Interview: Big Thief on food, community and Masterpiece

Big ThiefAdrianne Lenker has the warmest voice you’ll hear this side of Christmas 2016. On record it transforms into a comforting lullaby, complementing the blues-y Americana created by her Big Thief band mates perfectly. On the phone, Lenker conjures up a million different pictures of American life: the flames of a bonfire lighting up autumnal leaves and blurry faces; wide, open spaces dusted with snow and wild horses; an an old Chevy cutting through the summer sun. All simultaneously jump from the receiver and into my living room.

“It’s a beautiful day,” Lenker drawls in her soon to be familiar Minnesota accent. “I’m hanging out in my back yard for the first time in a while.”

It’s no surprise she’s enjoying a break. A world of opportunity has exploded in front of the band this year already. No sooner did they announced a well-deserved and well-placed signing to iconic record label Saddle Creek, did Daytrotter, Consequence of Sound and Pitchfork all start vying for their attention. The point of focus has been Big Thief’s debut album Masterpiece, but Lenker is in a more contemplative mood today.

DrunkenWerewolf last spoke to the budding singer songwriter several years ago, when she tentatively sent us a download of her beautiful solo album, Hours Were the Birds. We swiftly fell in love with her work, but our paths failed to cross again – until now.

“Since Hours Were the Birds I met Buck,” Adrianne explains. “[We worked] just as a duo. We were booking all of our own tours, and playing house concerts all over the place. We’d go on, like, two month-long tours together that we’d just set up ourselves. That led to our duo album, A-Sides.”

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A record that we’ll straight up admit we missed, A-Sides marks a clear evolution in Adrienne’s music, away from what some might refer to as twee guitar melodies, towards something more rooted in Big Thief’s current sound.

“From there the songs kind of naturally started progressing. I was playing a lot of electric guitar. We by chance met the rest of the ban [and] started touring.”

Adrianne’s account of the band’s history is as laid back as her vocal style and speaking voice. Anyone with their head screwed on will appreciate that touring for months on end with little to no commercial backing is not an easy slog, especially in a country that’s as large and isolating as the US. Despite that she makes it sound like it was a glorious adventure she’d love to try again.

“I wasn’t really looking to form a band and it sort of happened,” she admits, when we asked how she first felt about the transition from solo artist to band. “As soon as we started playing [together], I felt like we were a band. We were doing so much creative work together, and [all] bringing so much creative spirit to the songs. I’ve always wanted to be part of a band, more so than wanting to be on my own, and my own entity.”

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That Adrianne frequently collaborated with others before forming Big Thief with guitarist Buck Meed speaks volumes. Not only was she accustomed to sharing her toys, but it gave her a tantalising taste of the community behind team work: “You get hungry for it, collaborating, and experiencing the songs through other people and the life that they bring to [the music]. It’s really cool to be able to play a song, and work on a song [with others]. You’re hearing it. It’s not just you. You also have something to listen to that you’re not creating. That’s something I’ve always enjoyed.”

When solo artists commit to making music together on a permanent basis, often there’s a conflict of influence that can confuse the music being produced. Although Big Thief come from varying backgrounds and styles of music – Adrianne is a singer songwriter from Minnesota, Buck a country loving Texan, and bassist Max Oleartchik a jazz player from Tel Aviv – together, it just works. This Adrianne puts down to “music being music”: “We’ve learned so much through playing together, about music. Some of the influences are really far out, we have a lot of differences, but I think that’s a strengthening thing. We’re not limited to a set or shell of ideas for a genre. It all becomes music at a certain point.”

After their ramble across the country, Adrianne, Buck, Max and drummer James Krivchenia relocated to Lake Champlain in Vermont to record their debut album, Masterpiece. Set to record in a breath taking 12 days, the speed at which it was created is neither reflected in sound or process. A beautifully carved, emotive full length that digs at the soul, it was appropriately born out of common ground gained over a bonding experience.

“We were so, so excited to be making a record together. The process was just to record as much as we could together. We’d do a few takes of a song, and then we’d just go and jump in the lake. It was pretty chilly as well because it’s Lake Champlain."

"We bought a bunch of food from this co-op, like really good quality food, and a huge part of the session revolved around cooking meals together. We cooked every single meal. We cooked two meals a day. We made really elaborate, beautiful meals! It was fast paced and we had a lot to do in 12 days, but we wanted our inspiration to be coming from a place of feeling comfortable and like we were having fun, and not from stress. There was this feeling of being efficient – we worked until we were tired, into the late hours every night – but we didn’t compromise on cooking meals and swimming and having fun. We made sure to incorporate those things so they would make their way into the energy of the songs. Those things were just as important.”

Big Thief were no doubt successful in their effort to embellish Masterpiece with what is essentially, love. It’s a gorgeous record, and one that will bowl fans over upon its release on 27th May 2016. For now, Adrianne and her friends are set on expanding their community with yet another tour. But soon, very soon, you can expect them in the UK.

Find out more about Big Thief here. Read our previous coverage of Adrianne's solo career here.

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