“Don’t take me for a fool. There’s a woman inside of me; there’s one inside of you, too.”
These were some of the first words many of us heard from Big Thief, when they hit the indie-folk scene in 2017 with their breakout sophomore album Capacity. On its opening track, “Pretty Things”, singer/songwriter Adrianne Lenker expertly explores and then tears down all that gender is preconceived to be. “There is a meeting in my thighs / Where in thunder and lightning, men are baptized / In their anger and fighting, their deceit and lies,” she claims, over sparse, roomy acoustic guitar. Then, closing the song, the kicker: “There’s a woman inside of me / There’s one inside of you, too / And she don’t always do pretty things”.
The album, unsurprisingly, blew people away. It racked up end-of-year accolades and festival appearances, and positioned Big Thief as one of the biggest new names in indie music. Two albums followed in 2019, U.F.O.F. and Two Hands; they’re now set to release their fifth, the double-LP Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You, tomorrow.
Not yet five years on from Capacity’s release, to evaluate Big Thief’s impact in 2022 is to look at the entire shape of indie rock and folk music. Their combination of Americana sounds with noise rock, dream pop, and psych has effectively cracked wide open the perception of modern folk, revitalizing a genre that had grown somewhat stale in its mainstream offerings. Their influence is increasingly visible in the upper echelons of singer/songwriter music; from eminent indie artists like Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, and Bachelor, all the way to megastars like Paramore’s Hayley Williams (who is a Big Thief fan, and made her folk debut with solo album Flowers For Vases/Descansos last year), and Taylor Swift, whose 2020 albums folklore and evermore are indebted to Big Thief’s atmospheric folk. She even enlisted Big Thief drummer James Krivchenia to play on her 2021 re-recording of Red.
But looking beyond the sonics alone, the perspective which Lenker and Big Thief bring to the genre with their lyrics grows even more vital. The band’s philosophy is one that embraces fluidity in all senses; in musical identity, in self-identity, even in concepts of time and nature. And within that fluidity, the theme of gender is returned to again and again. It’s with her trademark openness, spirituality, and poetry that Lenker’s lyrics tend to the subject, and it results in a point of view that feels both universal and entirely new.
“Pretty Things” is one example, with its tale of a sexual encounter building up to a complex study of what the word “woman” truly means. There’s a similar crisscrossing of gender stereotypes on Capacity’s closing track, “Black Diamonds.” “Should I let you make a woman of me? / Should I let you take the mystery from me?” she sings, then later: “Come on, let me make a man out of you […] You could cry in my arms like a child.” It’s a potent encapsulation of the difference between gender as restriction and gender as freedom.
Gender becomes even more fluid and abstract on the 2019 album Two Hands. On closing track “Cut My Hair,” Lenker sings: “Tell me I’m pretty, tell me I’m rare / Talk to the boy in me, he’s there,” while on the squalling lead single “Not,” she makes reference to “The boy I’m seeing, with her long black hair”.
Meanwhile, across Big Thief’s discography, there’s a tradition of songs addressed to first names — “Paul,” “Randy,” “Lorraine,” “Haley,” “Mary,” “Betsy,” “Jenni.” While on one level these often refer to lovers, on another they come to stand for Lenker herself. “In my songs, more than just writing about the other person, I’m often identifying parts of myself that were born or died through the arrival or loss of their presence,” Lenker explained to She Shreds Magazine. So Lenker is Paul as much as she’s Lorraine, Randy as much as she’s Mary. If all of us are built from the numerous little jigsaw pieces of love and community that make up an identity, then perhaps we can all say the same.
The resistance to gender roles extends beyond the music, too. On the album cycle for Capacity, Lenker sported a shaved head, which, she told The Guardian, was an effort to remove herself from gendered beauty expectations. In a 2019 story for the LA Times, Lenker is quoted: “I think I am both man and woman, and neither. I listen to the heartbeat of the pulse of the source of the universe. I identify with that, so why am I ripping myself away from the deepest part of myself?” The fluidity even stretches to the relationship between Big Thief’s four band members, three male and one female; in interviews, they frequently express a bond beyond music and simple friendship. In that LA Times story, bassist Max Oleartchik expresses that they’ve “melted into each other.”
All in all, it’s an approach by which a new generation of musicians has been inspired to cultivate a radical openness to fluidity in their own work; plus, through which legions of Big Thief’s queer or LGBT fans, whether they’re artists themselves or not, have been given a lens through which to untangle their own identities.
Manchester, UK-based singer-songwriter Lindsay Munroe speaks to Lenker and Big Thief’s influence on her: “As someone who hasn’t generally found labels around gender and sexuality to be helpful to me, it’s freeing to hear someone write so extensively and so naturally about fluidity. That has spurred me on in my writing; valuing my own honesty above my perception of how I might be perceived when I put songs and ideas out into the world.” Callie Marino, of Minneapolis folk-rock band Dad Bod, expresses something similar: “It’s human to want to understand things, but [Big Thief’s] songs have helped me settle in the ambiguity of my own gender – coming to understand I won’t ever understand, and that’s the virtue of it. Adrianne’s work has invited me to stop overthinking what I write, and explore queerness on my own time, in my own way.”
Meanwhile, Philadelphia-based Ava Mirzadegan, who self-releases music as Pen Palindrome, explains Big Thief’s holistic effect on her life. “Creatively and personally, it is [Big Thief’s] fluidity that I am inspired to cultivate. I want to hold space for and respect any expression that feels good, value any being as a lovable vessel for life, and pay little mind to the usual context of constricting roles and structures. Adrianne inspires me to no longer worry about what makes sense and instead act instinctively—keeping anything I find precious close to my own heart.”
It’s heartening that, before they’re even a decade in, Big Thief have made a mark as a folk band with the power not only to change the musical landscape, but to change lives, too. It’s a model for both songwriting and existence as a human being that flips everything upside down, like the best of artists have always done. The long, rich history of folk music is a little richer for it.