From the Pacific Northwest of the United States, Portland-based Anna Tivel has been toiling away at her craft for over a decade as a recording and touring musician. It’s often on the road that Tivel takes notes about things she sees and the people she meets. As an obsessive notetaker, many of Tivel’s observations end up as songs. But to truly appreciate these songs it’s best to listen to them in the context of where they appear – on one of many of her well-received albums. With that said, Anna Tivel’s latest album Outsiders is nothing short of brilliant, a rollercoaster ride of human emotions. I feel like Tivel has metaphorically punched me in the gut. My stomach swirls with butterflies and my mind daydreams contemplating the world that Tivel’s created through song. Overall, I feel Outsiders is an unrivalled introspective by a musician who understands human nature.
It honestly takes something special musically to really move me nowadays. That’s why Outsiders stands out as my 2022 album of the year. It is with this in mind that I reached out to Anna to talk about her incredible album.
Anna, you write songs about your observations of life, full of both pain and beauty, but I feel like every time I interview you, I stop short of asking you how are you?
Writing is just a way to reflect, to try to understand in your own language. I don’t really think sad songs make a sad person, just feels honest to me to work out the things I see and hear both good and bad.
There are some really lush orchestrations that give a thrilling effect to many of the songs on your new album Outsiders. Let’s talk about the title track. This could have easily been a straightforward acoustic arrangement but you added a number of incredible layers to the song. How did it come about?
The whole album was recorded with a great group of friends in the midwest. Shane Leonard produced it and he is a wealth of creative energy, a free wheeling idea machine. We stood in a circle and played everything live. No one besides Shane and I had heard the songs before so everything was just a live take reaction in the moment. We tried to be emotionally free and adventurous and not get too hung up on lots of takes, just went for it until the song felt alive in some way.
Where was the album recorded? Can we talk a little about how the space informed the sound of the album as a whole?
We recorded in Rock Island, IL in a cool old warehouse studio, lots of ramshackle analog gear, like recording in an audiophile’s garage. It felt good, not fancy or precious, and I think it made us all relax, just follow our ideas around the room and try new sounds.
I tried quickly overnight going back and forth through your back catalogue and I can’t remember you dropping the F-bomb before, if ever? On Heroes it fits perfectly in context to the song. It feels like an angsty song or is it more a tragedy so to speak?
There’s a deep thread of mental health struggle and addiction woven through the art world which is heartbreaking and deserves all sorts of attention and resources. And then there’s this other thing, this thread of egoism and unaccountability that gets held up and romanticized in the name of good art that feels so destructive, this idea that truly devoting yourself to a craft will always come at the expense of everyone close to you. I notice that tired narrative rising up in me sometimes when it feels especially hard to show up and I hear it in a thousand ‘loved her and left her for the road’ choruses. This song isn’t meant to be blameful, more just a story come tumbling out to remind myself to dig deeper in my life and in my writing and to look for heroes in a more layered way, to separate the art from the tragedy or destruction and to search for reflection, generosity, and humility in the lived paths of the artists I look to for inspiration.
Astrovan is both beautiful and heartbreaking. It has one of the best lyrics on the album- “I love you I’m nervous, my heart beats imperfectly, sometimes I act like a clown/ In bright colored makeup, to hide my mistakes and the fear that you’ll figure me out.” Where is this coming from Anna? Is it a reflection of how we see ourselves sometimes?
I wanted to write a love song about the tangle that comes after the initial fireworks of a good connection, the part where two people start to really see each other and struggle with being seen. ‘Astrovan’ is just a quiet exploration of vulnerability, all the good and hard work of two flawed people trying to reveal and accept themselves and each other in love.
I see you haven’t lost your incredible knack of finding a good story to convey and sing about. On Black Umbrella you tell a story about a bystander caught up in a bank robbery. Is it based on something that really happened? That last line in the song “Just a corner note about a cracked out kid who broke the law” makes me think that there is something there?
‘Black Umbrella’ is a song about all the ways we fail to really see each other and the systems in place that so often serve only a lucky few. It’s about poverty and desperation, race and power, history, opportunity, and otherness. I wrote it in a motel in Virginia.
