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Big Thief just wants to shoot from the heart

Big Thief released “Masterpiece” in May. Band frontwoman Adrianne Lenker (left) was raised in a series of Minnesota towns before settling down in New York City. Saddle Creek Records / TNS

When Adrianne Lenker, frontwoman of Big Thief, was putting together the band's debut, "Masterpiece," she worried that it wasn't very good.

"There was a point where I was like, 'Maybe this is crap,' " said Lenker, on the phone from the band's Brooklyn rehearsal space. "When we got the first mixes back, my hope was restored a little bit. It was like, 'We captured the magic.' (The recording sessions) happened so fast, and I listened to it after, and I was like, what happened? Is this any good? What creature is this?"

"Masterpiece" dropped in May, to much critical praise and just enough attention. It's a wistful folk-rock offering that's much more rock than folk; it's a beautifully realized and awfully sad album about love and breakups and death that evokes influences (Crazy Horse, label mates Bright Eyes) while distinguishing the band.

Now that "Masterpiece" is out in the world, Lenker is trying to learn how to let it go. "Because we make a record of a time and a place and a state that we're in, it doesn't mean it will capture everything we will be when we grow," she said. "It's not supposed to. It's just capturing that time, and who we were in that moment, and how we played in that moment. Letting go of being too precious about it and just letting it exist has been a really big challenge."

Lenker, raised in a series of towns in Minnesota, began playing guitar when she was 6, inspired by guitarists like Pat Metheny and Michael Hedges. She got a GED at 16, after being "more or less" home-schooled, and won entrance to the Berklee College of Music in Boston after playing some of her songs for dean of admissions Damien Bracken. "I said, 'I don't know any music theory, I just have some songs.' So I played the songs for him, and he really loved them."

Bracken helped arrange a scholarship for Lenker, who wanted the college experience more than she needed the degree. "Because I hadn't gone to high school, I was kind of craving being around people my age, and making music and being immersed in something. Really, I just wanted to go to school. ... I wanted my only focus to be learning. I thought that was so cool. Not to party, because I wasn't doing any of that."

After Berklee, Lenker moved to New York City. She ran into guitarist Buck Meek, whom she had met in Boston, on her first day in the city. They soon began playing together, then writing songs together. Lenker released a solo album, "Hours Were the Birds," in 2014, and issued a handful of duo releases with Meek, but nothing felt fully realized until Big Thief (now with drummer James Krivchenia and bassist Max Oleartchik) came together, and began making what would become "Masterpiece." "Every practice we have is different," Lenker said. "Every time we play the (old) songs it feels different, and every time we play a new song, it's like discovering a new portal to a new room we've never been inside of. There's things that are familiar, the core of the music is the same, but it's just growing."

"Masterpiece" is more muscular than anything Lenker has done but to anyone who hadn't been paying attention, it would be easy to write Big Thief off as twee Brooklynites making artisanal country-folk.

"People turn themselves off to our music probably without hearing us sometimes," Lenker said. "Probably just by looking at us. But that's something I just can't bother thinking about. I can't control how other people are conceiving us. You just gotta be good with yourself. I know when it's genuine. I know when we're feeling it, that we're being honest. That's the most important thing we can probably do.

"Look at John Prine, he's from Illinois. It doesn't matter what someone's accent is, or what their vibe is. If they sing from their heart, or from an honest place, you can tell."

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