Adrianne Lenker uses a thumbpick and her nails to fingerpick her Collings SoCo, sometimes wearing buffed acrylics while touring. “I’m trying to learn how to be adaptable and play with the fleshy part of my fingers if I have to.” Photo by Tim Bugbee
ADRIANNE LENKER: “The word that we use for music is not presenting—it’s playing. We’re playing this music.”
Adrianne Lenker hails from Minneapolis and studied at the Berklee College of Music in Boston after winning a full scholarship. (The funds were thanks to guitar phenom Susan Tedeschi, who played a series of benefit concerts to create this scholarship). After graduation, Lenker moved to New York City and teamed up with her bandmate, Buck Meek. She spoke with us about her experiences learning guitar and finding her voice at a very early age, her preference for open tunings and capos, and why she encourages other songwriters to play her guitars.
You have a degree from Berklee, which has a very jazz-centric curriculum. What was your focus there?
I was a pro music major—that’s what they call it. It was performance-focused, but then it’s also a smattering of other interests. That was just one form of schooling that I got. When I was a teenager, I got another form of schooling, but I’ve always been focused on music. There was a lot of jazz in the curriculum at Berklee, but there were other things, too. It took me about a year-and-a-half or two years to find teachers who got what I was trying to do. But it was definitely heavily jazz-focused. I picked out the things that I resonated with, like spread voicings, inversions, and open voicings—certain voicings on the guitar that I felt were beautiful and that I could immediately apply to my songwriting—spread triad inversions and things like that, and then shed the rest of it.
In addition to creative voicings, do you use other tunings, too?
I’ve always done that. I started playing in tunings that I learned from books, like open D (D–A–D–F#–A–D), and also this Michael Hedges tuning, because I was really into Michael Hedges.
What was that?
C–G–D–G–G–G, with all of the high strings tuned to G. I started out learning tunings, but over time I tweaked the strings according to the notes I wanted to drone over the songs. I stumbled upon tunings by turning the tuning heads, experimenting, and exploring. More than half my songs are in open tunings.
Do you tune your guitar between most songs during your live set?
It’s very helpful that now we have someone tech-ing for us and helping with all the tunings, whereas before, our live sets would be limited. I would structure the sets around tunings.
Is that why you use the capo, too?
I love the capo. I always hear people joking about it, especially at Berklee. It was the “Steel Rod of Dependency”—that’s the joke—but it’s not true. Capos make it so you can have certain timbres. I’m drawn toward that ringing sound of the open strings, instead of just doing closed voicings for everything. I could figure those out if I wanted to, but I prefer the sound of the open strings.
Did you start out as an acoustic player?
I played acoustic from when I was 6 years old until I was about 22. I got my first electric when I was playing as a duo with Buck, right before the band started. I was serving in a restaurant full-time, and I saved up and got my first electric. I saved some more and bought an amp, and that was my first time really playing electric. I’d tried when I was a kid, but it didn’t resonate with me. I loved the vibrations with the acoustic guitar. I like physically feeling it on my body. I grew up playing fingerstyle and fingerpicking.
Is that still how you play now?
Yeah, and I use my nails, although recently I’ve been trying to challenge myself to not be so dependent on them. On the last few tours, I got three acrylic nails on my right hand, and I just kept them filed and buffed. I always played with my nails, but I had a guitar teacher at Berklee named Abby Zocher, and through learning with Abby, she taught me about refining the way to care for your nails. Abby played a lot of classical guitar. She showed me how to buff my nails properly. You don’t just use a nail file. You actually go around the bottom edge, and use all the different grades of buffing, and buff them until they’re so smooth that they can’t even get a nick in them. That’s the most ideal.
But with Big Thief, I end up playing a lot of rock ’n’ roll, and we get heavier in the songs. I go into my subconscious zone, and I break nails wailing on my guitar. The last few tours, I started to get acrylics on my right hand—the gels—because they’re strong, and filing and buffing them down until they’re smooth. But the problem with that is when you get them, they have to tear your real nail up and thin your nail out a lot, and it’s really hard on your actual fingernails. On this tour, I’ve been trying to stick it out. I’ve broken nails already and I’m trying to learn how to be totally adaptable, and not be too hung up on having a pristine sound. I’m trying to learn how to be adaptable and play with the fleshy part of my fingers if I have to.
Was Abby a big influence?
She honestly was the reason I stayed at Berklee. She saw me for me, and just got it. She encouraged me so much. I was one of very few girls in the guitar department—I recollect there were three other girls who were studying guitar. There was this one very specific way of teaching that a lot of the teachers had, and a lot of the kids were practicing shredding in this very specific way and trying to become the best possible shredder. You’d get ratings as a guitar player, “You’re a ‘seven,’ or a ‘five,’ or whatever.” Abby’s teaching was so much deeper. She was so good at seeing the strength in the individual students and helped them to become more and more excited about music.
What did she focus on with you?
I learn in a specific way. I learn through feeling it under my hands, and through immediate utilization of the chords or the scales or anything I’m learning. I learn so much better through making it immediately contextualized, or immediately incorporating it into something that’s inspiring. We would play and use whatever I was focusing on, use it in the most musical way possible. She didn’t get bent out of shape about, say, nailing this scale right now. It wasn’t about the books. When I was with her, I felt that it was about me, and my practice, and what I cared about. We would learn songs—I would show her stuff I was writing—and she would say things like, “This one chord you go to here, have you tried this other inversion?” Beyond that, her office was always open to come and talk, or cry, or whatever needed to be done [laughs].
Your style is very dynamic, but you seem to control that more with your fingers than pedals or even tweaking the knobs on your guitar.
