After a few solo outings, singer-songwriter Adrianne Lenker moved to Brooklyn and formed a band. The result of this can be heard on Big Thief’s debut Masterpiece. CHRIS HAVERCROFT spoke Lenker before Big Thief’s first Australian tour, hitting the Chevron Festival Gardens on Wednesday February 22.
The release of Masterpiece has put Big Thief in high demand. The vulnerability of songs that look into the process of harnessing pain, loss, and love, while simultaneously letting go, and being okay with the inevitability of death, have struck a chord with audiences worldwide. This has led to a life on the road as they cram in as many shows as possible. To try and remain grounded, the four piece try to find time to swim whenever they can and to cook meals together. It is one of the activities that they find grounding and therapeutic when they are constantly moving around and living out of a van.
“For a while after Masterpiece we were touring around in this 1987 Chevy conversion van,” says Lenker. “It had the driver’s seat and passenger seat which were extremely comfortable bucket seats, but the back had this bench that was turned sideways. Whoever was sitting in the back was sitting sideways and the bench was narrow, so it wasn’t the best for long drives. The good part was that we could cook in it, because it had a stove and we could sleep in it.
“Now our van is the same size, but it is not a conversion so there is no stove and no bed. We lucked out as we found a limousine company that was getting rid of all of their old vans which were very well maintained. So our van now is a retired limousine.”
Lenker is a particularly prolific songwriter with the next Big Thief album already said to have been recorded, and new songs are constantly being written on the road. As the band is always working on material, the live show may include songs that have just been birthed. As each show is different, the band will write a setlist just before they go out to play, drawing on the energy that they can feel from the people attending. Lenker suggests the crowd can expect some surprises, and most often the band are thought to even surprise themselves.
This urge to constantly write and create is something that is at odds with the way that record labels operate. Lenker has learned to live with this tension and the challenging of her patience.
“What I am finding is that there is always deeper layers to dive into with any song,” she says. “Now I have a reason to play songs for longer than I normally would have, because it takes longer to get around to the people that want to hear it. I am taking more time to sit with the songs. It deepens my relationship with the music, which I didn’t do in the past. It is like choosing a partner and deciding to just commit to that partner and in doing that the relationship has the opportunity to deepen further than you ever imagined, and that is how i feel with Masterpiece.”
Lenker is fiercely protective of the songs and the responsibility of getting them out to the world for people to hear. Where other artists may have decided to take a break, Lenker endured adversity with a “the show must go on” attitude. The touring schedule has seen Lenker perform with a perforated eardrum as well as with her hand in a cast.
“We call that the tour of pain,” the 25-year old says. “We also got food poisoning on that tour as well. You just try to take that stuff in your stride. When I had the cast I had to just sing and not play guitar. I had never done that before, and could never imagine doing that. When I couldn’t hear out of one ear because of the eardrum, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to hear myself but at the end of the day, pushing through those things just made us stronger as a band and made me more aware as a performer. It also freed me up a little bit to move in a way that I don’t normally get too.
“I wore giant headphones to protect my ear, and it healed up pretty fast. I wasn’t in pain. It was just uncomfortable. I knew if I set my mind to it, then I could do it. It meant a lot to me to be able to turn up to the shows after I had spent so many months working up to be able to do these tours. To let all of those people down was a huge deal for me. It would take us physically being unable to do the shows to stop us performing. I felt like I could do the shows, they would just be in a different form.”