Few musicians observe life with as much acuity and depth of feeling as Anna Tivel. While she performs regularly around Portland and tours as much as she can, the singer/songwriter says she’s more introverted—the perfect quality for sitting back and soaking up what’s happening around her.
“I’d much rather sit in the corner and watch people do life than join them,” Tivel says. “I go on tour taking in the world and then come home, after being really open to people, and try to process it all.”
When the dust has settled from that processing, she winds up with a batch of new songs, each one adding little details and heartrending images that speak volumes in just a few finely chosen words. Tivel’s released her latest collection of musical observations, Small Believer, earlier this year via local imprint Fluff and Gravy Records.
It spills over with beauty and incident—some tracks capture full story arcs, like “Dark Chandelier,” which follows the bloody, drunken exploits of a laid-off factory worker. But the most ache-inducing are those with more expressionistic flashes of imagery: “And the rise of your fragile bones/And the lift of the whispered wind/And a song that you never heard/And you’re riding on silver wings,” she sings on “Blue World.”
“I have a terrible, terrible memory,” Tivel insists. “I remember things with colors and sounds and not concrete details. So the stories I tell are these big blobs that I shave down into one person’s story that’s partially fictional and partially attributable to me.”
Adding to the emotional pull of this material is the quietly powerful music that Tivel’s collaborator and producer Austin Nevins surrounds her voice and guitar with, just as he did on her last album, 2016’s Heroes Waking Up. He brings in subtle textures—a heavily reverbed guitar line, a slowly shushing snare drum, a quiet woodwind line—that help the songs unfurl and bloom.
“One thing that I’ve learned while recording,” says Tivel, “is that I don’t want to sink too deep into the process of placing mics or figuring out different sounds. I mean, having to listen to my own damn voice over and over again really kills the magic for me. [Austin] has the brain for that, so it feels really nice to put our heads together.”
For now, Tivel doesn’t have to worry about any of that. After a couple of local shows, she’s planning on taking a break before jumping back into the fray of the new year with a run of shows through the Midwest and Europe, many with her friend and labelmate Jeffrey Martin. And, most importantly, trying to expand and improve upon the work she’s done.
“I guess I’ve gotten obsessed with the storytelling craft,” she says. “I’m really loving the process of trying to distill a story from a bigger experience. I think with every album I’ve learned a ton about what makes a song stand on its own two feet and what makes one fall over and die. I’m trying to hone that all the time.”