Big Thief's 'Shark Smile' Is A Rocking Road Song Ending In Tragedy

Nov 26, 2017
Originally published on November 26, 2017 7:57 am

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.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Indie rock band Big Thief is ready to take off. With two albums already under its belt, the group from Brooklyn has won over fans with deeply personal songs written by lead singer Adrianne Lenker. That's why Big Thief is part of Slingshot, a new emerging artist project from NPR Music and member stations around the country. Jon Hart of KTBG Kansas City introduces us to "Shark Smile." It's a standout track from Big Thief's latest album "Capacity."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHARK SMILE")

JON HART, BYLINE: Big Thief's Adrianne Lenker began playing guitar when she was barely big enough to hold one. She obsessed over the instrument in her teens, looking for ways it could add meaning to the song she was writing. Fast forward to the "Capacity" recording sessions, which took place at a friend's house in the wintertime - "Shark Smile" begins with Lenker's guitar, setting the raw, emotional tone for the story to come.

ADRIANNE LENKER: That's just kind of foreshadowing the turmoil that happens in the song. It's generally upbeat song. And I think it's just giving it tone.

HART: Adrianne wrote her first song at age 8 and still refers to songwriting as a need. Her father saw opportunity for her to 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. Now 26, Lenker is writing songs that leave her bandmates reverential. They often take a knee when she occupies the spotlight.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHARK SMILE")

LENKER: (Singing) She was a shark smile in the yellow van. She came around I stole a glance in my youth. A vampire - Evelyn shown quiet as roses sting.

HART: In "Shark Smile," Lenker looks to embody the best of the songwriters that she reveres.

LENKER: And I think, the tone of it, I was imagining that I was Bruce Springsteen. We've been listening to a lot of Bruce Springsteen, specifically "Nebraska." And I was just really feeling inspired by his way of singing.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STATE TROOPER")

BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN: (Singing) New Jersey turnpike, riding on a wet night 'neath the refinery's glow out where the great black rivers flow.

LENKER: Something of the spirit of it - and I don't even know if any of it carried over. But I think without listening to Bruce Springsteen, this song wouldn't exists.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHARK SMILE")

LENKER: (Singing) Evelyn's kiss was oxygen. I learned over to take it in.

HART: Inspired by Springsteen, Lenker has created protagonists in "Shark Smile" who are living on society's edge.

LENKER: The story is two people. I think they're lovers. They're very close, whatever it is. I think they're escaping. And they're in a car. And you're not exactly sure where they're headed, but they're in the Midwest. It's wild. There's money flying around on the dashboard.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHARK SMILE")

LENKER: (Singing) And the money pile on the dashboard fluttering. And she said woo.

But it ends in a car accident. And one of them dies. And the other one lives.

HART: In telling the story of these characters, Lenker's dealing with loss in her own life and giving us the chance to address our own feelings on love and death through her work.

LENKER: There's also some heaviness around this song because that year three people who were in my world passed away in car accidents. So I think some of that came through.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHARK SMILE")

LENKER: (Singing) It came over me at a bad time. She burned over the double line.

And just the feeling of losing this person - such a swell of love and wildness and the taste of life and the wind blowing, just this freedom and experiencing it - and then just 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.

HART: Adrianne Lenker from Big Thief talked about the song "Shark Smile." For NPR Music, I'm Jon Hart.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHARK SMILE")

LENKER: (Singing) Baby, take me, too.

WERTHEIMER: Big Thief is in the inaugural class of Slingshot, a new collective effort of NPR Music highlighting emerging artists. You can learn more at npr.org/slingshot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.