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You Should Know Big Thief


Big Thief are the songs of Minnesota ex-pat Adrianne Lenker. Radio Milwaukee recently spoke with Lenker from the road in advance of their performance on the Summerfest grounds this Thursday. She chats songwriting, Milwaukee, touring and more.

The basics

Where they’re from: Brooklyn, NY (by way of Minnesota)
Their song 88Nine is playing: “Masterpiece"
RIYL: Leonard Cohen, Saddle Creek, the Midwest

5 questions with Big Thief

1. How did you transition from a solo artist to Big Thief the band?

I had been piling up songs from the end of college that I wanted to record. Making a solo record was out of necessity because I didn’t have money to make one with a full band at the time and I didn’t really have the right people to play with, but I just wanted to document those songs. I knew that if too much time passed, I wouldn’t want to play them anymore.

I recorded those solo and actually went back to Minnesota. Shortly after that, I met Buck . We started playing and touring as a duo. Naturally, we recorded as a duo and recorded “A Sides and B Sides.” Then we met Max and James . It just turned into a band. It took a little longer to find the full band, but it was what I’ve always wanted.

There’s something about going around the edges of things... describe the air around it and you’ll understand that thing better.

2. Your music feels so personal and powerful; it’s very affecting. Are they a really honest, journalistic reality or more like experiences you’ve had filtered through characters in fictional scenarios?

They all go through different filters. They’re all coming from a real place, but I think I have filters that even I don’t know about. All these different layers form and it’s hard to grab an idea right at the source without tainting it with your own thoughts.

It’s kind of a challenge for me to talk about my writing process because I still don’t understand a good part of it. It’s less about deciding I’m going to write a song and putting pieces together logically, than it is about getting myself in the right heart space. If I feel numb or disconnected from myself, I don’t usually find any luck in channeling anything. Sometimes it happens and it feels amazing. It’s incredible, I never feel closer to the core of who I am as a person then when it happens. But I don’t think there is one pathway to get to that space. If there was, then I would just do it whenever.

 There’s something about going around the edges of things, which make the thing itself feel more tangible to me. Rather than just saying “the this felt like this,” describe the air around it and you’ll understand that thing better.

You could almost better describe what that feeling was like by describing one tiny moment in detail. Like zooming in on one thing that you would never mention in a breakup but it’s like a moment where you notice something while doing something.

3. Do you ever hear from listeners about how your music has affected them?

 Yeah, people tell me at shows and people write sometimes. It’s always really, really heartwarming and really encouraging and affirming. It’s so great to hear that people are moved enough to write. And that people are receiving the songs and they are affecting their lives for the better. That’s the main reason I’m doing this.

I really want to form relationships and communities, a relationship with the audience that feels strong and organic. We don’t have anything to hype. There’s no video going viral or anything, we just have the songs so the touring part is very important.

4. If you could collaborate with anyone dead or alive who would you pick?

Leonard Cohen. To me he’s a teacher, a muse. Not necessarily because I think we would write the best song in the world or anything, but just to absorb whatever possible about his being. He’s incredible. He’s so full of grace and humility. He’s made his work for such a long time and been true to it and is still doing it. When I saw him live it was so special, I feel like his poetry and his thinking and ideas go beyond just being a songwriter.

The other person I would want to collaborate with is Stevie Nicks. Her voice…I think she’s my favorite singer.

5. What do you think of Milwaukee? 

I like it. I actually went to Milwaukee once before we played the Pabst, just once. I was 15 or so and I played Summerfest. There was a period of time when I was a young teenager when I did some shows and that was one of them.

The Pabst Theater was the second time and I have to say, the Pabst is a really great venue, it’s one of my favorites that we played. I got to meet the owner and he was telling me how important the theaters are to Milwaukee and maintaining them. It’s nice because it is an old theater but it doesn’t feel neglected, it feels very alive and maintained. The hospitality is superior to any place I’ve ever played.

I don’t know much about the city, I haven’t explored much at all because we were only there for a day when we played, but it feels somewhat familiar because I’m from Minnesota. It’s got that Midwest feeling.

You can see Big Thief for free this Thursday, Sept. 22 on the Summerfest grounds! One free beer for 21+ attendees. More info HERE.

Listen to "Masterpiece" by Big Thief: