Adrianne Lenker | Photo: Collier Schorr

“Adrianne Lenker, a songwriter known for turns of phrase and currents of rhyme, says it plainly, “You have my heart / I want it back.” I was at a merch stand at The United Theater on Broadway in Los Angeles, reading the back of a pink-and-gold foil Adrianne Lenker trading card, waiting before Lenker’s second of two sold-out nights at the historic venue. The lyric the card mentioned felt like a quintessential pick for the Lenker card, a songwriter whose words live in yearning and emotion. Born in Indianapolis, Lenker has taken her gut-wrenching, narrative-driven song lyrics and mastered multiple genres — in addition to her solo work, she also serves as the lead vocalist, guitarist and principal songwriter of Big Thief. A band that has established itself as an indie rock staple, Big Thief has had several Grammy nominations, Billboard chart success, and their albums have made a plethora of best-of year-end lists.

As previously mentioned, Lenker has shown how resonant her pen is on her own. Her solo work is more folk-leaning, capturing the audiences enough that she embarks on her very own tours, such as the very show I went to. I saw Big Thief twice in London during their four nights at Shepherd’s Bush, and it was the best band concert I had seen in my entire life. I was ecstatic to see how Lenker took her songs to the stage on her own, and curious what she’d play as she, both with Big Thief and solo, changes her set list every night.

Lenker walked out onto the stage with her head down, a bit shy, and tuned her guitar while smiling. She started plucking to the intro of one of her Big Thief songs, “Promise Is a Pendulum,” sitting in a chair with her feet spread apart, firmly placed in front of her. Lenker’s voice is unique, sounding like she’s lived a few decades more than she has, with a careful confidence that allows her voice to gently dance. “Promise is a pendulum just swinging at the door, and I’m not saying I’m not jealous, or scared anymore. I’m just saying.”

She also played “Little Things,” a personal favorite, which showcased her incredibly proficient guitar playing skills. Playing a droning rhythm on the top strings of the instrument, while playing a baseline melody on the lower strings, it sounded as if three people were playing, not one, as she sang along to the mesmerizing tune. Lenker’s lyrics reached for the unknown as she mused, “One step behind you following you down. I was inside of you; where are you now?”

“Now I’d like to bring two of the musicians who helped me on Bright Future,” Lenker announced, about halfway through the show. Her violinist and pianist come out, one on each side of her. They accompanied her in a variety of ways, some idiosyncratic, including during album track “No Machine,” which saw the pianist and violinist rubbing their fingers against their lips, creating an atmospheric sound to the verses. They also added lush vocals, and the harmonies were perfect, the vibrato of each singer coalescing into a perfect tension.

Highlights with her players were “Real House,” “Sadness as a Gift,” and fan favorite “anything.” Before playing “anything,” Lenker told the crowd, “Join in if you know the words.” The entire room sang along to the tender love ode, and she was beaming the entire time. After, Lenker told us to sing the entire song again, this time without her. “I want to kiss, kiss your eyes again. Wanna witness your eyes looking.” It’s a tear-inducing moment, one that created a palpable sense of unity between everyone there, as a thousand voices echoed throughout the room.

So full of authenticity that her essence spills out from her onto whoever hears her words at any given time, it’s no surprise that the real essence of an Adrianne Lenker show, like her trading card said, lies in her own words. Straight from the source, Lenker said it best toward the end of the show as she looked around grinning, softly thinking out loud, “For a brief moment we are here playing these songs … but it is also potentially rippling infinitely.”

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