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Big Thief and Squirrel Flower to come to Gardner

By Kelly Page

This Friday, April 26 at 8 p.m., the band Big Thief will play in Gardner Lounge.

Adrianne Lenker of Big Thief has been through a lot in her life, and her music reflects it so unflinchingly that it can be painful to listen to. She was born into a religious cult in Indiana, which her parents left when she was young. Her family lived a kind of nomadic lifestyle after that, driving around in a blue van, and her father taught her chords on the guitar. Lenker never went to high school but she did get a scholarship that allowed her to go to Berklee School of Music after she played guitar for the dean of admissions in his office. It was there that she met Buck Meek, who provides guitar and backup vocals for the band. His last semester at Berklee was her first, so she didn’t really connect with him until a chance encounter in a bodega in New York City. After that, they began making music together.

In an NPR interview, Meek described what drew him to Lenker’s music.

“I guess what struck me as a songwriter then was that her songs all seemed to be really human, and really emotional, and really honest — vulnerable — but at the same time they all somehow had this ineffable quality … like, all of that human content was serving as a medium for something beyond.”

Meek and Lenker played music as a duo everywhere they could, but eventually decided to create a full band. At that point Meek saw Max Oleartchik, with whom he had gone to camp at Berklee, in Brooklyn. Now he is the bassist of the band, and James Krivchenia, who had originally been their sound technician, became the drummer of the band.

Listening to Big Thief, it becomes immediately apparent that their music is very special. NPR wrote, “[Lenker] and her band mates have a sense of her songwriting and music as a living thing — as something that ‘happens’ more than it is crafted.” Their music is visceral and heart-wrenching. It deals with Lenker’s childhood, abuse, love, violence, gender and self-perception. “Mythological Beauty,” a song off of their most recent album “Capacity,” starts off simply enough with Lenker discussing someone’s “mythological beauty,” until the listener hears, “there is a child in you who’s trying to raise a child in me,” and it becomes clear that Lenker is talking about her relationship with her mother. It discusses how Lenker’s mother gave her first child up for adoption (“I have an older brother I don’t know, he could be anywhere”) and a near-death relationship Lenker had as a child which left her mother “praying ‘don’t let my baby die.’”

Similarly, the song “Real Love” off of their album “Masterpiece” seems like it will be a love song but it quickly becomes heart-wrenching, referring to an abusive relationship as the song crescendos over churning guitar into Lenker and Meek singing, “Cry like a bird, fly like a baby. Mama got drunk and daddy went crazy.” 

At the same time as Lenker’s songwriting is unflinchingly real, it can sometimes be difficult to know what she is talking about. In the song “Mary,” she uses lilting figurative language to talk about someone named Mary who she once loved. However, according to NPR, “Lenker often feels that she is singing it to herself.” It’s a simple song, mostly just Lenker’s voice and a piano playing chords, but she uses language as its own music, singing “monastery, monocrome, boom balloon machine and oh …” and asking Mary, “will you love me like you loved me in the January rain?” It’s sweet, extremely figurative and somehow also heartbreaking.

For many students, it is incredibly exciting to have Big Thief coming to Grinnell’s own Gardner Lounge. It is one of the most highly anticipated shows of the year, and one not to miss.

Big Thief will perform at Gardner from 9 p.m. this Friday, April 27. Artwork by Steven Duong.
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