (June 24), the Newport Folk Festival (July 28) and Blue Hills Bank Pavilion, where Big Thief opens for the Head and the Heart on July 29. “It’s a new challenge,” she says. “We’re not like an entertainment band. We’re not putting on a polished show. Every show is a different kind of living being.”
Lenker played clubs like the Middle East while she studied guitar at Berklee on a full scholarship, graduating in 2012. But songwriting is her “core expression,” she says, in which she takes after her father. “He would pore over these songs and open himself up and work until they came into being, bringing the intangible into the tangible realm. He didn’t really explain to me how to do it. I witnessed him doing it.”
Her own songs haven taken her as long as three months to write and as little as a single day, the case for stream-of-consciousness hymn “Mary,” which she recorded on GarageBand at age 21, then revisited for Capacity. When it comes time to record, Big Thief, though formed in Brooklyn, favors rural settings, making Capacity with producer Andrew Sarlo at a farm in upstate New York. “I like the quiet and stillness, and being able to hear the wind in the trees and the birds,” Lenker says. “If you need to get out of the studio and go on a walk or jump into some water, it’s very healing.”
Big Thief plays Solid Sound on June 24, Newport Folk on July 28 and Blue Hills Bank Pavilion on July 29.