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Friday, July 1, 2016

This Way Of Feeling: Big Thief Talk Songwriting, Vulnerability, And Growing Old

Posted By on Fri, Jul 1, 2016 at 10:05 AM

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Like any other profession, there are myriad reasons people become musicians. Drugs, booze, and groupies are among the most famous, as is the sort of validation that comes only from a crowd screaming your name. Making buckets of money was a valid reason in the pre-Napster era, and traveling is still an appeal. Some individuals, however, become musicians because they have no other choice, as if writing songs is their lone conduit to some unspoken human truth that sustains them when nothing else can. Adrienne Lenker falls into this final category.

As the frontwoman and primary songwriter for the Brooklyn-based band Big Thief, Lenker sees music as necessary for her survival. She speaks about songwriting as though she’s pursuing the one true platonic form of the song, continually failing but drawing ever closer to it each time. “I’ve heard other songwriters say, ‘It’s all just the same damn song anyway,’” she tells me from her Brooklyn apartment. “Everyone’s just trying to write the same song and all getting at the same thing.”
This has proven to be a lifelong process. By six, Lenker was playing guitar. By ten, she was writing proper songs. As an adult, she moved to New York with every intention of being in a band, staying the course as a solo artist until finding the right combination of people. “I’ve always wanted to be part of a band rather than be the face of something,” she says. “I was always was kind of looking for that band, but I knew that I had to wait until the right people came along.”

Guitarist Buck Meek and bassist Max Oleartchik came along thanks to chance encounters with Lenker – the former at the corner store shortly after she moved to Brooklyn. James Krivchenia went from being a regular at Big Thief gigs to permanent drummer and co-producer of their debut record. As far as Lenker is concerned, the lineup is now complete and permanent, and she points to her creative comfort around her bandmates as evidence. “I’ve finally been able to write songs around my band and in the van. That’s all the more telling that they’re the right people,” she says.

Last July, the foursome retreated to the shores of Lake Champlain in upstate New York to record their cheekily-titled debut, Masterpiece. Recorded over 12 days in the living room of an old friend’s estate, the album spans three years of Lenker’s songwriting, the most recent tracks written en route to the session. The record is a confessional, unobtrusive work. It bleeds, sometimes profusely, though it licks its own wounds clean. Lenker’s poetic lyrics splice the universal and the personal, specific details forming the core of global truths. On the folksy “Paul,” she croons over a melancholy guitar with unflinching sincerity, “We were just two moonshiners on the cusp of a breath, and I’ve been burning for you baby since the minute I left." 
Perhaps there is strength in vulnerability, but Lenker is more interested in vulnerability for its own sake. As she tells it, Masterpiece’s raw, uninhibited emotional openness is a journey toward herself and others in search of the kind of human connection that changes people for life. “I think my songs are just this way of feeling and recognizing my own existence and reaching towards myself from outside myself,” she says. “Knowing how to be vulnerable and get to that point is a constant struggle. If I knew how to get to a place where I could just willingly be vulnerable, I would’ve discovered how to write songs constantly.”

Like every songwriter — dead or alive — she has never been in a place where the songs flow out uninhibited and without pause. Still, she is quick to promise that new material is coming soon, and will ideally be followed by a long career’s worth of music. “I hope that we can be making records and traveling and performing and loving the music we’re making for a long time,” she says. “I hope that we can be doing this into our old age.”

Big Thief play Rickshaw Stop at 8 pm on Tuesday, June 5. $10-12, rickshawstop.com

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Elle Coxon

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