Published May 01, 2019Adrianne Lenker is speaking in an Exclaim! interview about her band Big Thief's new album, U.F.O.F. — short for "UFO Friend" — and talk has inevitably turned otherworldly.
"If you were to see an extra-terrestrial suddenly appear, and then compared that to seeing some kind of beautiful sea creature or a light dancing in a certain way — it would be just as magical. If you didn't know of its existence, you would see it and go, 'Oh my god, what spirit is that?'" insists Lenker, leader of the celestial folk band.
"But we're just taught to name everything and quantify everything and analyze everything. We make all these associations and constructs that become so automatic. There is all this incredible supernatural magic going on everywhere all the time, but we get used to it, so we kind of stop experiencing the raw essence and energy of everything."
Lenker has a soothing yet restless intensity, as she interprets her thoughts about accepting the harmonious balance between birth, death, love and loss, and the invisible forces that guide us through life in this universe — themes she ambitiously pursues on U.F.O.F., Big Thief's highly anticipated third album.
Since releasing their widely adored debut and sophomore albums, Masterpiece and Capacity, within a year of each other in 2016 and 2017, the band have been in a perpetual whirlwind, steadily growing their following around the world with a constant touring schedule during which the four-piece "all absorbed each other's spirits and became closer as a band." In addition to her latest solo album, abysskiss, which was released just this past fall, Lenker has been busy, to say the least.
In between the end of her solo tour and preparing for the release of Big Thief's new record, Lenker talks to us during a much needed "moment of pause" in New Mexico while on a five-month break from Big Thief — the longest time apart they've had since their beginning — before she reunites with the band.
"New Mexico is really beautiful. I'm in these woods right now. There are really special colours everywhere, like the soil and the mountains and the way the light is here. And it's dry like the desert but then there's also the forest, with like, juniper and pine trees and sage brush."
Listening to Lenker's observational and mindful reflections over the phone make her a calming presence, as she processes what she sees and feels around her with a pure sense of wonder. Her unfiltered curiosity led to the spiritual subject matter she writes about on U.F.O.F., where Big Thief step towards a darker, more ethereal realm. Throughout, Lenker explores the mysticism of existing as conscious beings and "making friends with the unknown." Building upon Big Thief's similarly exploratory and vulnerable past work, Lenker feels like she is just simply "hitting different layers of excavation" in the new material.
On U.F.O.F.'s opening track, "Contact," which is partly inspired by the 1997 Jodie Foster film of the same name, Lenker wanted to set the tone for the record, by contending with the glimpses of evidence we have that we're connected to something bigger.
"It's about my own story about swirling around in this kind of numb state, which is something that I've battled with since I was a kid. Like, you're under water and you're not even aware that you're under water for a while, and then suddenly you realize you can't hear or see or feel anything. You can kind of see the light at the surface and then suddenly you're like, 'Wait no, no, no, I can't slip away. I need to feel. I need to be alive. I need to be connected.' And then you're just like reaching for that connectivity, for that pulse… and it's not tangible," Lenker quietly recalls.
"At the end of the song, it's feeling this arm that's reaching in the water that's grabbing you and pulling you to the surface. And suddenly all the oxygen is filling your lungs and all the blood is rushing back to you and you can feel your heart beating and you can feel yourself alive and making contact with that source.
"The screaming at the end is that release, that moment of becoming awake and feeling everything. Whether it's pain or joy, it's like all the bittersweet in one moment. It's a lot to feel."
Much of Lenker's fascination with the supernatural developed from her childhood, where she says her awareness of the metaphysical has since surrounded her. While she looks back to try to decipher moments where she felt an invisible, protective force, Lenker believes there's a lot we can learn from the innocent, unquestioning perspective we all had during the early stages in our life.
"We're born and we feel things with no filter and we can see into the energy everything. And then we kind of lose that as we gain these callouses to protect ourselves from living in this world. But it kind of desensitizes us to really feeling anything."
On "From" and "Terminal Paradise," two songs from abysskiss that were reworked for U.F.O.F., Lenker refers to a duality of birth and death and how they're intrinsically linked. Likewise, in the chorus of "Open Desert," she gently sings "brave surrender, kiss the water," and explains now that, "It's like reaching out to the pureness and beauty that is death, and also birth. The comfort of being a child all wrapped up and then being old — birth and dying, being tied together in one breath."
For Lenker, it's about welcoming and making peace with change, whatever the cause, as a natural part of life. It's something she's confronting now with Big Thief, but it all stems from her deep-rooted experiences of growing up.
"When I was a kid my dad would often take us to go looking for aliens or UFOs, and we were always expecting them to arrive or appear or that they were already here. So it's just built within my psyche that extra-terrestrials exist and are potentially here.
"Nobody ever told me," she adds, "that it's not real."
U.F.O.F. is out May 3 courtesy of 4AD.