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Listening to Anna Tivel

Idon’t remember how I discovered the songs of the Portland-based folk-singer Anna Tivel.  It was probably through Folk Alley, an internet radio station that keeps me company while I’m doing computer work. I admired the clear harmony and plaintive vocal of “Dust and Magic” and I was hooked by its refrain: “None of them compare to being someone next to you.” That song led me to The Question, Tivel’s newest album, which is richer, with additional instrumental colors, then on to the earlier albums Small Believer, Heroes Waking Up and the surprisingly electric Before Machines. With plain words, unfussy chords and simple but memorable melodies, she tells poignant stories of the poor, the homeless, the lonely and the love-torn. Fifty songs in, I’m a fan.

Anna has many talents, so it’s hard to decide what to talk about first. There’s the voice, a slender and smoky alto. It would be easily overwhelmed, but she chooses her partners and backgrounds carefully. She has an intimate relationship with the mike; often you have wait for a final consonant, but it always comes. Her guitar playing is sensitive and accomplished. She also plays the violin and the octave violin, an instrument I had to look up. (It’s a violin with special strings, tuned an octave below to sound like a low viola or cello.)

Her stories ring true, There’s Tommy of “Dark Chandelier,” an unemployed factory worker who tries to end it but discovers grace in the rain. “Lillian and Martha” are two elderly lovers who can marry at last. The mother of “Alleyway” had to give up her child. I like Anna’s gentle waltzes, especially “Velvet Curtain,” which spies on a custodian singing away as she sweeps the theater after a show:

And i sang to the mezzanine, the gold-painted ceiling
The orchestra spinning, the bright chandelier
I sang so the angels would feel what i’m feeling
An empty so deep, i’m afraid i’m not here.

…but there’s an audience. A bag-man in the back row breaks into applause and exits, confessing: “I’ll never forget this. . . I needed to hear someone singing tonight.”

The words themselves may be plain, but Tivel is a poet in the way she rubs them together to generate heat. (Read her lyrics on her web site here.) She sings of “the sweet smell of diesel and lumber,” and I’m lost in a sensation I’ve never known. Her oxymora linger in the mind: “I am an oil spill / beautiful and not.” Metaphors abound: “If you’re a long day with no music, then I’m a kitchen radio / Appalachia in the morning, in the night Nina Simone.” Music and verse tangle in enjambment: “To gaze upon your body, a razor on a rough […] cheek / The blaze of burning beauty.” And what precious drops she wrings from familiar images: “You don’t believe your tears are worth the salt.”

Anna has a strong sense of harmony that must come from absorbing the classical tradition as well as the folk. Her songs are Schubertian in their logic and elegance, as in the three-chord ground bass that supports “The Question,” a searing song about a man in gender transition. And like that Question, it leaves you hanging.

Minnesota writer Kate Dicamillo once said: “It’s an act of love to look at the world, and the people in it, closely.” Anna Tivel’s fans will be tolerant of introversion and susceptible to sadness, but they will be looking for joy in simple experience as well. One doesn’t need many lamps to light the way, but they must be constant and intense. Anna Tivel’s light is so.

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