Inside Big Thief's big year
In February, Big Thief dropped their third studio album, U.F.O.F. The record was soon deemed a “masterpiece of folk,” “impressionistic,” and “spellbinding” — praise that would have been enough for any band to call it a year. But not the indie-folk quartet. While the group was first demo-ing songs for the project in a little cabin in Topanga Canyon, two unique feelings emerged organically. So they decided to give each their own world with separate records: first U.F.O.F., and now this month’s Two Hands.
“They chose themselves,” says backup vocalist and guitarist Buck Meek of the two sets of tracks. “There was this real distinct polarity between songs that had a more open celestial feeling and these songs that had an earthy, cathartic visceral thing [happening].”
But for band members Adrianne Lenker (singer-songwriter), Max Oleartchik (bass), James Krivchenia (drums), and Meek, the hard part was cutting the songs that didn’t make the record: about 40 or 50 Lenker had collected over the course of two years. “It’s interesting how the perception of listeners is so different from our perspective as artists, because even though it seems like a lot [of new music] at once, it flowed naturally for us over the course of two years,” Lenker says of writing and recording both projects.
“Two Hands was more challenging to make,” she adds. “I feel like it might even be, in a way, my favorite of the two, which was surprising because there was a long period where I wasn’t sure if it would come together. I felt like I was digging in the hot sun and just needing to continue, looking for a personal kind of buried treasure or something. The intensity of the circumstances is what prompted the rawness of the album.”
Two Hands, as the name suggests, is a body of work that felt “really human” to Big Thief. A departure from U.F.O.F., their second album of 2019 is about letting go and the idea that you’ve been doing just that since birth. “I think there’s something that also feels more of the body, like finite physical, like blood flesh, from inside the human experience, whereas U.F.O.F. is more reaching into the cosmos,” explains Lenker.
Though she refers to both albums as “sibling records,” the process for recording each was vastly different. U.F.O.F. was much more structured: Big Thief recorded all the rhythm sections as basic live tracks, then began layering and overdubbing with synthesizers. While Two Hands was recorded completely live with few overdubs. “We went in with the intention of capturing everything at the moment,” says Meek, of Two Hands. “As soon as we got past two to three takes, we would just stop and take a break or change songs. We tried to capture that vulnerability.” On Two Hands, the band was concerned with being in the moment. “We were pretty exhausted sonically and emotionally from making U.F.O.F., and I think it allowed us to think into our instincts a bit more and less into our minds, so that’s why we structured it like that.”
For Meek and Lenker, the album’s influences were wide-ranging. Meek found inspiration in artists like Michael Hurley and Neil Young, who recorded around one microphone with a full band. While Lenker turned to author and botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer. “It’s so beautiful to start tuning into the idea that humans aren’t actually the most intelligent, most conscious beings, but actually Earth is very much alive and all plants and animals are,” says Lenker. “The whole consciousness [is something] that we probably don’t even know how to measure.” The finished album reflects the idea of trying to pay more attention to the world at large. Take songs like “Forgotten Eyes,” which serves as a reminder to care for others that have been forgotten, and “Not,” Two Hands’ bold lead single that alludes to the mystery of Lenker’s surroundings: “It’s not the energy reeling, nor the lines in your face, nor the clouds on the ceiling, nor the clouds in space,” she warbles on the track.
Elsewhere, Lenker does what she does best: observe. In response to gun violence, police brutality, and border issues, she writes about them “from a layer beneath political.” “I feel like using political language or taking certain stances on things is immediately polarizing, and what I really want to do with music is to help bring people together regardless of their beliefs or their political views,” she says.
The release of two albums in one year is also a testament to how close the band has become. “We’re just becoming better friends,” says Lenker. Meek believes their communication with each other has evolved because of how much time they’ve spent on the road. “It’s really hard to live like astronauts with a group of any people in a van for five years, and I think the only hope is to be really transparent and upfront with every feeling, really work through things with patience and love,” he explains. “I feel that strength in all aspects of our band and essentially our music.”
Because Lenker had this collection of songs, it felt important for the band to release all of them in the same year, knowing that dropping two albums was going against standard business practices in most genres. But for Big Thief, they just wanted to be honest and transparent. Plus, they needed to bare their souls. “That process makes space for the next chapter,” says Meek. “Now I feel like we can move forward.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Two Hands is being released eight months after U.F.O.F. It’s actually five months.