Masterpiece, Big Thief’s Debut, Will Steal Your Heart

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Every Saturday at midnight in Minneapolis, the longest running cabaret on the planet is held: Balls Cabaret is hosted by Leslie Ball herself, and she begins each show with some history. No other cabaret has run consecutively longer, she tells the audience. Not a single Saturday has been missed. Then she invites anyone to come up and perform anything they want for seven minutes. It could be song, poetry, just talking, dance, comedy. After each performance, a man named Ocean plays a song that reminds him of what has just been performed on stage. Throughout the night, no alcohol is served and, afterward, everyone gathers in the lobby to hang out, talk, and eat chocolate.

Adrianne Lenker—lead singer and songwriter behind Big Thief, whose debut album, Masterpiece, is, aptly, masterful (if that means nothing to you, Sharon Van Etten thinks so, too)—started performing at Balls Cabaret when she was 12.

“And so it would bring the most eclectic, fascinating, strange, eccentric group of people together,” Lenker told me. We sat in the back porch at The Daily Press in Clinton Hill as a steady rain hit a tarp above us. “It was so cool to be there, as a child, and to just see all of these different forms of expression—and more than the expressions themselves, seeing the audience accepting these expressions as art, and not judging them.”

Tomorrow, Big Thief, composed of Lenker, guitarist and long-time musical companion Buck Meek, bassist Max Oleartchik, and drummer James Krivchenia begin a two month tour for Masterpiece. So yesterday, I squeezed in an hour with Lenker before they all scooted out of town.

I first heard Big Thief by chance last weekend, sitting in a coffee shop in Fort Greene. The title song from Masterpiece came on; to me it sounded a little like Land of Talk, but also a little edgier, its energy a little darker. I asked the barista what it was and for the next five days I could not turn Masterpiece off.

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Lenker grew up in several towns in Minnesota. Sitting across from me, just showered and clutching a mug of hot coffee she’d added some cinnamon to, Lenker started naming them: Brainerd, Andover, Coon Rapids, Maple Grove, Plymouth, South Minneapolis, Downtown Minneapolis. I also grew up in Minnesota, so these names were familiar. Enough so that I knew her description of Balls Cabaret—to the extent that it sounded like a creative paradise—was not necessarily a par for the course experience there. Lenker was so traumatized by her suburban Minneapolis public school that she refused to attend high school.

“It was the thing where there was no cultural or ethnic diversity at all, and then a bunch of, you know, rich kids and a small percentage of”—she uses air quote—“’troubled kids,’ and a few black kids and anyone who doesn’t fit in with the system is failing it,” she summarized. “I don’t know, I felt alienated a lot.”

But her dad, who worked in web design and had his own companies, was also a musician. He taught her guitar, took her to Balls Cabaret, and convinced bouncers to let his daughter perform open mics at bars. “He would be up late hours, making songs,” Lenker recalled about her dad’s music making. “And he had this relationship with what he called the muse, this thing that sweeps in and takes you over—and you’re in this state, and it just energizes you. I would hear him doing that, and I think I just absorbed that.”

Instead of going to high school, Lenker got tutors and focused on writing songs, performing, and, at 16, got her GED. But when she was accepted to Berklee College of Music in Boston, she had hit a wall.

“I wanted to go and be in an environment where my main job was to learn without pressure, without producing something, or gaining any kind of recognition. I just wanted to go and sink in and and learn stuff and be around peers,” Lenker explained, especially because she had spent most of her childhood with adults. When Lenker speaks, she is so articulate that the lines that leave her mouth sound like verse—but they’re also spoken with unmistakable authenticity and a soft rawness. To listen to her is to hear someone who absorbed the world through people older than herself; and to be excited to hear the distinct words she chooses.

At Berklee, Lenker got what she wanted. She played with peers and friends, found her voice, made music just because, in itself, it was fulfilling. Then, immediately after school, she moved to New York.

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In 2012, and just turned 21, Lenker’s landing pad was Bushwick—a large warehouse with about 12 other artists. The rent was $400 per month. She slept on the floor and the shower was a large sink. Through a connection from her dad, she worked at one of the fanciest restaurants on the Upper West Side where she would show up wearing a wrinkled suit, get reprimanded for it, and serve sparkling wine to the second richest man in Singapore.

“It was just crazy—the juxtaposition,” said Lenker—from sink-shower to serving meals that cost more than her rent. “I would get out and feel so high from being done with work; it was the catalyst for a lot of songs on Hours Were the Birds,” which is Lenker’s first solo album, self-released on band camp in 2014. “Those songs have become special to some people, and I feel like that’s all I really wanted.”

