The Lore Of Big Thief
Those close to Adrianne Lenker know her by many names. The lead singer of Big Thief is Anne or Anna sometimes to her parents; Anna or Annie to her grandmother. She's Dran to her sister and brother, and Lunx to her college bandmates. She's Charlie sometimes to Mat Davidson of Twain, who opened at the first Big Thief show, and 'Aderrianne' to Max Oleartchik, the bassist in her own band. "She's probably many things to many people," an old teacher of hers from Berklee College of Music says. She calls her Adriannie.
Names fill Lenker's songs as well: "Haley," "Mary," "Lorraine," "Paul," "Randy," "Jonathan," "Kerina." "Sometimes I need a name for themes in my songs, but oftentimes they're just about me or directed to myself," she says. A beloved song, "Paul," reads as a song about a male lover, but is actually about balancing two sides of her own personality. "Mary" is addressed to a dear friend, but Lenker often feels she's singing it to herself. She forms the kind of closeness with others where she can write a song in someone's name and have it be in every part a song about herself, too.
That closeness is part of what listeners hear and feel in turn from Big Thief's music. Lenker's unequivocal, instinctive and deeply personal songs earned the band a spot on esteemed indie label Saddle Creek's roster, and its album Masterpiece established it as a breakout act of 2016. Before that album was even released, it had already recorded much of another: Capacity, an album that took Masterpiece's diaristic folk-rock, made myth of personal matter and, upon its release in 2017, accelerated the group's rise. Lenker's unflagging excavation of the meaning in her own life has given Big Thief's music its raw, vulnerable power.
If Lenker's songs ring true to life, it may be because they're true to hers. Lenker was born into a cult in Indiana that her parents left when she was young. She remembers the uncertain periods that followed. "We had a van — a big, giant blue van — that we converted ourselves into a little home," she says. "We'd live there for a couple weeks at a time and then we'd find a landing place." Landing places, like the rented house in Nisswa, Minn. mentioned in Capacity's lead single, "Mythological Beauty."
Her father was her first music teacher. She struggled in school; he showed her chords on the guitar. "I was always showing up late so I could get lunch detention," she says. "I would much rather be in trouble in this random office than left out in the cafeteria," not knowing with whom to sit. Her father put her in karate when she was 8. Her instructor, Mr. Marotta, was a rock in her life during that period. Her parents divorced when she was 12. Mr. Marotta would take her and her siblings to a chain diner called Perkins with green walls and tall, thin mugs for coffee. She moved in with her father and worked on her music. She became a black belt. She never went to high school.
Her father encouraged her towards a music career and she took to it eagerly. He arranged sessions for her — professional sessions with professional session players. They taught her the craft. "Since I didn't go to high school I truly view that time as my education, and they were my teachers," she says. It would be a full-time job, her producer had told her. As a young teen isolated from kids her age, she agreed, not quite understanding what that meant. She recorded an album and released it, and a live album, too. They went to Nashville to track another as her family struggled financially. Her father was putting what money he could towards her musical career. She felt the pressure. "I'd gotten used to recording background vocals perfectly, doing 18 takes of them until they line up," she says. "Not recognizing the inherent beauty in each performance, but just making something good." Making music had become more about a successful product than meaningful process, and she knew then she didn't want to release the album they'd toiled over. "After three years of all these adults pouring all this energy into me, I said, 'I don't want this. I want to go to college,'" she says.
It caused a rift with her father then, but she held firm. She remembers he helped her apply to a five-week summer program at Berklee College of Music in Boston, and she got in. She didn't have the money to attend the College full-time, but while she was at the summer program, her guitar teacher arranged a meeting with the Dean of Admissions Damien Bracken. He expected a discussion, but she brought her guitar and played him her songs. He was floored. He knew that Susan Tedeschi, the famed singer, had been tasked with helping to find a student for a Berklee scholarship — that student would be Lenker. When Tedeschi, an accomplished belter, heard her play, she counseled Lenker on how to project her voice more, but Bracken told her not to change a thing. To this day, Lenker sings like she speaks — soft but strong, a bit over a whisper, as if she's right beside you.
