Eliciting adjectives like raw, volatile, vulnerable, and intimate, the folk-tinged indie rock of Brooklyn’s Big Thief is shaped by the very personal songwriting of singer/guitarist Adrianne Lenker. She began releasing solo material as a teen in the mid-2000s before partnering with eventual bandmate Buck Meek on a pair of duo EPs in 2014. After forming the four-piece Big Thief, they released their first album, Masterpiece, in 2016. The following year’s Capacity marked their debut on several charts, including the Independent Albums and Americana/Folk charts. In between Lenker solo albums, 2019 brought two Billboard 200-charting Big Thief LPs; U.F.O.F. and Two Hands earned considerable praise in year-end polls, plus a Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Album (for U.F.O.F.). An ambitious double LP, Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You, followed in 2022.
A Minneapolis native, Lenker learned her first few guitar chords from her father at a young age and began writing songs at ten. After her parents divorced when she was 12, she dedicated herself to music, an endeavor encouraged by her father throughout her teens. She released her first solo material as a teen in 2006. Frustrated by subsequent recording sessions in Nashville, cash-strapped, and with no high school diploma, she applied for a summer program at the Berklee College of Music in Boston with help from her dad. That led to a scholarship to attend full-time. Lenker graduated in 2012 and relocated to Brooklyn.
Soon after arriving in New York, Lenker ran into fellow Berklee alum Meek, whom she remembered from a brief interaction in Boston, where they had shared the same bill at a show. Fast friends and kindred musical spirits, they released two EPs as a duo — A-Sides and B-Sides — in 2014 before forming Big Thief with bass player Max Oleartchik and drummer James Krivchenia. In the meantime, Lenker signed with Saddle Creek, which released her solo album Hours Were the Birds that same year.
The quartet’s first album, Masterpiece, followed on Saddle Creek in 2016, a year that also saw them make appearances at South by Southwest Festival and in support slots on tours with Eleanor Friedberger, Yuck, Frankie Cosmos, and M. Ward. They made their national TV debut with a performance on Late Night with Seth Meyers in March 2017. Big Thief’s second album, Capacity, arrived that June and reached the Top 20 of the Billboard Heatseekers, independent, Americana/folk, and vinyl charts.
After touring in support of Capacity, including a headlining run and dates with Conor Oberst, Meek released a self-titled solo album on Keeled Scales. A solo Lenker followed up with the spare Abysskiss via Saddle Creek later in 2018. In early 2019, Lenker toured with Abysskiss producer Luke Temple, and Meek opened a dozen North American dates on a solo acoustic tour by Jeff Tweedy.
Back with Big Thief, their third straight album with producer Andrew Sarlo (Nick Hakim, Hand Habits), the more exploratory U.F.O.F., marked the band’s debut for 4AD in May 2019. They spent much of the rest of the year touring North America and Europe, including stops at Norway’s Oya Festival and the U.K.’s Green Man Festival before issuing their fourth album, Two Hands. Recorded just days after their sessions for U.F.O.F., the group headed to the remote Sonic Ranch Studios in Texas with Sarlo to lay down the tracks. The sparsely populated area filtered into their sound — they recorded the entire album live with few overdubs, giving it a rawer, sparser sound than U.F.O.F. Both records entered the Top Ten of the Independent Albums chart as well as the lower half of the Billboard 200. As the year came to a close, Big Thief received a Grammy nomination for Best Alternative Music Album for U.F.O.F.
With production by Krivchenia, who had contributed additional production to their debut, the sprawling double album Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You was recorded in four different locations: California’s Topanga Canyon, Tuscan, the Colorado Rockies, and the Catskills. After being whittled down from 45 to 20 songs, it arrived on 4AD in February 2022. ~ Marcy Donelson