Buck Meek is trying to tell the truth. There’s a pause, the line crackles, and then he tries again. “I’m trying to put this into the right words, because I’ve never really talked about this before,” he says, brightly. The guitarist for Brooklyn-based indie act Big Thief is trying to explain what makes his friend and writing partner Adrianne Lenker special, but it’s not easy: her talents, he says, are too ephemeral to easily disseminate into words.
“When she observes something, she has such a deep honesty that she sees it, she processes it, and then she writes about it – and all completely without ego. She doesn’t try to hold anything back, or veil it or decorate it. She almost doesn’t even interpret it beyond her honest first reaction. So because she’s so honest, and because emotions are abstract, she has this gift at interpreting things immediately, without filter, and that means sometimes they come out in this way that isn’t necessarily literal… It’s hard to explain sometimes.”
Maybe, but maybe not – at least not for anyone who has heard Big Thief’s exceptional new record Capacity. After all, abstract honesty is the point on which the album pivots: Lenker builds metaphors that go like Buicks, and never once seeks shelter from the sometimes ugly things one digs up when truth-telling. From the copper wire choruses of ‘Shark Smile’ to the heartrending, piano-led ‘Mary’, Lenker never says anything that she doesn’t mean; never buries herself in cliché, or seeks refuge in stereotype. They say a good poem lines you up with a feeling and then nails you to it. They might as well have been talking about Lenker’s lyrics.
But that rawness is what defines not just Lenker, but the band as a whole, from Meek’s weaving, warbling guitar work to the precision of the group’s rhythm section – Max Oleartchik’s bass work and James Krivchenia’s drumming. Big Thief are a unified front, and their cohesion is what makes a record like Capacity so sleek and accomplished.
“We’ve learned from experience that if you withhold anything – any kind of emotion – when you’re in such close quarters with someone, it will eventually rear its head – and most likely in an unhealthy way. So we try to express what we’re feeling to each other as soon as we can. Sometimes that can almost feel forced or overkill, but because we spend so much time with each other, that honesty has led to a really deep trust.”
There’s no veil of calculated performance tactics to cover our true feelings up.
Anyone who caught Big Thief’s debut Australian tour will know exactly what Meek means. Their concert at the sadly departed Newtown Social Club was an exhibition of old, raw wounds defined by brittle guitar solos and Lenker’s wide, flashing eyes. By the time it was done, people stumbled out as though struck.
But isn’t it difficult to keep up that level of emotional vulnerability? Doesn’t it start to drain? “I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily difficult, but it doesn’t lead to consistency,” Meek says. “If we’re feeling sick or we’re feeling introverted or upset or insecure or even really happy, because we’ve built our whole creative process around honesty, it really shows. There’s no veil of calculated performance tactics to cover our true feelings up. So that means when things are going well within, it shows, and whenever we’re in turmoil that shows as well. But it’s worth it.
“Over the course of an entire tour, or even over the course of a night given you’re having so many different emotions when you’re playing, being honest to what you’re feeling empowers a real relationship with whoever you’re in the room with. I feel like it opens the potential for a real communication. Over the course of a career, I feel like that becomes the more sustainable path.”
Having real interactions with people is just… It’s just so beautiful.
Happily for Big Thief fans, that honesty is extremely inclusionary, and Meek welcomes the two-way nature of his relationship with crowds. He is not one to disappear into the tour van at the end of a show, or to awkwardly deflect the open admissions of adoration from his fans. “Because we really work to maintain honesty and vulnerability in our music and in the band, I think that empowers our audiences to be open and vulnerable as well, in their own experiences and in their connection with us after the show – so even if it’s brief, it feels real.
“I mean, playing a show really opens everyone up, so at the end of the night you get to have real connections with people, even if it’s only for 30 seconds. I try to be as open as I can in those situations. After we’re done playing, I try to spend as much time as I can at the merch table talking to people.”
This, Meek explains, is how he fights off the slog of life on the road; how he makes sure that travelling the world and playing his music never becomes a chore. “On one hand you may only see one block of a city you’re playing in – you might spend a night in Paris and never see more than the venue – but at the same time you have really deep interactions with the people there, which in a way is even more of a direct connection than your general tourism and just checking out the architecture.” There is a warm pause, while Meek once again searches for the words. “Having real interactions with people is just… It’s just so beautiful.”
Big Thief’s second album Capacity is out now on Spunk! Records.