Lenker despaired of the one-size-fits-all assessments of Berklee, but for once she was around musical people her own age, and she soon found a home with a guitar professor named Abigail Aronson Zocher. Zocher remembers the young Lenker's worn sneakers and calm independence. She taught her in one-on-one lessons and in her Joni Mitchell lab. "Whenever her peers would hear her, they would be tremendously inspired," Zocher says. "They'd be like, 'That's what I want to do.'"
Zocher keeps a photo from those days of Lenker and four other students. Lenker is sitting on the floor of Zocher's small studio-office hugging her knees to her chest with her back to a wall where Zocher now has a photo of Benjamin Britten, the 20th century composer and atonal explorer. She's smiling. "The feeling that I got from Abby ... I experienced so much more fun and joy and excitement around the topic of music than I did with any other teacher or class that I had at Berklee," Lenker says. When she performed in one of Zocher's showcases, Lenker wrote a prologue for the program. "So many people get to a certain age and stop 'playing,'" she wrote. "Our community has a number of serious students, which is great, but sometimes the workload is such that people actually do forget to play." It read like a letter to her younger self. By the time she graduated in 2012 and moved to New York City, she knew what it was to play again.
Alexander Buck Meek had already followed his own winding path to the city by the time Lenker got there. He grew up in Wimberley, Texas, just 45 minutes southwest of Austin. Wimberley is a liberal stronghold, home to hippies, old musicians and the glass artist and child psychologist who raised Buck and his brother, Dylan. His mother was his first guitar teacher, and she showed him chords on a 1976 Yamaha acoustic when he was 6 or 7. As a teen, Meek was steeped in the outlaw country, western swing and jazz manouche of the region. Early on, he found mentors like jazz guitarists Slim Richey and Django Porter and blues guitarist Brandon Gist — who gave him his first gig playing rhythm and kicking Gist's old Fender Twin Reverb amp back to life when it would cut out onstage. You hear those guitarists to this day in the swagger and jazz-inflected melody lines he uses to accentuate or offset Lenker's vocals.
Like Lenker, he started gigging young, surrounded by adults. The semester she began at Berklee, he graduated. They played on the same bill together once, but their interaction was limited to her refusal to let him borrow her acoustic guitar. Soon after she graduated, she moved to New York. She and a friend were moving her belongings into an old Brooklyn warehouse that was illegally housing, by her count, 12 people in thin-walled wood cabins with an industrial sink for a cold shower when she took a break to buy a juice at a bodega named Mr. Kiwi's. That's when she saw Buck.
"For some reason I was in a tuxedo, and I had a mohawk or something and I had no shirt," Meek says. "We locked eyes and remembered each other very clearly, but didn't know each other at all."
"I stopped and I said 'Are you ... do you ... did I meet you in Boston at some point?'" Lenker says. "I didn't know anyone in New York so I was just, I guess, being kind of outgoing with it because it felt like a very strange place and he was a familiar face." She showed him the warehouse; he showed her the city by bike the next day. A huge sliding metal door shuttered the warehouse from the rest of Bushwick and from then on Meek would come over every day and wait for her to slide it open. He was working as a bike messenger and construction worker; she was waitressing. They started playing music in the auto shop section of the warehouse — first John Prine and Fleetwood Mac, then each other's songs.
"I guess what struck me as a songwriter then was that her songs all seemed to be really human, and really emotional, and really honest — vulnerable — but at the same time they all somehow had this ineffable quality," Meek says. "Like, all of that human content was serving as a medium for something beyond."
"It was one of those friendships that developed extremely fast where suddenly you're each other's best friend," Lenker says. "We hung out every day from the moment we met." They did a triple bill tour by Amtrak with a friend in May 2013. They became a duo — Adrianne Lenker and Buck Meek — and they made two EPs, one called a-sides and one called b-sides, both warm, acoustic affairs. People called them Buck and Anne.
Within a year and a half after they met, they had bought a 1987 Chevy G20 conversion van together. It was colored cream with gold and brown trim, and inside it had wood paneling and orange shag carpet. They named her Bonnie. On the cover of those EPs, they're pictured standing in front of the van. They're smiling. "We didn't really have much influence in how to tour or anything like that," Meek says. "We just looked at a map and [thought] 'where do we want to go in this country?'"
