It’s a bold statement to call your debut album Masterpiece, but Big Thief aren’t the type to shy away from anything.
“It was making light of the fact that it’s our first record,” frontwoman Adrianne Lenker says. “It can never be any more perfect than it is, and there’s nothing less perfect. I’m not saying everything from this point is downhill, but it’s kind of making that joke in a way, too.”
Speaking from a cozy cafe in the band’s home base of Brooklyn, she continues, “It’s just exactly what it’s meant to be, as our first record.”
Just a couple of years ago, Lenker was playing solo with just an acoustic guitar. “The material kind of feels like it’s all building on itself in a way, too, it’s always kind of traveling,” she describes. “It’s never really starting from scratch. This record probably wouldn’t have happened if not for those.”
After working with guitarist Buck Meek in her singer-songwriter days, Big Thief swelled into a four-piece group also including bassist Max Oleartchik and drummer James Krivchenia for a bolder, heavier sound. “I wanted to be a part of something, rather than sort of the face of something,” she says. “I always wanted to be in a band. I was doing the solo work, which I’ve done since I was a kid, just playing guitar and singing, and it’s just so exciting to be hearing the songs you’re playing while you’re playing them through other people as well.”
Lenker’s voice has its own natural gravitas that makes every experience she describes seem shared, whether she’s balanced by a monstrous, jagged riff on “Humans” or returning to her minimalist roots on “Velvet Ring” and “Randy.” Somewhere in between, Big Thief made their proper introduction to the world with Masterpiece’s eponymous song, a sweeping, mid-tempo track that reveals the beguiling intimacy that’s found across the album.
“It was just sort of a song of comfort that I felt like I needed to hear at the time and about injecting a warmth into the idea of losing yourself or losing someone that you love, as if you could physically interlock arms with that person or with yourself and walk them through that point, into the next thing,” she says, noting a knack for finding perfection in all things that soothe.
Even outside of her rapidly filling notebook, Lenker speaks with remarkable wisdom and emotional intelligence. Describing album highlight “Paul,” she says, “This is like the experience of being at a drive-in theater or at a bowling alley at midnight, or in a parking lot when the snow is falling with the street lamps on and your breathing’s heavier and things are slower. Right at that moment, you see yourself come to you, from the future, and say, ‘Don’t lock up, this is something that you could blossom into, that you could open up to and allow to be inside of you.’ So it’s a future self talking to the present self in this really beautiful, crystallized, tender moment and saying it’s okay to be vulnerable and tender and alive right now, whereas you could shut it off.”
This pursuit of openness is a driving force behind the Minnesota-bred artist’s work, perhaps best epitomized by the recording of a child’s first sentence that follows “Interstate.”
“It’s such a remarkable documentation of this pure enjoyment or jubilation,” Lenker says. “It’s just so pure, and it reminded me of what we’re trying to do with our music, which is to cut away all the fat and the filters and find fulfillment in just doing the thing itself, which for us is playing music, letting it resonate through your body, and that being the fulfillment in itself. So I guess that’s a teacher, that’s a little bit of something I want the record to be like, that feeling.”
Though Big Thief’s songs depict much more complex themes, they’re still delivered with the raw force of an initial outburst. With their viscerally arresting style, it’s no wonder the band found a home at Saddle Creek Records.
“I want to be able to translate the things that are floating around and to take them and be able to say, ‘This is what that sounds like,’ to bring that invisible idea into something you can touch or hear or experience,” Lenker says.
To get those translations on record, the quartet decamped upstate in Essex, New York, where they turned a friend’s house into a studio with producer Andrew Sarlo. That combination of spaciousness and seclusion makes its way into the record, album opener “Little Arrow” ushering listeners into Big Thief’s world with a wave of tape hiss. For 11 more tracks, that space becomes home for anyone who sticks around.
“Making that record has been really healing for me,” Lenker says. “I just felt this release of energy, and I feel like I want the songs to be theirs. Whoever has the record, I want the songs to become their own songs, with whatever interpretations or meanings that they coin. I’m excited to hear what the songs mean to people.”