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Big Thief

Unflinching Vulnerability

Jun 02, 2016 Photography by Sasha Arutyunova Issue # 57 - M83
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It should have been a joyous occasion, but Big Thief‘s SXSW debut was instead fraught with difficulty for frontwoman Adrianne Lenker. Not long before the Brooklyn-bred indie rock quartet’s first shows at that massive Austin festival this year, Lenker all but lost a crucial component of being a musician: her ability to hear.

The threat of deafness occurred during an intimate set at a small club shortly before SXSW. In fact, the quarters were so tight in the venue that Lenker was forced to spend much of the gig next to the house speaker, feeling the full force of guitarist Buck Meek’s revving riffs and James Krivchenia’s combustive drumming, both of which turned out to be earsplitting in every sense of the word.

“The sound had nowhere to go in this little bar, and it built pressure in my ear,” Lenker says, adding that after wrapping the gig and heading to bed she “woke up in excruciating pain, some of the worst pain I’ve experienced, in my left ear.”

At the emergency room, the doctor quickly informed Lenker that her eardrum was ruptured. “We had a bunch of shows, and I thought I’d have to cancel. But we pressed through,” she says, recalling how she donned a wool cap and a pair of earphones for protection, because the ruptured eardrum prevented her from using earplugs. She drank plenty of tea and took herbal remedies, visited doctors between gigs to help drain the fluid, and when Big Thief arrived at SXSW, Lenker knew she was ready for that make-or-break engagement.

Such resiliency may seem astounding, but the young band’s budding fanbase is all too familiar with Lenker’s lyrics about facing formidable odds. Big Thief’s debut album, Masterpiece, features songs like “Humans,” on which Lenker sings that love is a “cold infection” as Krivchenia lays down feverish percussion. “Vegas” finds Lenker, and bassist Max Oleartchik’s soothing groove, empathizing with a gutted lover, as she sings: “You knew your daddy until you were 13/And then he took his leave for the likes of the land.” Most wrenching of all are her lyrics for the album’s title track, where Lenker sings about watching a loved one “laying there on the hospital bed, your eyes were narrow, blue and red,” before she declares with melodic melancholy: “There’s only so much letting go you can ask someone to do.”

The frontwoman hopes that the unflinching vulnerability in her lyrics provides solace for heartsick listeners. “If people find comfort in the songs, in any way, that’s definitely gratifying,” she says. “And it gives a lot back. If we’re playing and people feel moved, or even just open to what we’re doing, then it’s really fulfilling and definitely replenishes us.”

That uplift from attendees is especially helpful as she continues to endure concerts while her ear heals. But Lenker is quick to point out that writing and performing have always been her greatest remedy, regardless of whether or not anyone was there to listen. “I’d be writing the songs either way, even if I didn’t have an audience. You could say it’s therapeutic, but that’s a mellow way to say it. Every song on this album is one I needed to write.”

[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar’s May/June 2016 Issue, which is out now. This is its debut online.]


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Dennis Drains
November 13th 2018

Big Thief is an American indie rock band with folk roots based in Brooklyn, New York, United States. Its members are Adrianne Lenker (guitar, vocals), Buck Meek (guitar, backup vocals), Max Oleartchik (bass), and James Krivchenia (drums).

The band’s first album, Masterpiece, was released on Saddle Creek Records on May 27, 2016.

On April 4, 2017, Big Thief premiered a new single, “Mythological Beauty,” on NPR. The following day, the band released the single’s official video and confirmed that the song would appear on their next LP, Capacity. The full album was released on June 9 via Saddle Creek.