They played every show they could — a schoolhouse, a backyard barbecue. "Anywhere that we could possibly play," she says. "And we did that for two years." They burned CDs and sold them in paper bags. Sometimes they would sleep in the homes of kind strangers, but often they would park on the quietest, flattest part of the road and sleep in the van. Bonnie had a small kitchen, and at night Lenker would make popcorn seasoned with spices from their collection — truffle oil and curry, olive oil and nutritional yeast. "That wasn't really a dinner. But that was one of my favorite things to make late at night, just so comforting and the smell of it," she says. "How we looked at it was: We're not seeking out a label, we're not seeking out an agent, we're not seeking out a sparkly career, we just want to basically do what we are doing. We just want to make music, make albums — and we were already doing that ... We didn't need anything else. I felt rich."
Two years in, they had a small grassroots following. Lenker, though, had started writing rock songs that the duo's quiet arrangements couldn't quite accommodate. They began looking for a band. Ten years earlier, a teenage Meek had met Max Oleartchik at the Berklee five-week program. They'd become friends and then, as teens at summer camp do, lost touch. But Big Thief moves through the world with a rare kind of trust in destiny and a near-holy sense of the people who come into their lives and the moments when they enter. The week Buck and Anne began looking for a band was the moment Oleartchik re-entered: They ran into each other on a street in Brooklyn. He joined what became Big Thief.
They played shows with the songs that would make up Masterpiece. Lenker got her first electric guitar in the mail on New Year's Day, 2015. It is, like Bonnie, an object of lore for a band that runs on a sense of myth — a brown custom-made Collings carved from a single slab of mahogany that the guitar maker had been saving for a special purpose. That July, she brought it to a friend's family lake house for 12 days where it was, alongside Meek's own, the roaring id of Big Thief, a tool she could use to unleash the subterranean tension beneath her melodious songs. James Krivchenia began the sessions as their engineer and became their drummer. At that point, they were already close to each other.
The last song they tracked at the lake house was "Masterpiece." It would become their breakout single. The session's producer, Andrew Sarlo, who had been recording Lenker's projects since college, says it was the only vocal on the record she struggled with. He, Meek and Oleartchik went into the room with her and began dancing around her as she sang. Off the energy of her friends, she finally got her take.
Two years and two record releases later, on Monday, Sept. 18, 2017, the band was in Boston on the North American leg of a world tour. It was threatening rain on the morning after a show as they pulled up to Boston's Tennis & Racquet Club. Built by Frank L. Whitcomb in 1902, the club is, by its own accounting, Boston's oldest athletic and social club. Whatever Whitcomb imagined the ensuing 115 years would bring, it is unlikely that he anticipated the 10 a.m. arrival of a large black Ford E-250 high-top van named Roofus containing a drum kit, guitars, amps, the previous night's half-burnt incense and three of the four members of a rock 'n' roll band called Big Thief — just a bit late for a Berklee workshop they were to host at the club and thus parking illegally.
Abby Zocher had set up the workshop for Berklee students at the last minute, which is why it was in the tennis club. After the band unloaded into the stately Hamlen Room, she brought them gifts. Pom-pom socks (four pairs). A travel pillow (inflatable). Pens (invisible ink). They played songs and took questions.
"I was at the show you guys did last night and I kind of had a question," one student asked towards the end of the session. "After you guys played 'Masterpiece' you mentioned ... that sometimes there were certain parts of songs that are sometimes hard to sing. .. I'll write songs that are about things that are really hard for me to sing about, sometimes, and I don't know how to get over that and be able to perform [them], but [I'm] also afraid of, if I think through it in terms of, 'Get over it and perform it,' am I still going to get an emotional performance? I didn't know how you dealt with that and navigated that."
Lenker thought for a moment. "Is it possible that you're truly just not ready to sing about those things? Or do you feel a pull to really want to sing about them?"
The response: "Sometimes I feel a pull ... I wrote a song over the summer about when I was younger, but I don't play it because ... I'm always afraid of, I guess, being too vulnerable when I perform it."
"If you don't mind me asking," Lenker says, "What's the worst thing that could happen in your mind in that scenario?"
"All the scenarios I'm thinking of are like, 'Well, that would make me vulnerable.'"
"Like with other people?" Lenker asks.
"I think it's really valid," Lenker says. "It's probably a useful part of yourself telling you, 'This is vulnerable, this feels really exposed,' and that's like you telling you to treat it with care when you do do it ... Start to share with people, even just one or two people at a time, even just a couple friends who you want to share with, where you feel like this will be a safe place — 'I know that people are actually listening,' and then sharing it there."
