Thao and The Get Down Stay Down plays Wonder Ballroom on March 25. Read our interview with Thao Nguyen about her personal and daring new album.
Born into a cult, never attended high school and had recorded two instant classic albums before, really, even having a record deal. That is the “yada, yada, yada” version of Adrienne Lenker’s life. The main singer/songwriter for Big Thief, Lenker’s life story seems like it was both birthed of a parable and yet the antithesis of predictability.
The mythos of Big Thief is centered on the tale of the wandering troubadour. Trained as a musician from a young age, Lenker eventually bucked the well-crafted path set before her in favor of pursuing a less certain but more personal journey that would take her from the Berklee College of Music, to backyard gigs, to sleeping in the group’s van on the side of the road while on the never-ending tour.
Somehow, the creation of the band’s two albums feels simultaneously improbable and inevitable. After years on the road, in 2016, the group decided to pool its meager resources, borrow anything they could and create a studio in an acquaintance’s lake house. Twelve days later, Masterpiece emerged–an album that instantly put Big Thief not only on the map, but at the top of the list for one of the best new bands of the last five years. Capacity followed a similar karmic path: given the opportunity to tend to a friend’s land for a month in exchange for time in an actual studio, the group hunkered down for a month and created the monster sophomore effort in 2017.
It doesn’t take close examination to see the appeal of Big Thief. The sonic composition of the band balances Lenker’s whispery voice with occasionally jagged electric guitar riffs or punctuating bass lines. The melodies are inescapable, and the lyrics are visceral and personal. Aside from the hit single “Masterpiece,” which remains one of the best debut singles for a band in recent memory (especially considering the strength of the group’s two albums), the individual tracks seem to catch you when you least expect it. Perhaps it’s the deceptively steady percussion, or the subtle intricacy of the guitar lines winding around each other–there’s plenty to hear and just as much to miss.
In 2018, as Big Thief closes out its most recent international tour, Lenker has spent time recording her second solo album, abysskiss, due out in October. Produced by Luke Temple of Here We Go Magic, abysskiss finds Lenker accompanied mostly by an acoustic guitar–the instrument she’s played since age six.
We caught Lenker in between stops toward the top of the world, and she took a few minutes to chat with us about the wild creation of Big Thief’s two records, the different challenges of recording a solo album and her songwriting process.
ELEVEN: So, you’re in an airport in Norway–are you coming or going? Where are you headed?
Adrienne Lenker: Always coming and going… I’m leaving Norway and headed to Portugal.
11: How long have you been in Norway?
AL: Like two days…
11: What is it like playing shows in Norway? I’ve never really heard feedback about playing in those Nordic countries.
AL: It’s nice–It’s interesting to feel the different energies and different crowds. I definitely think that–without making too many generalizations because there are individuals that make up each crowd and each crowd is different–but you can feel different cultures and collective ways of expressing things like enthusiasm. I’ve found audiences in the Scandinavian to sometimes be more quiet and more attentive and… I don’t know, I kind of find that all over. There are a lot of Norwegian and Swedish and Scandinavian immigrants in Minnesota, where I grew up. My grandparents are Norwegian, and they’re pretty soft spoken. Their way of expressing is not super extroverted and outward. So I guess it makes sense to me when there’s a bit more of a reserved-ness, and I do feel that in some of the Scandinavian countries, as opposed to playing in a places like… anywhere else.
11: Interesting, because it seems to fit your style of music. You mentioned that some of the audiences are similar to your grandparents and how you grew up, more soft-spoken and introverted, and I see that reflected your music, and I’m wondering if that is just a natural facet of your music?
AL: I don’t really think about it, to be honest, when I’m actually making music. I won’t say there’s any intention behind how it comes out; it just kind of comes out the way that it does. I am more introverted naturally, but this sort of career path, or whatever–this life–that I’m currently on has sort of forced me to go against my own nature in that way. Being in front of people or being on stage is always like… I’ve probably played 900 shows in the last few years and it still feels crazy to be on stage. I get nervous… feel like I don’t know what to do with my body. I feel like it’s interesting though: the music can be, even though it’s soft and there’s tenderness, I don’t feel like it’s reserved. I feel like I talk about a lot of things that don’t feel soft. I feel like I expose quite a bit in my music–t’s really personal. So, in that way, it’s not really private.
11: It does seem like from a lyrical standpoint, especially, and then you add in the musical accompaniment, it sounds like there is a lot of emotional rawness. From a creative standpoint, how do you put songs together? Do you write lyrics and then set the music? Sometimes it feels a lot like poetry set to music, but what does that look like?
AL: Lyrics usually come last for me. Usually I write melodies–it always starts with guitar, or at least the most often. I would say the guitar is my first instrument. Even before singing, I loved the guitar. It always inspires me; I play it all the time. That’s still what I do with all my free time is play guitar. So, usually, something will pop out on the guitar and then I’ll start singing a melody that’s gibberish, and then words will form. So, the poetry part of it kind of comes later.
