Adrianne Lenker on New Album Bright Future , "Vampire Empire," Fundraising for Palestine, and Logging Off

Germaine Dunes

Going to an Adrianne Lenker show is a quietly worshipful experience. On a Monday evening in March, she played her first live show in about eight months — a rare gap in time for a musician who’s been touring constantly, either solo or with her prolific band, Big Thief, since she was a teen. She felt a little rusty.

“I was so nervous. When I was drinking my water, I felt my hands shaking,” Lenker tells Teen Vogue over lunch the next day at a Manhattan diner, a cardinal red beanie knitted by her grandmother snug over her dark hair. “I felt like at any moment, I could just fall over onstage.”

Lenker told the hushed crowd as much at the sold-out show, seated alongside musicians Nick Hakim and Mat Davidson, who joined Lenker to write and produce her newest solo album, Bright Future, out now. It didn’t matter at all to the spellbound crowd: not to the infant strapped to their mother’s chest I squeezed past, nor the thrilled teens Lenker saw up front, nor the group of septuagenarians behind me.

That cross-age audience is exactly how Lenker likes it. “I want the 60-year-old man and the 18-year-old nonbinary person, I want everyone to be able to be next to each other and laughing or crying together,” she says. Lenker, who is queer, notes, too, that she spotted queer couples in the crowd from the stage. “Not in an oppositional space, not in an overly cerebral space, but just feeling each other's energies and being with other people in a peaceful way. I think that's worth a lot to have those experiences because otherwise, we are just so isolated.”

“I'm just like, Damn, I want to be 88 and curious.”

That peacefulness is a somewhat unique experience, now that live music has become a sometimes stressful and conflicted space, as I wrote last summer. Other indie musicians that blew up on TikTok in the last few years, like Mitski and Boygenius, have had crowds constantly interrupt or call out during their sets.

TikTok has also affected music in other ways. The mode of learning about songs via brief snippets on the app has apparently created the expectation for the full-length songs to sound identical to the TikTok version. Last year, Big Thief’s performance of the then-unreleased “Vampire Empire” on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert went viral on the app. When the band finally released a studio recording of the song over the summer, it didn’t sound identical to the live performance and some backlash ensued. Lenker hadn’t expected that reaction; it’s not how she thinks about her music. Ideally, she wants her music to feel as little like a commodity as possible.

“Every recording is a recording,” she says over an open-faced Reuben sandwich, lovingly exasperated by the line of thinking. “When we're playing in a studio, we're playing live, in a room, and we press record. They're all recordings. It's just a different day, it's a different time, a different alchemy.” Lenker included another, more stripped-down version of “Vampire Empire” on Bright Future, with furious acoustic strumming backed by lightly plinking strings and piano and strategic harmonies. “It'll never sound the same from one day to the next. The way we played it last night is totally different than the album.”

That kind of backlash is a fundamental misunderstanding of Lenker’s process. “I feel like I'm trying to exist outside of any time period, any one age bracket — or technology, period,” she continues. “The real experience of playing and keeping with it, it's a present, living thing. If I make something and get so attached to the idea of what it is, then it's already changed. It changes every day.” Also, she bluntly observes, “you wouldn’t say that to your friend who shows you something they did at school, like a project they’ve been working on.”

Months out from that conversation about “Vampire Empire,” since dropping Bright Future, florid praise has flooded the internet for both the album and Lenker’s seemingly once-in-a-generation talent. The “Joni Mitchell of our generation,” some fans call her. Slightly more idiosyncratically, a TikTok soundtracked by “Free Treasure” — one of four album tracks that’s already broken a million streams on Spotify — asks, “How has she done it again. I think I should just quit my job, stop paying all my bills and transform into a leather boot.”

“I'm down to assert the responsibility that comes with having gained a platform. I just want to keep making music for people, and I do think it feels like it's doing something meaningful for people, and I know it is for me.”

