Above image: Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker performs at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival on Oct. 6, 2017 in San Francisco. | Scott Dudelson/Getty Images
The rock band Big Thief recorded its second album, Capacity, at a friend’s house in upstate New York last winter. Lead singer Adrianne Lenker, guitarist Buck Meek, bass player Max Oleartchik and drummer James Krivchenia devoted entire days to each song.
When the band recorded “Shark Smile,” a song about a doomed car ride, Lenker turned her guitar amp all the way up to 10 for the first time. She played with Krivchenia for a half-hour or more, and a 30-second sample of that moment kicks off “Shark Smile.” Her wild, chaotic playing sets the raw emotional tone for the story to come.
“That’s just kind of foreshadowing the turmoil that happens in the song,” Lenker says. “It’s a generally upbeat song, and it’s just giving it the tone.”
Lenker, 26, wrote her first song at age 8 and still refers to songwriting as a need. Her father hoped she would become a child pop star, but the drive for self-expression led her to reject that path, and she began making her own music full-time at age 16.
In “Shark Smile,” Lenker looked to embody the best of the songwriters she reveres, specifically Bruce Springsteen. During a stretch of touring, Lenker and her bandmates had been listening to his album Nebraska.
“I don’t even know if any of it carried over, but I think without listening to Bruce Springsteen, this song wouldn’t exist,” she says.
Springsteen’s influence in the song goes beyond Lenker’s vocals and the cruising feeling of a classic road song — she’s also created protagonists who are living on society’s edge. The lyrics tell the story of two people driving a yellow van in the Midwest. It ends in a car accident, with one lover dying and the other living but pleading, “Take me, too.”
Big Thief has won fans over with deeply personal songs that deal with topics like violence, neglect and sexual assault. Lenker’s songs are littered with first names, like “Paul,” “Mary,” and “Haley.” In “Shark Smile,” she sings, “Evelyn’s kiss was oxygen.”
In telling the story of these characters, Lenker is dealing with loss in her own life. Three of her friends died in car accidents in the year she wrote “Shark Smile,” and her lyrics place moments of freedom and sudden loss side-by-side.
“[There’s] such a swell of love and wildness, the taste of life and the wind blowing,” she says. “Suddenly, it’s just brought to a halt. But that’s the juxtaposition, that’s the contrast or the duality, that’s everywhere in life.”
Big Thief is in the inaugural class of Slingshot, a new collective effort of NPR Music and member stations highlighting exceptional emerging artists.