Big Thief's Adrianne Lenker Encourages Students to Find Their Own Currency of Success

The prolific, Grammy-nominated musician talked about the mystery of songwriting and why she values the organic way she's built an audience.

January 21, 2021

Indie folk-rock act Big Thief, fronted by Adrianne Lenker B.M. '12, is that rare group that gives fans a sense of being in on one of music's best-kept secrets, despite the band’s Grammy nominations and near-universal acclaim among music critics. If you don’t listen to Big Thief, there’s a good chance that one of your favorite artists does.

In 2019, Big Thief released two full-length albums, and in the year since, most members of the band have released albums on their own, including Lenker’s most recent dual-release, songs and instrumentals, both of which ended up on a slew of best-of-2020 lists, including those compiled by The New Yorker and NPR.

Giving off a mystic-nomad vibe, Lenker has come to occupy a Bob Dylan-esque space for her devotees, who pore over her poetic, naturalistic lyrics and flock to her interviews in order to get a deeper look at her artistic process. In a virtual Visiting Artist Series event toward the end of the fall semester, moderated by Bonnie Hayes, chair of the Songwriting Department, students got just that kind of window, as Lenker shared her thoughts on songwriting and organically building a fan base.

“If your currency is something other than money, then you’ve already won. If you love what you’re doing, no one can take that away from you.”

—Adrianne Lenker B.M. '12

Hayes kicked off the discussion by asking Lenker about her songwriting “flow” and how she’s able to so successfully return to a place of pure creativity so often. Lenker said that she tends to begin by ruminating on the question “How do I express what’s inside of me that’s going to translate to other people?” The point of asking the question, for her, is not to find a single answer. “It’s still a mystery to me…. It’s totally intangible and nonformulaic and it’s always changing,” she said. She went on, pointing out that “the most liberating thing has been to not try and write something good. It’s like being a nurturer to yourself. It’s making the switch from being hard on yourself and criticizing yourself to actually just inviting yourself to explore and express and play.”

Interviews conducted via streaming video often run the risk of feeling impersonal, but a key feature of the session with Lenker was the many personal stories attendees shared about how Lenker had left an impression on their lives. Damien Bracken, dean of Admissions, recounted the time in 2008 where Lenker dropped by his office, guitar in hand, while she was on campus for one of Berklee's summer programs, and instead of asking for advice on applying to Berklee, simply said, “Do you mind if I play a song for you?” Bracken said, “I knew then that I was in the presence of someone very, very special.”

Similar stories came from Abby Aronson, professor in the Guitar Department, who recounted fond memories of working with Lenker while she was a student, and from current student Hunter Rapp, who said that a short conversation with Lenker after a Big Thief show in 2016 made a big impact on her, and was one of the main reasons she ended up at Berklee. 

Over the course of the conversation, it became clear that these kinds of fleeting but meaningful encounters are at the very heart of Lenker’s and Big Thief’s approaches to building an audience. Describing the band’s early years booking their own small tours and traveling in an old van, Lenker said, “We wanted to do it where we met people in person and we could feel that the audience we were building was being built from having experienced time together in real life, in a room.”

While that approach meant that she had to wait tables for years while she paid her dues, it was worth it, because at the end of the day her passion for music drove everything she did. As she said, “If your currency is something other than money, then you’ve already won. If you love what you’re doing, no one can take that away from you.”

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