Big Thief and Mount Eerie: Songwriting as Autobiography

Written by Haley McNiff

Photography by Noah Laroia-Nguyen

Big Thief and Mount Eerie have put out two incredibly well-developed, emotionally evocative indie/folk/rock albums this year to the acclaim of critics and casual listeners, such as myself. Capacity by Big Thief and A Crow Looked at Me by Mount Eerie are both masterworks in autobiographical storytelling in songwriting. These artists cut straight to the heart of the human experience by laying bare facets of their own life stories through music. Their musical self-expression becomes a means of processing trauma, promoting their own healing and, by extension, that of their audience by sharing their personal experiences in such a way. They explore universal themes of life, love, and loss by bravely going where literally no one has gone before. It’s their story being told – no one else’s.

        Big Thief’s beautiful album Capacity touches on frontwoman Adrianne Lenker’s experience with family trauma as well as her introduction to love and womanhood. The line between Lenker’s own life and that of her characters is almost nonexistent. In the song “Mythological Beauty,” Lenker relates her near-fatal accident at age 5 to her understanding of her family. She notes the difficulty of her mother becoming a parent so young, singing, “There is a child inside of you who’s trying to raise a child in me.” She goes on to discuss the tumultuous beginnings of her family, recounting her young mother giving up her brother for adoption: “Seventeen, you took his cum / And you gave birth to your first life / You gave Andrew a family who you thought would love and take better care / I have an older brother I don’t know / He could be anywhere.” The frenzied pain bookended by quiet acceptance in Lenker’s voice as she sings these lines betrays years of unresolved heartache, but also the human strength to carry on despite it all.

The song “Mary” is blindingly beautiful, a self-described “love song” Lenker wrote for her childhood best friend. Lenker’s voice is breathtakingly delicate as she replays shared memories of their friendship so vividly that one can almost see them with their own eyes. Lenker aims to relive these moments through her music just as we are, saying to Uproxx, “I’m just trying to evoke something in myself. I want to get to the point where it feels right, and it’s breaking through the numb, icky, gooey film that covers everything. You just put a story, a real story, that feels like the most honest way that you could say it. [And] it’s like, take it or leave it.” Luckily, we, as listeners, are able to take it – to share in her experiences with her, feel her pain and lust and longing and reflect on the times we felt the same.

        Mount Eerie’s Phil Elverum (of The Microphones fame) similarly uses music to process the death of his wife of 13 years, Geneviève, to pancreatic cancer only four months after giving birth to their daughter. The result of this undertaking is the astoundingly raw A Crow Looked at Me, which he wrote and recorded in the room where she passed. Given this context, it is clear to see that this project steps past the point of abstraction employed in Big Thief’s Capacity. This is Elverum’s life – his pain in sonic form. Elverum addresses many of his songs to his deceased wife, leaving the listener feeling more like a voyeuristic intruder due to the extreme openness with which he expresses his feelings. On “Real Death,” Elverum sings, “and you still get mail / A week after you died, a package with your name on it came / And inside was a gift for our daughter you had ordered in secret / And collapsed there on the front steps, I wailed / A backpack for when she goes to school a couple years from now / You were thinking ahead to a future you must have known deep down would not include you.” The words tumble out of his mouth gently but incessantly, evoking the overwhelming pain that is the death Elverum is experiencing and overwhelming the listener in the process. It is the closest one can come to understanding what another person with such a vastly different life experience is going through, and that is a beautiful thing indeed. Heartbreaking, but beautiful.

In the same song, Elverum opens the album with, “Death is real / Someone’s there and then they’re not / And it’s not for singing about / It’s not for making into art.” But he has done just that. Death is so beyond what humans can comprehend, but Elverum addresses the impossibility the only way he can: by trying. And we, as listeners, try to understand his pain in turn. For those of us who can, we relate our experiences to his own. As he said in an interview to Pitchfork, “I wanna get it out of me; I want the exorcism to happen. If talking about it or singing about it can accomplish that, I don’t know. I feel proud of this thing that I’ve made, which is also perverse – there’s a built-in conflict, which I don’t know how to navigate.” As a listener, I wasn’t sure how to navigate the intense closeness either. But the act of trying to do so with him – in allowing myself to face the discomfort of his emotional honesty – I allowed myself to meditate on what it means to be human. To face our own struggles and to try to empathize with those who have experienced vastly different ones than we have or ever will. To connect, to heal, to express ourselves through art even though doing so is messy and morally ambiguous and painful. Elverum said, “This new album is barely music. It’s just me speaking her name out loud, her memory.” I would agree. A Crow Looked at Me is a pure manifestation of the human condition: the human experience as shared experience. It is no coincidence that the brave songwriters of Big Thief and Mount Eerie have produced two of the best albums of 2017 by expressing themselves so uncompromisingly. With Capacity and A Crow Looked at Me, the artists comprehensively explore universal themes through their autobiographical nature. These songs – their stories – belong to them, and we are bettered by their sharing them with us.