Always Transforming: An Interview with Big Thief
It is often said that the damage is done, but it is rarely done. It continues, morphs into other things, seeps into other places; you sort of live with the damage, you learn to walk with a limp, to not put so much pressure on the wound, but you move, maybe not on, but through it. “You whispered to a restless ear, ‘can you get me out of here?’,” singer-songwriter Adrianne Lenker croons in the album’s title track, “Masterpiece.”
Big Thief‘s wonderful album Masterpiece encapsulates those moments of tumult; the characters are beaten but not broken, rooms of broken hopes, and continuations more than endings — a place that is not about solutions but rather survival: “I realized there was no one who could kiss away my shit.” Comprised of members Lenker, Buck Meek, Max Oleartchick and Jason Burger, the band has crafted an album of dynamic emotion and scope, a journey on a broken road with a beautiful guitar tone. But where does the road lead? Home is an idea, even as a physical space. There are notions of solace and peace, and in some ways that is either what we are running to or from, whatever might be home.
“I feel like I was traveling to the corners of my own mind, more than anything else,” Lenker comments via phone fresh from Portugal. “I mean, I was on the road a bit, but there definitely was this longing for home and this realization that it’s not something that is just this thing — home — it’s not just this fixture that’s just always there or will always be there, and I had this idea throughout college, that somehow I’d end back home in Minnesota, and I thought of that as home. It just dawned on me when I was 21 that I’m not really going back there ever, and there’s a comfort, or I suppose there’s a familiarity there of childhood, being nurtured by other people, but I’ve had the realization that I will be having to venture and care for myself now and throughout the transience of tour [“You said home becomes the highway” she sings in “Vegas“] I started figuring out how could feel a sense of home within myself, but I think that’s an ongoing journey, it’s a long journey, it’s almost your entire life, trying to get back home.”
A journey that is littered with ideas, loves lost and abandoned, friendships wrecked or nurtured; damage. But what are we all if not damaged, if not in some way scarred by our experiences; while the scabs heal, there is always the memory of the fall. “Paul, you said you’d take me any way I came or went,” Lenker sings in “Paul.” The characters in these songs have been damaged, but rather than avoid or run from each other, they in some ways run to each other, they exist within these tattered spaces of heart of mind. In the song “Masterpiece,” there’s the lyric, “there’s only so much letting go you can ask someone to do.”
“There’s not really a separation, I feel, between myself as the character I’m speaking to and other people,” Lencker says. “The acceptance or the embracing of the ‘damaged’ part, using that word, embracing those or rather accepting those things in others and in myself, an acceptance of all of the parts. If something’s been wounded, there’s nothing ugly in having been through pain. It’s beautiful.”
So the therapeutic practice of song and travel that correlates with the experience of being a touring artist eventually leads to the performance. The display of these ideas to a mass of people — maybe sympathetic, maybe just there — there as some of the wounds are displayed in a beautifully played package, there is going to that place, re-living the song, enlivening that emotion in the spirit of show or “singing the songs” as it is termed. But then, when the song ends and the applause has subsided, are you still present in that space? To become it and shake it, to put on the face, to experience it and then abandon it to discuss the town or the next town or the record or the model of the guitar is the move, but what if, in the performers mind, they are still “there?”
“I feel like the songs are always transforming and they’re always shifting meanings to me,” Lenker adds. “I think I’m working towards being able to put myself in that state more seamlessly or more effortlessly where I just jump into that space with complete openness where you can just feel no filters between us the band and the audience. Some nights it’s more difficult than others to get there, but speaking of Nina Simone [I prompted the question with a Nina Simone reference], she always has this great quote that I love, where she’s being interviewed and she’s being asked what freedom means to her and she says, ‘No fear.’ That she sometimes feels that way on stage, but that she can only have that half the time, that’s something I repeated to myself in a little mantra because I think as you’re going down the road and you’re playing like 30 shows in a row every night and you do that 8 months out of the year and you’re playing the same songs for a while, it’s easy to start building up layers and getting in your head a little bit more. Once you’re past that initial infatuation stage with the songs, once you’ve had more time with them, your mind can start kicking in more. I think the only thing that’s blocking me from getting into that inner space is my own inner chatter, which also stems from feeling fear or getting in my head. The moments when we’ve been the most free and not thinking about anything and just playing with no reservation, the times that we’ve felt the most magic that way have been so incredible and completely reinvigorate us and it doesn’t have much to do with the song, it could be Masterpiece and we’ve just played Masterpiece thirty times and the thirty first time we play it, it’s magic somehow.”
Big Thief will play Walter’s Downtown with Dollie Barnes and Alex Riddle on Thursday, September 29.