11: Between Capacity and Masterpiece, what would you say was the biggest difference in the creation between those two albums?
AL: Well, Masterpiece was done–I would say, sort of the space and the environments were pretty different, and the time of year. But with Masterpiece, we’d been touring for a year on our own, in our van that kept breaking down, and we gathered up all the money that we could and borrowed as much gear as we could and made a studio at a friend’s great aunt’s lake house in New York. We just turned it into a little studio and recorded for like 12 days. I think we spent like $3,000 on the whole thing between everyone’s food for 12 days, and transportation and everything. And we had that ready to go before we had a label or a booking agent or anything. And then we got offered a really cool opportunity to live on a friend’s land and help take care of it in exchange for actually using the studio, so we actually got to use a fully functioning studio for a whole month for Capacity. Masterpiece was recorded in the summer, and we were right on a lake, always sunny and always hot, and Capacity was recorded in the dead of winter, and not really on a body of water, in the woods. Days were shorter–it was a lot colder and gray, but we had a lot more time. We were truly isolated for a whole month with Capacity. We didn’t see other people or do anything.
11: You’re working on a solo album right now, right?
AL: I just finished recording it, actually–it’s coming out in October.
11: What’s the difference between working on the solo album–for you personally–and working with the band?
AL: The biggest difference is really just that solo is me–my body, my person, my spirit, my energy working with itself. Working with the band is the alchemy of working with four people and just meeting at this center point where we’re all finding flow together. It’s really a manifestation of our relationship and friendships over time all feeding into the music. So, like, living together for the past three years solid definitely goes into everything we make and everything we play. It’s constant compromise and just sacrificing things like having a home, having routine… there’s a lot that goes into deciding to live on the road with three people and having most of your time spent with them–even more than your loved ones. Those friendships are so deep, so making music together is kind of an indescribable thing. It comes out the way it does because it is the four of us. When I’m making something by myself it’s just… well, I suppose I did the solo record with Luke Temple, he produced it and played a couple things on there. But, mostly, it centered on me and the songs in the form they originally come out in. Like when I’m sitting in my room and writing a song on the guitar, it changes shape pretty intensely when I bring it to the band; it becomes the band’s song. But, I wanted to take a collection of some of the songs I didn’t really feel had a place with the band, and then a couple that may be reworked later with the band, and just document them in their original forms. Have some version of it just to archive that energy because I also think there’s something that feels good about that and honoring the acoustic guitar which is something I’ve played since I was six years old and I don’t really play much with Big Thief.
11: You talked about how influential being around the group is and how influential the entirety of the band is when you’re playing music together as Big Thief–was it easier or harder to dive in from a solo aspect, to open up knowing it’s just literally what you want it to be, and there’s no one else that’s going to have any extreme influence on it?
AL: Well, I wouldn’t say that I find either of those things to be difficult, so it’s not easier or harder, just maybe like it’s just different. I suppose it could be easier in the sense that there’s fewer steps… it depends–some solo artists are meticulous and perfectionists when they’re working on a solo album, and they’ll work on it for years because they don’t have anyone being like, “No, this is great, let’s just use this.” They get into their own heads and turn things over and over and over, but for me, it’s not really in my personality. I think the band is pretty harmonious in that we’re just playing the songs. We’re not editing and splicing together like, “This part’s from this vocal take, and this part’s from this vocal take, and fix that drum fill.” It’s not like that. They are what they are; we are where we are. If we give it our best and it doesn’t sound that great to us, that’s just where we are. We’re making a record of place and time; we’re not making a record of some perfect thing that we’re not already. We’re just making a record of what the music actually is, and I feel like I operate like that. So, when I’m making something solo, the easier thing is that there’s fewer steps. We’re not laying down drums and bass–there’s fewer ideas to address, so it’s a lot quicker because I’m just going in there and sitting down with my acoustic guitar and we’re pressing record and just deciding, “Oh, we got it, that one felt good.” It’s a smaller, more stripped-down process.
11: As you continue down this creative pathway that you’ve made for yourself, is there anything that you want to try, or that you’re looking down the road at–like, I’d really love to work with this person, or make this kind of record, or record in this place, or get the band doing something like this?
AL: I would love to meet Neil Young and pick his brain. You know, I want to explore, that’s all. I don’t really have a picture of, “Oh I want to go here and do this.” I definitely want to explore. In general, I don’t really operate from this place of wanting to do this, this and this. Even from when I was a teenager I remember getting asked this question: “Where do you see yourself in five years or ten years?” All the way down the line it’s like, “I don’t know.” It’s just such a mystery and that’s what’s so beautiful about it. I just know I want to stay in touch with the child part of myself, being curious and being in tune with my own well of creativity, be present and open to what things unfold that I can’t even imagine at this point in time.