Sometimes songs are like blocks of marble you slowly chip away at hoping to reveal a hidden truth. Sometimes they come rushing and insistent, everything at once in a sort of manic out of body flood, you’re there but also far away watching the animal of yourself express something without thinking of form or craft, just the raw moan of an emotion building up. Black Umbrella was the latter kind of song, written on a day off on tour after a long drive through small towns barely holding on, past trailer parks and run down shacks, bars, pawn shops and rusty church marquees, past kids sitting outside gas stations watching the whole thing drive away without them.
I find myself circling back to Two Dark Horses, a song you first released on Blue World (2021). I love how you carry your vocals in this calm swaying tone. I read you said it started as a poem but as a song it feels almost like a lullaby. It sounds a little foolish to say that but it’s such a beautiful emotive song. Why did you include it on Outsiders?
Outsiders was recorded quite awhile before we made Blue World, it just got stuck in the cogs of the pandemic release machine. Blue World was a lock-down project, an exploration of a couple songs from every album I’ve made and we decided to record Two Dark Horses because it was a fun one to wander through in that extra spacious jazz informed setting.
Anna, I was hoping you might humour me a little about one of my favourite songs Blue World from your album Small Believer (2017). I experienced it very differently once I learned that you reworked it for your map room sessions. Are you surprised that many of us find hope in its message even in the midst of its sadness?
It’s a hopeful song, I think so too. Losing people is tragic and awful but there’s also often so much love and hope that the mysterious place they’re headed is finally peaceful and free.
Anna, I absolutely have to ask you about The Dial. You seem to loosen up here and give us a rare folk-rocker. Simply one of the coolest songs on the album. Tell us how it came about, especially that reverb inspired sound?
I wrote ‘The Dial’ on the back of a gas receipt on a long drive from Utah to Colorado. A car in front of me threw some trash out the window and when I got closer it turned out one of the items was a little dreamcatcher. I was at the tail end of a long tour, just feeling kind of raw and doubtful and it made me feel like throwing up my hands and laughing. Driving all over the place playing songs about my feelings for strangers is serious business to me, a deep devotion and a privilege. And it’s also sometimes totally nuts, like some hilarious simulation where you keep finding yourself peeing through a funnel drilled in the floor of a shitty van outside the place where you just poured your heart out in front of three drunk people who kept asking the bartender to turn the tv back on. I’m glad both things exist, the expansive and the humbling, and I’ll never toss my dreamcatcher.
The sound on the recording was just a have-at-it glad junky energy that we stumbled upon and all really liked. My producer Shane is a master of lo-fi drum sounds and he really got into this one.
The whole music community has had a difficult time of late. What was it like touring this new record around the country? Which places inspired you in your observations on the road?
It’s a wild time to be touring for sure. We’re sort of half in a pandemic still and the air surrounding that changes dramatically from place to place. I’m so grateful to be traveling and sharing live music again, feels like part of my art equation that was sorely missing for the last couple years. It’s all new again to take in the big cities and small towns, to hear people’s stories and fill up on landscapes and community love and struggle across the country and overseas. I get a lot of writing inspiration from every part of touring.
Hint, hint, will Australian fans one day see you play there?
Hope so, I’d love to make it that way someday.
Finally Anna, before I let you go, can I leave you with an existential question. How would you answer this statement. “I feel like the world would be a little more nicer if….”
Listening and nuance were as powerful social forces as yelling and certitude.
Another fine interview Robert, and I love her honest, thoughtful responses. Her vocals are enchanting, and I love her lyrics, and how her songs have a way of boring into our souls and consciousness, if that makes sense.
I was literally going to start my comment with the same words as Jeff. 🙂
Your interviews are truly impressive. Anna Tivel who is new to me sounds like an intriguing artist. While reading your post, I sampled some of the tunes you highlighted.
Releasing six studio albums and one live album over the course of eight years looks pretty productive! I’m planning to take a closer look at her music, starting with the new album.
Anna Tivel is an incredible American songwriter who deserves a wider audience. I hope Outsiders is the album that does it for her. What is amazing about her music is that it allows listeners to form an emotional connection with her stories. I’m thrilled you enjoyed my interview. Thank you. It was actually the third time we have connected.