So is it going to her head? For her own good, Lenker does her best to stay offline, so she probably hasn’t seen most of the reactions. “There's a sliver in me that is curious and wants to be in touch with that, but it's very small,” she says. “I’ve felt that way since I was a kid, since I was a teenager. I felt overwhelmed with trying to be cool, and at one point, I was like, Wait, I don't have to want that. Classic middle school stuff, girls being mean, popular groups. I went to a really cliquey public school. I didn't go to high school, but I went to middle school, and it was very brutal. I got bullied in certain ways.”

That feeling of preteen isolation and misunderstanding speaks to Lenker’s decision to stay off social media (though she’s quick to clarify, “I'm not a Luddite”). It feels appropriate for a musician who started writing songs at age 10, left home to pursue music as a teen, and who often returns to her childhood — and childhood itself as a motif — in her songs. “I remember caring, I remember it hurting [as a kid],” Lenker says. “I noticed it was so fickle, and fleeting, and it was always changing. I was like, This is dizzying! How can I have a sense of building something real and long and exciting, that doesn't have to ebb and flow with everything else, that can be my own world, that I can develop and create over time?”

Though Lenker is happy for those who get good things out of apps like TikTok, it’s key to her process that she, literally, touch the grass as her musician and songwriter influences have done. “Some of my deepest inspirations are in their 60s, 70s, 80s. Some of my closest friends, they're craftspeople who've been writing since they were kids, and they're still super curious and super playful with words and lyrics and mediums, and writing triple albums and living their lives,” Lenker says. “I'm just like, Damn, I want to be 88 and curious.”

<cite class="credit">Michael Buishas</cite>
Michael Buishas

Lenker’s fixation on wanting to be older, to have lived more, comes up in conversation multiple times, and it makes sense, because she knows a lot of prolific artistic elders. Her maternal grandmother, who Lenker says paints twice a day, painted some of the art on Lenker’s Bright Future merch, as well as the cover for her 2020 album, Songs. “She does it because she loves it. Pure love. And it's wild — I think she can't even see some of the psychedelic-ness that I see in some of her stuff.”

Lenker isn’t too worried about yelling crowds and TikTok virality, though some of it might also go over her head: “I don't even know what a lot of those things mean that people are saying,” she notes with a laugh. After my third reference to the example of fans yelling “mother” at Mitski, Lenker asks what that means.

“I don't really care what people say, as long as I can just feel the essence of what they mean. If people are giving love energy or excitement about the music, I think that's a beautiful thing. The only way I could think is if it's getting to the point where it's getting in the way of me feeling comfortable, I might just say something on microphone,” Lenker says, gentle even in her hypothetical explanation of how she might ask folks to quiet down.

“I don't want to be in a dynamic with an audience where it's like, I have a product and they're the customers," she adds, "and I have to take what comes with the notoriety and the fame. I want to have a culture around my music that's respectful and understands that we're just…” She pauses: “A normal person.”

Lenker’s willingness to be a person, to admit what she doesn’t know, and to speak on what matters to her is part of what led her to release, in March, an EP of songs on Bandcamp as a fundraiser for Palestine Children’s Relief Fund (PCRF). In 2022, her band Big Thief pulled out of scheduled dates in Israel after backlash from fans; the years since have confirmed to her why she says up front that she doesn’t know everything — and doesn’t claim to.

“In terms of addressing the public through speaking, through words non-song, I'm a beginner. It's not my forte,” Lenker begins. “But I'm down to assert the responsibility that comes with having gained a platform. I just want to keep making music for people, and I do think it feels like it's doing something meaningful for people, and I know it is for me.”

During lunch, Lenker tells me that the EP has raised some $80,000 for PCRF; at the time of publication, a representative for Lenker says it’s “almost at $100,000.” (Teen Vogue has reached out to Palestine Children’s Relief Fund to confirm and will update.)

Before Lenker runs off to a taping for Jimmy Fallon, before the Big Ears music festival in Knoxville, Tennessee, before we resolve our diner bill, she has some advice for young people: “I think it's special to be reminded of something about our nature. Going into nature, laying down on the grass and just looking really close at the micro world for a while, for an hour," she says. "Really just relaxing into it and resisting the urge; just take some screen breaks. Lay on your back. Look at the sky. Talk to your grandma.”

<cite class="credit">Germaine Dunes</cite>
Germaine Dunes

Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue