By late 2019, the wheels were already turning following the release of Big Thief’s fourth album Two Hands. A new album was in the works, and drummer James Krivchenia was keen on encompassing singer Adrianne Lenker’s songwriting, and the state of the band at the time, within several varied landscapes and under the tutelage of different engineers. “I had this broader idea informed by how we liked recording and observations on what felt good with the band,” says Krivchenia. “I had this idea of coming together, breaking up the sessions into the different chunks with different engineers and in different cells. It was digging into different facets of Adrianne’s songwriting and different facets of the way the band plays, and giving each of those some energy and focus.”
Deciding to be more proactive when the pandemic hit, the band began recording specific batches of songs in the southwest, and on the east and west coasts of America throughout 2020, funneling dozens of songs down to the 20 on Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You (DNWMIBIY).
Working through four sessions, each engineer served their purpose, capturing what the band wanted to reflect in each space with Sam Evian in Catskills, New York, Don Monks in Telluride, Colorado, Los Angeles with Shawn Everett, and closing in Tuscon, Arizona with Scott McMicken. “It really felt like a whole different zone for each of them, and a whole different approach and sound, which allowed different kinds of recordings and different sounds to exist next to each other without the record being this one focused unified classic thing,” says Krivchenia. “I wanted it to feel more wide and acknowledge all the different sides of us.”
As a band, Lenker and Krivchenia, along with bassist Max Oleartchick, and guitarist Buck Meek had already moved through changing states since the 2016 debut Masterpiece but were transcending something new during their five-month nomadic journey. Spatially, every new space set the tone, from getting acclimated around the 10,000-foot elevation of Telluride, surrounded by Aspen trees, the swelter of the Tucson desert, streams, and forests of Upstate New York, and setting up in Topanga Canyon.
“Time Escaping,” “Little Things” and “Blurred View” capture the more produced affected, sound of LA, while “Flower of Blood” and the opening “Change” which sets the tone of the entire album sentiment of changing seasons and space, break through the airier vastness of recording in Colorado with Lenker’s moving delicately around tender lyrics like, Change like the wind, like the water, like skin… change like the sky, like the weeds, like a butterfly… would you live forever and never die while everything around passes—and giving a nod to Willie Nelson with You’re always on my mind. “I feel like there was a soft tone to that session,” says Lenker of the Telluride session. “It was special. It was magical.”
There’s an infinite combination of ways DNWMIBIY could have come together, says Lenker, and each song was dependent on the different variables and landscapes. “We were pretty aware of how much we were affected by our environment,” she says. “Everything goes into the music when we’re making it—the space, the food we’re eating, what we’re going through as individuals emotionally, the conversations we’re having, our encounters, and how we’re sleeping, so it set us up to react to these elements within these new environments.”
Breaking production into different capsules of time and space helped the band work through sequencing the 20 songs, which required some compromise on everyone’s part. “The whole time we were working on it, a big part of it was not worrying about how everything fits together,” says Krivchenia. “Maybe this was going to be a 10-song album with the absolute cream of the crop or we were going to release this sprawling thing.”
The larger portion of songs even allowed for a track like “Promise Is A Pendulum,” the original demo of Lenker and her guitar, used in the final cut after testing out several recorded versions, and “Spud Infinity,” a lighter chapter from Lenker’s songbook, featuring a roots jaw harp, contributed by Lenker’s brother Noah and Mat Davidson on fiddle and the freer senses of Kiss the one you are right now Kiss your body up and down other than your elbows / ‘Cause as for your elbows, they’re on their own / Wandering like a rolling stone / Rubbing up against the edges of experience.
“It’s this different side of her and it’s humorous and powerful and has this beauty,” says Krivchenia of the latter track. “When you’re making a 10-song, serious record, it’s hard to find the space for songs like that, to get goofy and have fun.”
DNWMIBIY paved a path of exploration and new challenges for Big Thief. “The thing that bonds us, and binds us as a group of people is that core curiosity and fascination and hunger for learning and pulling things apart and putting them back together and exploring all the different landscapes—metaphysical and physical,” shares Lenker, who is closely bonded to her lyrics but admits she often doesn’t know what a song means until much later on. Once an album is recorded and done, there’s a transitory state, one she likens to a painting.
“I may see it once in a while and be like ‘ah cool, we made that’ or realize new things about it over time,” says Lenker. “Sometimes I don’t know what the meaning of a song is until much later.”
“Simulation Swarm” is one track that continues to puzzle Lenker shifting around dreamier poetry, an abstract and realness of heartache and past life of maternal and paternal connections, and the half-brother she’s never met, which she also explores on “Mythological Beauty,” off the band’s 2017 album Capacity.
“There also this very distant sort of heartbreak, this love that’s over across the world, and this heartbreak that’s happening, and longing to be close,” says Lenker, who was writing through the lens of going through a heartbreak, trying to break through the picture of two people trying to talk but being more at war with one another, noting in the lyric I wanna drop my arms and take your arms. “Then there’s this feeling of discord and opposition between two people who love each other, but it could maybe be between me and my father, or something in a more global sense.”
Playing the songs live adds another dimension, says Lenker, since the exchange between the audience and the band changes the songs and affects how they’re played, and evolve over time. “It’s often how I feel in life and dreams,” she says of how songs come together. “There’s never a linear, logical sequence or a very pointed, concentrated feeling. It’s scattered and chaotic, and everything bleeds into everything else.”
Storytelling is an “ancient practice” Lenker hopes to refine and retain for as long as she feels inspired. “I dive into the abstractions and dread the current of the present,” says Lenker. “I feel like that’s the conjuring that’s happening in shows but then again, there are stories I haven’t really fully embodied or recognized.”
Working and making music while unraveling on the inside, Big Thief has also evolved through its internal and external elements since Masterpiece (2103). “Every time we make a record, it just becomes more refined, different,” she says. “Then sometimes I look back at our first record, and I feel this great tenderness towards myself at that time. Some of it I couldn’t write now. In a sense, I feel like I’ve lost some of myself. In another way, I couldn’t write what I’m writing now, then, so I have also found a new part of myself.”
On a deeper level, maybe that is the biggest story of all for Big Thief. “I have a hard time loving and accepting myself,” shares Lenker. “I struggled with so much self-deprecation, and I don’t want to get into childhood stuff, but I’ve struggled with that feeling of complete self-rejection before I even recognized what that was. I can just be crushed with the feeling that I’m completely less than or worthless. That’s probably the biggest journey I’ve been on since the beginning of the band.”
Big Thief was a savior for Lenker, who first connected with Meek when she moved to Brooklyn, New York in 2012, and later fused with Oleartchik, and Krivchenia. “This band completely saved my life,” she shares. “They’re like my family. I was riddled with pain. I was in so much insecurity and internal self-abuse, and being with this group gave me unconditional love.”
Married to Meek for seven years, the two later divorced in 2018 as Lenker was coming to terms with being queer, all while the band moved through each transition together. “We loved this music together,” says Lenker. ‘They would give me the most honest reflections of myself with the cushion of ‘it’s okay. We’re not going anywhere,’ or ‘I love you, and we’re just gonna work through this.’ We all stuck together and worked through all of these things that came up.”
She adds, “This band that we’re cutting a new path, or trying to, that isn’t what the system has told us: the music has to be within an industry and a band has become about both communication and listening to each other and that has been the most important part of anything we’ve ever made.”
The past six years have been a chapter of healing for Lenker and the band. “When I think about the details of the sessions,” adds Lenker, “the different locations and the different engineers and the different songs, what was really happening was the four of us got together after another period of life and then spent that time sharing and healing together as we were making music.”
In the music, and their most recent journey through DNWMIBIY, Big Thief has mitigated more of their growing pains from the inside out.
“We’ve all been healing each other, and I think that’s a cool story,” says Lenker. “It’s not like we’re perfect by any stretch. We’ve touched low points together, but it’s almost like polishing stones. We’re tumbling around in that stone polishing thing and we continue to polish each other.”
Main photo by Alexa Viscius