“The show is over so everything is over, it’s crashing down,” says Big Thief’s vocalist and guitarist Adrianne Lenker, lifting her arms up over her head and propelling them down while having dinner at Oxford Street’s Don Don restaurant. “There’s no more music career, there’s no more fans,” she runs us through her head after an overwhelming show. “Sometimes it all feels so huge in my mind. And [my bandmates] are really good at making it lighter.”
The Brooklyn-based folk-rock act are in Australia to tour Capacity, their second album, which, like its predecessor Masterpiece, was recorded in upstate New York with the help of a dear friend. Bowls of Japanese dishes swirl around our table while they talk band dynamics and notions of gender and human capacity, amid the occasional clumsy drop of food: “Oop, there goes a bean,” says Lenker, watching an Edamame bean roll across the floor.
Lenker was born into a cult that her family fled a couple of years after her birth – her father raised her to be a musician. Texan guitarist Buck Meek met Lenker at a show in which they shared a bill; he was dressed in a tuxedo (shirtless) while donning a Mohawk. Israeli-born bassist Max Oleartchik grew up by the Mediterranean Sea, moving to frequent jazz trios in New York City, while drummer James Krivchenia is an engineer based out of New York who also plays with the jazzy and dreamy Mega Bog.
The bandmembers have a warmth between them that on a first glace appears effortless – but when this is pointed out, they laugh. “We’ve learned what each others’ moods are and like, also what hurts each others feelings,” explains Lenker.
They’re currently in sync after a two-year slog of touring, and when it comes to pushing conflict under the rug. it’s Krivchenia who says, “The goal is to not have things fester.”
Oleartchik agrees. “Holding it inside… It hurts because you’re one organism, you know?”
That unity is clear across all of Capacity, but particularly its bold title track, “I like that it’s a question, rather than an answer,” Lenker says of the song. It came to her in a dream – on it, she spurts, “We’re make believing everything”.
“To me it’s like, what does that mean: capacity? Do we have a limited or unlimited capacity? Is there any such thing, or is it an illusion? What’s this idea of containment anyway? Like, a container? Do we live in like a vessel of the earth? Is everything infinitely bigger outwards than inwards? Or is it like, do we only have the capacity of what we can do, what’s in our beings?” Lenker points at her body. “Like, is Adrienne contained here? It’s a question that just brings up a lot of questions.”
Elsewhere, on ‘Black Diamonds’, Lenker sings: “Come and let me make a man out of you / You could cry inside my arms like a child.” The band openly challenge the confinement of the gender binary, wherein masculinity is seen as strong and without sadness, and femininity is soft and delicate.
The goal is to not have things fester.
“I remember growing up and feeling my strength and my muscles and like, my passion and my intensity, where all those were [considered] masculine things,” Lenker explains, “It’s twisted how genders have been compartmentalised… We’re so much of everything… I think there’s a dysfunction in both sides.”
‘Pretty Things’ contains the lyrics: “Men are baptised in their anger and fighting / There’s a woman inside of me, there’s one inside of you too / and she don’t always do pretty things”. When pressed on the lyric, Lenker takes a moment. “I feel within myself a constant dialogue between my masculinity, my femininity and the part of me that is neither of those things.
“I’m just trying to talk about it because I feel like I’m something that is very ambiguous, and I’ve never felt like I wanted to like call myself anything – I feel it’s strange to have call yourself something. What if I’m just simply a pulsating, glowing, amorphic organism that is just like, existing and fluttering through a moment of eternity?”
In ‘Coma’ she sings, “he kissed her skin to get off”, an act of self-service disguised as affection. The narrator’s “mama” retreats into her mind – “you can wake up now Mama, from your protective coma”, with Lenker’s lyrics poetically capturing dissociation and the freeze response (similar to the well known fight-or-flight behavioural response) that often affects survivors of sexual abuse.
“‘Coma’ and ‘Watering’ and another song, ‘Black Diamonds’, are songs that go together. They’re speaking to rape, sexual assault and like, um…”
Oleartchik interrupts to dive in for a spoonful of Lenker’s soup and they all giggle a little. “Sorry, right in the middle of that,” Lenker smiles. “It’s pretty dark stuff to be singing about – but I felt a desperation to actually sing about them.”
“I definitely believe in the power of like, vocalising to make change… it’s really imperfect, but it’s the best thing we have,” Krivchenia says. “It’s a blessing to somehow convey understanding of what you’re going through. That has a precision to it, but also, you know, it’s limited.” Oleartchik, listening intently, nods.
When asked how she knows when she’s ready to write out and perform a painful memory, Lenker thinks for a moment. “It’s just like, an inner personal kind of knowing. If something feels too intense to share or if it’s not the right environment or the right time, it can feel really harsh to not have it be received. [In Masterpiece] I hadn’t even peeled back the layers to the most tender stuff. By the time that those layers were peeled back, we had already developed an audience that was dedicated and attentive.”
Playing to a respectful audience “can actually be like, a healing thing,” Lenker says. During their show at Oxford Art Factory, this is felt. The crowd is dead silent while the band checks their tuning. A whisper is deafening. Having opened shows to empty rooms and large open spaces before, she says now, “I would just chose not to play them because [the songs are] too vulnerable.”
Sharp experimental rock hooks and soft acoustic arpeggios caress Lenker’s fleeting experiences. She creates characters (Mary, Hayley, Paul, Lorraine, Randy) to sing her stories back into herself; a way of processing experiences that is light and gentle, at times moving to outraged instrumentals, always coming back into soft lulls.
“They’re definitely sung with love,” says Lenker. “The songs are about how I want to cradle myself and talk about things with myself and be like, ‘Let’s bring these things out now.’ It’s about being like, ‘I love you and I’m here for you’. I’m holding myself through that space. And I also want to make sure to leave room for my story, not to just take up the entire space of the songs.
“I’m still learning about how I want to deal with those more intense issues, of gender and of … yeah, all of it. I’m still just sorting out my thoughts about how I actually want to address certain things to our audience and really to the public, and it’s because I’m still learning about that. I’m still untangling my own inner world that’s been affected by all these things, you know.”
Capacity is an imperfect sonic and poetic analysis of the things human beings are capable of handling with empathy, mess and grace, all at once.
Capacity is out now through Saddle Creek and Spunk.