Lenker met her musical partner Buck Meek the day she moved to New York City. She was at a market, and—because they had met briefly years before at Berklee (he graduated when she was beginning)—they recognized each other. They formed a rapid intense musical friendship, and decided to go on some long tours with their songs.

“We made up our mind we would do it with or without representation, with or without help, with or without money.” They made several meticulously planned three-month tours, driving around in “Bonnie,” a 1997 Chevy conversation RV with a sink and stove and fridge, “a big marshmallow of a van,” Lenker described it. At shows, as Buck and Anne, they’d make enough money for the next day’s gas, and they’d often be put up and fed for no money. Along the way they wrote songs and two albums resulted, A-Sides and B-Sides.

I marveled at all the time she and Buck had spent together: did they get along so well that they could still be making music together happily, in the same bands? “He’s July 10 and I’m July 9,” Lenker said of their birthdays. “We just kind of run on the same pace—and we’re different enough where he does things I’m not so good at, and I do things that he doesn’t.” Namely, he’s the planner, handles all the spread sheets and numbers, and she does a lot of in-person meetings and social interactions—though, she adds, “he picks up when I feel like I need to be a hermit. It’s really nice.” When we were arranging to meet, Buck was the one I texted with, though he did not show up to talk. He wrote, “I’ll be there in 5 or 10, sorry,” and by that he meant Adrianne.

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After A-Sides and B-Sides, Lenker bought an electric guitar and wrote songs that she felt called for a band—plus she’d always wanted to be part of something, not the entire thing, out on her own. It was likely a holdover from the pressure she felt making music as a kid, she said. One day, she was walking down the street with Buck and they ran into Max Oleartchik. He and Buck had attended music camp at Berklee a decade earlier, became close in that time, then never spoke again. The encounter was kismet. Max became their bassist; they found a drummer—different than their current drummer James Krivchenia—and booked a tour. It was the first time they began playing songs that now appear on Masterpiece, said Lenker.

They recorded the album in 12 fluid days in a home near Lake Champlain. In the morning they would jump in the lake, make elaborate breakfasts and dinners and work straight through the day. “Most of it is just live,” says Lenker; there was some overdubbing, but not much. “So that was that.”

I knew it was a hard question to answer but I wondered, could she tell me anything about her writing process? I was not ready for her answer, which was beautiful and outlined the essential struggle of the artist, of yearning to commune with something higher, the struggle to get there, and the too infrequent moments of connection and pure output.

“You have to really ask for it and want it—or I do—but even then it doesn’t always come, and it can be so sad or disheartening to not be able to get there,” she says of falling short. “But when it does, it’s like being pulled out from under the water for a second, where you can breathe, and you see for a second with clarity something that is beyond you, that you could not have imagined, or constructed with just your thoughts, or just your desire to write something.” My eyes are wide as I am brought to this zone with her that I can only imagine. “It is the closest I’ve ever been to myself, or to what I feel it all is,” she says. It sounded like what her dad used to do, or like doing a drug, but of course she is not doing one. “Exactly! That’s exactly it. I’m kind of ruined for any other state. I’m always looking to get back there.”

We’d been talking for a while, and I was sure she had plenty of other things to do. She had a call, she said—but I remembered I couldn’t let her go before I asked about Sharon Van Etten. It’s so cool that she is a fan! I said.

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“Oh, Sharon? Yeah, she’s really, really special,” says Lenker. Lenker was given her email by a potential record label as a reference. Instead of not replying like a jerk, or being unhelpful, Van Etten invited her to her home to talk. “I was nervous but she’s so cool and so down to earth and so warm and sweet and made us coffee,” said Lenker. Van Etten told her she understood she was chewing on a lot. She saw that she needed help, making a decision about bringing something that came from her heart out into the world, and in the hands of business.

“She could see that I had a lot of decisions to make, and offered an open door, and she invited me again for like this ladies’ night,” said Lenker. “I left her house the first time we met up and I just started crying. I was so moved because I realized I hadn’t once talked to someone in my shoes, who could really understand my perspective as a woman, and as a guitar player, and as a songwriter—and I realized how much I needed that.”

I was pretty moved at this point, too, but I knew she really needed to go because our time was up before we started talking about Van Etten. Lenker’s eyes grew big—she had missed her call. “It was for Rolling Stone, too!” she said softy. But, in her voice, there was also some amusement.

When we walked outside, I wished her good luck on their tour, and as she took a few paces away, I said I hoped to see them play soon. “We play celebrate Brooklyn on the 23rd!” she yelled back to me with energy. I watched her walk a few steps as she opened her umbrella and headed home to talk to Rolling Stone, who Buck—stalwart planner and friend—had already been in touch with to reschedule: Lenker would be there, she just needed a few minutes.

Lead image by Michael Buishas
Subsequent band images by Sasha Arutyunova

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