Big Thief is a band, but it's also a community of the people who actually listen. "When you're playing music and you're starting to expose yourself for the first time, there's nothing more powerful than being listened to and being actually heard," Lenker says. She and her band mates have a sense of her songwriting and music as a living thing — as something that 'happens' more than it is crafted. The band never forces its music to be anything, so it is often two paradoxical things: personal and universal, highly-trained yet instinctive.
"Whatever Adrianne's doing it's coming out very, very coherent," Oleartchik says of their songwriting process. "Everyone knows pretty much what the song needs ... It's not like you're playing, it's not you playing — it's just happening."
"I think it's honestly 90 percent emotional," Lenker says. "Ninety percent of our relationships and the 11 hours we spent in the van and 10 percent the music." On songs like "Black Diamonds," the closing track off Capacity, Krivchenia's drums are breathing things, and he plays more to specific notes and chords than to a constant beat. When Oleartchik plays, he often looks in quizzical delight at the other band members, a feather dangling from the headstock of his bass. His bass and Krivchenia's bass drum share a kind of geologic interdependency. All the members of Big Thief carry visible restraint in their bodies when they play, as if each note is released from an enclosure where all the others are kept.
Krivchenia writes their set list for every show. At the Berklee event, Lenker asked him what song he wanted to play — he responded with a song he most wanted to hear, an unreleased cut in which he barely plays at all. A student marveled at his egolessness.
There's a story about a particular Big Thief show that reveals how hard the band works to preserve that egoless, vital experience of its music — even as its tour schedule and audience grow. It was at a headlining show for an over 10,000-capacity space at Chicago's Millennium Park with a towering screen behind the stage. Davidson of Twain played that show with them. "I think [it's] a really shocking [experience] for a performer for the first time you see yourself on that scale and feel deeply under the microscope, and the audience is far enough away that you can't really tell what kind of impact you're making," he says. Lenker responded with an improvisatory display — jostling the amp to make noise and playing long waves of pure feedback. She changed the lyrics to songs; she made up a song and sang it on the spot. "People start coming to the shows with demands — 'Play this!'" she marvels. "I sometimes am very uncomfortable onstage, and then I just don't hide it."
One night on its latest tour, while the band was soundchecking at the Music Hall of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, Lenker was trying out in-ear monitors. As a band's stages and audiences grow, in-ears are a way to make sure the band members can still hear each other without damaging their ears. Sharon Jones regularly used this particular pack at one point.
"I'm committed to an honest expression, not necessarily a performance," Lenker says. "I don't want to pretend because I think it just directly counteracts the whole purpose of the music, which, for me, is just getting closer to the core of myself and of our points of intersection as people gathering." Music has meant many things to her at different times in her life, but it seems it has always been this: a path to hearing others clearly, to actually being heard herself.
"It does feel like you're in more of a bubble," she said. Someone offered to direct a mic at the audience so the engineer could pipe in their reactions. She deferred, and said she wanted to try them out on a few rehearsals before using them for a show.
Later that night, the band huddled as they do before every show. Lenker says a mantra to herself each night such that she delivers an honest performance. "I'm ... setting an intention of, 'Help me to step aside from this and allow what's there to be, and not try to force it to be anything.'"
That night in Brooklyn was Big Thief's second-to-last show with Buck for a little while as he took a bit of time off the tour to work on an upcoming solo record. In front of a packed house, the four musicians played the songs that in two years their fans have learned to need. As they often do, they closed the set with "Parallels," the final song from Masterpiece. It is a triumph of the process they've honed these past few years, in which Lenker's own music refracts through the band and emerges a forceful new whole. The song is anthemic and rose again that night to its climax. But instead of emphasizing the finale, Oleartchik and Krivchenia dropped out as Meek and Lenker's guitars squalled through the closing section. She sang the refrain, "I see your parallels."
But in Big Thief, lines always intersect. She changed the lyrics on the spot, shouting as a ship's radio operator mid-gale, "Take good care / take good care / of each other out there / of each other out there." Her in-ear monitors set aside for another day, she could hear the crowd respond to her and Meek as they lived out the fresh words of an old song.
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