It changes. It depends on the room, but I generally like to keep my amp pretty loud and use my knobs and my hands for dynamics. There are some parts that need to be extremely quiet. I learned a lot about dynamics through acoustic guitar, because you have to. If you’re not plugged into anything, all the dynamics are coming through your hands. I like the feeling that I can play clean or quiet, but then make it break up if I choose to dig in.
Do you do most of the songwriting, bring the pieces into the band, and then jam?
Everyone writes their own parts, but yeah, I write the songs. More and more, as we get closer and closer, we’re starting to play parts together in a way where we come up with something together. I write the lyrics, but Buck and I have cowritten in the past. We cowrote, “Replaced,” that song on Two Hands, and we’re starting to do more cowriting together. Buck and I frequently bounce ideas off of each other for our songs, but more and more we’re starting to write together. The band is starting to make song forms together, too. But primarily, I’m always working on song ideas. I’ll either have a finished song that I’ll bring, or I’ll have something that’s in pieces and we piece it together, together.
Do you keep it loose? When you’re playing live, will the songs change and take on a new life?
Definitely. The more relaxed and practiced we get, the more we improvise, change things, and try things. We’re always trying to push ourselves to try things that are scary. I also feel that it’s really important to sound bad sometimes.
I think there’s so much emphasis on performing as a presentation of something that’s polished or perfect or realized. I like the idea of experimenting with the idea of performing something that isn’t perfect or even realized, but maybe is just in its infant stages. Instead of performing for someone, as in, “Look at this great amazing thing.” It’s more like, “Look at this thing with blemishes and imperfections”—which we all have—and having permission to be in a process rather than to be totally put together. I also feel that with guitar, too. I look at it as a lifelong journey. Guitar is my number one passion, in a way, even before songwriting. It’s always been the vessel or instrument through which I’ve been able to connect most deeply with myself. It’s exciting to me, because I feel I can spend the next 60 years practicing guitar until I die, and not ever learn all there is to know.
There was a time when I was in Berklee, where I was freaked out about not being a good guitar player. There was a moment where a couple of teachers, or a couple of comments that I received, made me feel defeated. Some teachers said to me, “You don’t know what drop 2 voicings are? You’re not a guitar player.” Just straight up. But I feel it’s like any art form, like painting, there’s no right way to do it. There are all kinds of tools and vocabulary to learn, but ultimately what excites me the most is making my own road map on the guitar. Part of that process is sounding horrible, or just being able to playfully sound like crap. To even walk into an area that I have no familiarity with, and not be afraid that I’m going to be kicked out of the cool club. To be able to play all the wrong notes intentionally, to play things that are not profound, or not intricate, or not interesting—and not let that voice of self-doubt creep in, but just celebrate the beauty of the relationship with the instrument, and to truly try and find the playfulness in it. After all, it is playing. The word that we use for music is not presenting—it’s playing. We’re playing this music.
Just like real life, warts and all.
Yeah, and it’s way more fun that way. I did this solo recently and I shocked myself. When I hit, “wrong notes,” I’ve been doing this practice where I push into them more. It feels like there is no such thing as a wrong note. It’s just a matter of how you’re reacting to it. I was playing this thing that was completely out, and instead of panicking, and feeling like I’m failing, I just play, like, “Can I do that more? Can I play an even weirder or worse-sounding thing?”
U.F.O.F. and Two Hands were recorded very differently, but were there commonalities as well, in terms of gear, or how you set up in the studio?
How we did things varied. We were lucky enough to work with Dom Monks, who’s an incredible engineer, and also Andrew Sarlo, our producer, who did the last four albums. Their focus, for a lot of the recordings, was things like where we placed these things in the room, how we miked them, and how we best captured what was actually happening. In some cases, we’d put an amp in an iso booth or just block it off with sound barriers. In general, with U.F.O.F. things were a bit more isolated, because the nature of that record was trying to leave space for building soundscapes and textures. Whereas with Two Hands, we were all in the same room, and nothing was isolated. Max’s bass amp may have been just behind him, behind a glass door, but the drums, my amp, Buck’s amps, the vocals—we were all in the same room.
Could you touch or tweak your amps while you were playing if need be?
Yeah. That was the focus of that session. We wanted to capture that real feeling of simply playing together in a room, without too much added at all. The art form shifted there. Instead of leaving space, it was more about finding the fullness of the sound. Sometimes it would be as simple or nuanced as moving an amplifier two feet or moving a drum mic five inches. But that’s Dom’s area of expertise. We were focused on playing and Dom and Sarlo were doing their job, moving mics around.
Are you particular about gear?
Yes, but I just want to be able to use the thing in a very utilitarian way, to communicate the energy that I want to communicate. I think I can do it with anything. I like playing other guitars, too. I’m not afraid of going to a bar, or playing a house concert, or playing at a venue with some random person’s fucked-up guitar. I feel I can play a whole show that way and dig into it and feel good. But at the same time, I feel very specific in what my ideals are in instruments. I believe that instruments have spirits and they take the energy that’s put into them. I’m a big fan of passing a guitar around as much as possible and having as many people play it.
Because their energy gets into the guitar?
Yeah, and especially with certain songwriters. I’m like, “Here, do you want to take this and play it for a week or two?” I don’t always know what it is I’m going for. It’s always by feel. I like messing around and experimenting with things, but it’s usually beside the point. I don’t often have in my head that I really want a specific piece of gear. I just want to try stuff, turn knobs, hear things, feel the texture, see what it sounds like, and take it or leave it. And oftentimes I leave it, because my setup is pretty simple—just an amp and guitars at this point. I’ve gotten more simplified, I feel.