Hearing Adrianne Lenker’s uniquely fond memories of riding Metro Transit between Minneapolis and St. Paul in her early teens, it’s no wonder the singer has taken a shine to road treks with her earthy rock band Big Thief.
“My dad really pushed me to be independent from an early age, so he put me on the bus a lot,” Lenker said, recounting jaunts to a friend’s house in the far-off capital city to go listen to records as a kid.
“I’d have to transfer and take two buses, and it felt kind of adventurous. I think it made me a lot more curious and eager to see the world.”
A decade and a half later — after attending Berklee College of Music in Boston and forming her heavily buzzing band in New York — Lenker is back living in Minneapolis. Aside from her band’s fall-tour kickoff Monday at First Avenue, though, you probably won’t see her here much.
Big Thief is enjoying a breakout year that started with the May release of its acclaimed album “U.F.O.F.” Then the band went and issued its most highly praised record yet last week, “Two Hands.”
Noting the previous record’s more experimental bent, Rolling Stone heralded this rawer and folkier new LP as “not a revelation so much as a reinforcement and welcome reminder of Big Thief’s greatest strengths, [with] its sturdy songcraft and mostly straightforward arrangements.”
Talking by phone two weeks ago as she drove from Minneapolis to drummer James Krivchenia’s home in New Mexico — see what we mean about her hardly being here — Lenker actually credited all her moving and traveling as a big reason Big Thief cranked out two excellent albums this year.
“We toured so much over the past two years,” she said, “and for whatever reason I was just writing more songs in those two years than I ever have before.
“When you’re on the road and seeing many places and meeting so many new faces, it’s like an accelerated growth. And when you’re in a band and you’re all stuck in a van together, you’re forced to roll up your sleeves to figure out the most gently communicative ways to live such close lives to each other.
“As we worked through our stuff, I think we became super friends. And as we did that — and as we really got to know the Earth more by seeing so much more of it — we got really inspired, and I got really comfortable with writing while my bandmates are around. I could write more in the tour van, a hotel room, on the sidewalk, or wherever.”
That rather profound assessment of life in a band — and life in general — is not surprising to hear after learning of her rather remarkable experiences long before she hit the road.
Out of the woods
Lenker, 28, was born in Indianapolis. Her parents were members of a religious cult at the time, she said. They eventually got out and settled in the Twin Cities when Adrianne was 4, but even then the family still moved around a lot.
“We lived in Coon Rapids, Plymouth, Maple Grove and some places I don’t even remember,” she said, also noting her roots around northern Minnesota — which are reflected in some of Big Thief’s best-known songs.
“Cattails,” from this year’s first LP, was loosely inspired by visits with her great-grandmother Violet, who lived in Bagley. And “Mythological Beauty,” a gorgeously lilting standout track from 2017’s buzz-sparking album “Capacity,” is about a run-in with a railroad spike at age 5 while living in Nisswa.
“It was a very nomadic upbringing, with a lot of time in and around the woods,” she said, not needing to state the obvious influence all that had on her music today.
Lenker first stepped out as a songwriter in her midteens, playing open-mic nights and all-ages venues, including Balls Cabaret at the Southern Theater and Dunn Brothers. Her most frequent hang, though, was Plan B coffee shop in Uptown, which she noted with a laugh.
“That’s where I met a lot of musicians who were older than me, and I’d hang out there all day just trying to fit in and play chess, smoke and talk,” she recounted. “I sort of grew up there; or acted like I was grown up.”
She did come of age rather fast, though, skipping high school altogether (“The public school system just wasn’t made for me,” she said) and starting at Berklee at age 17. The 21-year-old graduate then headed straight for Brooklyn, where she met Big Thief’s native Texan guitarist Buck Meek on her first day there.
While the band always called Brooklyn its base, Lenker said she never considered it home.
“Buck and I got an old RV and started traveling the country together, booking tours and making records, burning them to CDs ourselves.”
Once she got her own electric guitar, “I wound up writing like I wanted a band, and we then very serendipitously wound up meeting James and Max [Oleartchik, bassist].”
After issuing their first two records via Omaha’s Saddle Creek label (of Bright Eyes fame), the still fairly new bandmates toured heavily and moved on to famed indie imprint 4AD for this year’s releases.
They first set up shop in Los Angeles’ Topanga Canyon to demo the new tunes last year.
“We just thought we needed to archive all these songs I’d been writing, and it wound up being like 45, 50 songs,” Lenker said. “We thought about making it a double album, but it felt like too much to digest at once, too dense. And the songs sort of started separating themselves into two different areas.”
So Lenker and her bandmates split up the recording sessions into two very different studio spaces.
“U.F.O.F.” was captured in a cabin in the thick, ultragreen forests of Washington state, which she said helped shape its more ethereal sound: “The air and plant life was moist, and there was so much color and crystal-clear air to absorb.”
“Two Hands,” by contrast, was laid down in the desert air at Sonic Ranch outside El Paso, Texas, where Bon Iver and Poliça also worked on their latest albums: “It was dry and hot and pretty barren,” she said.
“It was the harder record to make,” she added of the newer LP. “We just had to fight to get every song right, kind of like how the wildlife and the plants have to work harder out there in that harsh environment — but they wind up being so beautiful when they do push through.”
It wasn’t long after that hot desert experience that Lenker opted to move back to cool Minneapolis, while her bandmates also left the overpriced confines of New York. She got an apartment over the summer,
“It’s the longest I’ve lived in my own place,” she said. She intends to be back for much of the winter — eagerly so.
“The winters there are something I really missed, something my parents definitely raised us to love,” she said. Don’t expect her to stay put much longer after that, though.
“There’s really no sign of this band or my songwriting slowing down anytime soon,” she happily reported. Which could be code for her roaming lifestyle also staying in full motion.