Inside the Songs: Anna Tivel’s Folk Underbelly
I met Anna Tivel at the same fateful Triple Door show that brought me Inside the Songs features for Jeffrey Martin and Nathaniel Talbot, and the three are all friends and colleagues. Together they’re building quite a creative songwriting community! On her new album, Brimstone Lullaby, Anna Tivel (recording with her band as Anna and the Underbelly) brings a raft of beautiful songs with brine-soaked images of Pacific Northwest tidepools, oceans, and the birds that wheel above them in the gray skies. Her gentle, fragile voice sounds a bit like Laura Veirs, and brings to mind the same effortless folk phrasing and soft inflections of Veirs’ best work. We loved the songs on her new album and wanted to catch up with her to find out more.
Inside the Songs with Portland songwriter Anna Tivel
Rosy-colored Skulls is a song about watching the world go by from a treehouse. I used to live in the top story of a house in north Portland, and spent a lot of time sitting at the tiny kitchen table playing guitar and writing and looking out the window. The cutest firecracker of a seven year old girl lived next door, and I wrote that song watching her play with her friend down by the woodpile. They made up this game with lava and monsters and a wooden city and about nine thousand different rules. It made me think about what it is to be young and see so much magic everywhere, even in the places where the rest of the world can find very little, like dirt fields, and woodpiles, and concrete steps. It’s about feeling hopeful and innocent and free, and about falling asleep and waking up trusting that there’s good to be seen and done and had.
Reservation Road was a poem I wrote about this eerie stretch of road in my little hometown in Northern Washington. It’s the first song I ever wrote from a poem, which is probably why it only has lots of words and next to none chords. Driving there late at night always gave me this feeling that time had slowed down to a crawl and everyone was hanging suspended in it, just waiting and watching for something. Maybe waiting to leave town, or for things to get better, or for someone to come home. It’s the kind of quiet road where you can hear a dog barking somewhere far away, or a coyote, and the few houses through the trees are dark except for the blue flicker of a TV, or the glow of someone’s cigarette on the porch, even at 3 or 4 in the morning.
I wrote Brimstone Lullaby in that same north Portland house. It had the best windows overlooking a park:) I guess sometimes I spend more time looking out windows or into windows than actually existing in the places where I am. Anyway, that little neighborhood park had so many different kinds of people and so much life going on. Daytime and nighttime were vastly different in their colors and sounds. There were gospel concerts in the summer, kids trying to chase each other and make out with each other, people lurking and dealing on the corners, people walking around and around yelling and talking to themselves, babies screaming and parents screaming and dogs barking and always the sound of sirens and ice cream trucks and basketballs thumping and bass lines thumping in the cars going by. I’ve never lived somewhere so alive, where people do everything as loud as they can, where they rejoice, and play, and fight, and sob with everything they have. The song is sort of about how people live and believe in things with their whole hearts in order to survive. And when something difficult and terrible comes and shoots it out of the sky, they find a way to keep trudging along and something else to believe in and hold on to just to get by.