Anna Tivel: Singing her diary

by Halee Hastad

Anna Tivel has a small, sweet sounding voice that runs contrary to the big, musing stories she sings. A quiet, introverted person by nature, it is through music that she relates to others and communicates her experiences, thoughts and feelings. She is drawn primarily to stories of everyday people – ones who may not seem immediately interesting or appear to live outrageous, sensational lives, but are complex in their own ostensible simplicity.

“I’m really interested in people and why they do what they do – the messing up or getting hurt, and the small triumphs.” she said. “The way I relate to people as a quiet person is to wonder what they are thinking and doing. I often feel we are all trying so hard to make things work and it’s comforting to hear and tell stories of people who are also experiencing the seemingly regular, day-to-day life.”

She had been wandering the streets of Pittsburg when I spoke with her late last month, something she does often when seeking inspiration for her songwriting. And this, I thought, is the essence of this folk/bluegrass musician’s spirit.

Born in La Conner, Tivel spent her formative years playing violin and fiddle with her grandfather before moving to Portland at the age of 18, where she still lives today. Like many musicians, Tivel had no real intention to make a career of her creative pursuits, but continued to play fiddle in bands while working at a restaurant to get by.  It was when she began to experiment with writing that she realized being a singer-songwriter was what she wanted to do more than anything else.

Following this epiphany-like discovery, Tivel began writing about the stories she heard of or imagined for the people she saw in her hometown and elsewhere. Her first solo album, Before Machines, was released in 2014. She has been steadily chipping away at the musician’s block ever since.

“It feels like it’s been a slow growth and I’ve learned so much,” she said. “It was like, ‘Ok, I’m going to tour – how do I do that? And, ok, now I need to book shows – how do I do that?’ Then, ‘Oh! I need a website – how do I make one of those?’”

And in the midst of figuring it all out, Tivel has continued to work even harder to maintain songwriting at the forefront of the to-do list.

Now, with three full-length albums under her belt, she has toured on and off for the last four years, experiencing small towns and big cities alike through the eyes of an observer just passing through. That’s not to say she hasn’t caught onto something.

Indeed, her most recent album, Small Believer, was released in February of this year and has been acclaimed as her best work to date. Many of the songs on Small Believer were born of the places she spent time wandering around in, much like when we talked while she was in Pittsburg. This bluegrass/folk sweet treat of an album was signed to Portland’s Fluff and Gravy, a label she described as “family,” who she has worked with since she began making music.

“Saturday Night” is a moody piece indicative of the writing style she harnessed so well in the album. It was inspired by a man who lived in a building she used have an apartment in. At any given time of the day he would be awake, watching television or just staring at a wall, she said. Tivel would come home late at night after working a restaurant shift and see him through the window. She would watch him, not creepily but curiously, for a little while, wondering what he was doing, thinking, feeling. It’s encounters like this that inspire many of Tivel’s stories.

Too, there’s an aspect of performing the stories that invites her audience to open up and share their experiences with her afterwards, she said.

“You get on stage and tell a story with struggle and then someone will come up after and tell you how they relate to a song and share their own story,” she said. “It’s a way for me to relate and be close with people in a way I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing out in the world.”

Looking ahead, Tivel will continue touring through November. She plays The Firefly Lounge on Tuesday, Sept. 25. In April of next year she will release her fourth full-length studio album. Again, it’s signed to Fluff and Gravy, and was recorded in the woods of Wisconsin. This work will be a bit grittier than what she’s released before, she said. Listeners can look forward to the addition of percussion on the work, as well as synth keys, which is new for her. The album writing is similar in content and that which has come before it – stories of people and places that may have otherwise gone unnoticed, brought to light by a voice as strong as it is small.

See Anna Tivel at the Firefly Sept. 25. Follow her social media for updates.