Fluff & Gravy
Portland-based guitarist/violinist, singer-songwriter Anna Tivel releases her fourth album, The Question, as she continues her provocative look into flawed characters, overlooked aspects of ordinary life, shared experience, and some political commentary. Her music is often deceptively quiet, concealing the pain and heartache that she writes about, whether it’s the homeless veteran sitting on a bench to watch the construction of a luxury hotel, a woman wondering about the life of a daughter she had to give up for adoption, or the immigrant at the border.
Let’s take the latter first. Immigration has become popular topical fare for songwriters recently as now we hear songs about “walls” across several genres from jazz to roots, including artists like David Olney, Will Hoge, Son Volt, and as long ago as 2007 from Tom Russell. And, of course, through the years we’ve heard Freddy Fender’s 1982 “Across the Borderline,” the Flatlanders’ 2009 “Borderless Love,” and Anail Mitchell’s 2010’s “Why We Build the Wall.” Tivel’s entry to this litany is “Fenceline,” already a single, the haunting ballad that she narrates about the immigrant, capturing his hopes and fears in the economy of her lyrics – “I crawl in the dirt, to the edge of a country/My hammering heart and the dust in my eyes/I traded the night for the last of my money/And holes in the old fence line….Oh angels look away/Unbar the pearly gate, unblock the road/Cause down here at the border, I’m just an animal.”
The Question was recorded mostly live at Hive studio in Eau Claire, Wi, engineered by Brian Joseph (Bon Iver, Sufjan Stevens) and produced by drummer and multi-instrumentalist Shane Leonard who is all over the record, along with Courtney Hartman (guitars).and several other musicians contributing the tender folk-pop arrangements. “It was very collaborative and alive,” says Tivel, noting that Leonard frequently pushed her out of her comfort zone during the sessions. “He really stretched me way outside of my normal, more folky zone to get some other sounds, synthesizers and different rhythms. There’re songs where he would say, ‘OK, you’re not gonna play guitar on this one, and I want you to speak it more than sing it…’ Because I tour solo so much and play the songs how I write them, without any voices chiming in on the arrangements, it was difficult and really fun to work on his suggestions. Some things we’d butt heads on and finally I’d try them and it’d be awesome.”
Many of the songs are about traveling or thoughts that occurred to her while on the road. The title track came from a specific encounter as she relates, “It’s about being in New York and looking up into a window and seeing a man putting on makeup and a wig,” Tivel recalls. “There’s a lot of people I know and friends of friends who are transgender, transitioning or just struggling, and having the president sort of waffling backwards on any progress that’s been made with that. I started writing this (song) as a poem that night and put it to chords later back at home.”
She’s adept at capturing the forlorn as she does with these lines in “Shadowland” – “I used to be a waste of time, a burning match lit underground/a figure in the shadowland, a feather in a cage/Now I hope I’m something else, a blinding flash, a fragment spell/a bird released from some old bell, escaping.” Similarly, “Minneapolis” plays to stillness and stubborn demeanor. She says, “This is a song about that stuck feeling, that stagnant winter sadness that can take over everything until you have to physically move yourself to shake it loose. I started writing it after a long tour in the midwest. I was thinking about how that feeling can seep into a relationship until it seems like the only sane thing to do is pack up and start over somewhere else.”
She couches her anger carefully in “Worthless” until you get a sense that she might resort to self-destruction. “I never did wrong / I never did gamble / until the day you called me worthless” certainly suggests a damaged ego, but her last verse invokes “It’s hot as the devil, a screaming kettle/the bassline slowly burning.” The closing track “Two Strangers” is the epitome of longing and desiring to hang onto life’s fleeting moments as she hopes to see that person she desires reappear – “The city lights, they shine like silver, the city lights, they shine like gold/ I’m holding out, for something better, what it is, I don’t know” Therein, is the dilemma many of us have experienced at time or another.
Tivel’s unpresuming voice, her images, and her words linger. She puts everything she has into the song, daring us to enter her world which can go from sharply detailed to fuzzily dreamy from stanza to stanza.
- Jim Hynes