Sometimes the most revealing lyrics for a song can come from deep within one’s subconscious. For Adrianne Lenker of Brooklyn-based band Big Thief, that statement would likely ring true more times than not. Lenker feels that much of the lyrical content on Big Thief’s debut album Masterpiece—which came out in late May on Saddle Creek Records—spilled out from her subconscious. It’s like a volcano that had built up so much pressure that it erupted.
For example, on the album’s title track she sings, “Old stars / Filling up my throat / You gave ‘em to me when I was born / Now they’re coming out.” She says she was at songwriting festival, and that “there was a lot of stuff happening with friends and family and teachers.”
“I got my guitar and walked up to the top of hill and wrote the song and just sang it. I didn’t have anything with me to record it or write it down,” Lenker says. “All the verses came out at once. I guess it was just in the air.”
She feels that sometimes her subconscious has a way of inexplicably exploding to the surface.
“It’s something embedded in back of the subconscious even before birth or around the time of birth that is growing alongside me and spilling out at a certain point,” she says. “This record is a documentation of the thing that started to spill out once I came into an awareness of it.”
When asked if this meant that it was a realization about something in her life, Lenker said it’s “something preceding a realization.”
“There are some realizations on the album but also a lot of questions,” she says. “I would say it’s mostly questions and a few realizations.”
Whatever way her lyrics arrive, it’s been part of winning formula as it’s helped gotten the band noticed around the country and earned them opening spots of late for artists like Nada Surf, M. Ward and Kevin Morby.
Most of the time when she’s writing, the most satisfying experience is when she finds or hears something that she couldn’t have thought with effort but just comes seemingly and unexplainably out of nowhere.
“I’m always trying to get there,” Lenker says. “Sometimes it happens and sometimes it doesn’t, and when it does I think that’s the most out of body, is getting to that point. When I’m sitting down and writing it’s all this sort of trance trying to get into this space where something could happen. When it does happen I don’t know how I would even describe it in words but that’s my favorite part.”
Of course, she’s not alone when it comes to Big Thief. She’s joined by members Buck Meek, James Krivchenia and Max Oleartchik. The seeds for the band were planted several years ago when Lenker moved from Minnesota to New York and met Meek at a New York marketplace.
Lenker didn’t know anyone in the area, and he had been living in the city for awhile, so he offered to be her tour guide. That led to them playing songs together and going on tour as a duo in a 1987 Conversion van. It became evident right away that Meek was someone that she wanted to work with.
“There’s just this traveler’s spirit that he has that I admired when I met him. He has an ability to find magic pathways through harsh places,” she says. “I feel that’s a gift in navigating the world anywhere. Just our ability to travel together, we have a special alchemy. I can get into these dark places sometimes and he’s good at not following me there. He’s a very optimistic person, and I think we can balance each other out in a way.”
On a musical level, she enjoys Meek’s diverse music background.
“Musically, he comes from a background of playing a lot of blues and country-swing music and old-time jazz,” she says. “That adds a cool dynamic and depth to the band. It lifts the heaviness that I have to say.”
That chemistry was taken to the next level once the others joined and they formed Big Thief. They become as dynamic as tenacious as the old Dragnet episode that their band was named after. The band recorded Masterpiece over a 12-day period at a friend’s family’s old lake house with producer Andrew Sarlo. They worked in the makeshift studio they had built and used their own gear to record.
It’s likely that Lenker found a peaceful sensation similar to the one she experienced growing up and going to her great grandmother’s house in the north woods of Minnesota.
“What really helped the creative juices was the environment and jumping into the cold Lake Champlain and being under an open sky as opposed to the city and the buildings we’re used to,” she says. “Having fires and cooking together, that brought a lot of inspiration and warm and tenderness to the recordings.”
Sarlo also played a big part in the band getting dynamic and raw performances. Lenker says she’s known him since college and has worked with the producer on everything she’d recorded so far. So it was an easy decision to bring him aboard.
“We have a deep level of trust, so he speaks very honestly. He set the tone for it being very direct and honest and at the same time helped keep it fun,” she says. “He brought attention and weight to moments that needed more.”
To keep performances spontaneous and in the moment, Sarlo had the band sit together on the porch and get a basic feel for the song before they went inside to record it. For example, the band’s first exposure to “Masterpiece” was on the porch.
“He had a lot of really beautiful arrangement ideas and a lot of cool exercises that he had us do,” she says. “None of us knew [“Masterpiece”] as it was new. He said ‘we’re going to sit here and go through the chord changes verbally and then Adrianne will sing the song.’”
?“And we sat and did it that way and then we went in and played it. I think it was the first or second take that ended up being the one. One of the first times we played the song was the recording we ended up using. He’s great at challenging us.”
When asked if any of the new songs shocked or surprised her while writing them, Lenker didn’t think any really fit that description on Masterpiece, besides “Real Love” to a certain degree. However, she says that more recent songs she’s written have shocked her.
“The feeling of being shocked isn’t something I’ve felt until recently on the new ones I’m working on,” she says. “I think it comes from not realizing that those things were living in your subconscious or those things were working their way out of you. And looking at their lyrics and stories it’s almost this feeling that it’s too intense to play the songs sometimes.”
Fortunately for them, Saddle Creek Records owner Rob Nansel thought their initial input hit the right and signed them to the label. Lenker says she had about lengthy phone call with him and says she got a “really good gut feeling” and that “he genuinely had so much to say about the record, and I felt he really got it.”
“It was a feeling I hadn’t gotten from anyone else,” she says. “It felt very genuine and solid. They’re the real deal; they’re super kind-hearted music-loving folks.”
So far, 2016 has proven to be a breakout year for the band. It was almost derailed the first night of the tour earlier this year, though, when Lenker’s left eardrum ruptured. She couldn’t hear out of her left ear for the first couple weeks of the tour including SXSW.
“I was wearing big headphones, because I couldn’t put anything in my ears to protect them,” she says. “But by the end of the tour my ear had healed. We played pretty loud that night, and I guess the pressure just built up and poked a hole in my eardrum. We didn’t really worry too much. We just took it in stride and continued to play the shows.”
Lenker says that she’ll always remember one show they played earlier this year in Vancouver that was an out-of-body experience for them since there was an “unexplainable energy” in the air. Many other shows have been similarly stimulating.
One of Lenker’s favorite parts of touring is meeting new people. She’s thankful for people who have offered them a place to stay on tour.
“There are a lot of people that are so gracious and sweet that let us stay with them during our month on the road,” she says. “And you get these little glimpses into people’s lives. They invite you into their homes for a night, so you get a feeling of their life and their house and things they surround themselves with and the smells.”
“A lot of time touring is in the car driving or on stage playing shows. But the other side is the in-between where you’re meeting people and they take you on little adventures, or sometimes cook you meals that are wonderful.”
Lenker and the rest of the band are looking forward to playing theaters and bigger venues with artists like M. Ward and Nada Surf.
“I’m really excited to play at theaters. There are some beautiful, ornate theaters we’re playing with M. Ward,” she says. “I’m really excited to be making music in those spaces.”
Beyond this tour, she hopes the band eventually gets to play overseas in the UK since she’s never been there. Until then, she’s excited to tour and forage for exciting new adventures in the many highways and diverse environments in their home country.
“America is starting to feel like one giant neighborhood,” she says. “Because you go out on tour and you go to the same little spots and same little places like restaurants near the same venues. You start doing that all around the country and it starts feeling like one big place.”