The Lovely Songcraft of Annalisa Tornfelt
I’d probably embarass myself if I put down here how many times I’ve listened to the new solo album, The Number 8, from Portland roots songwriter Annalisa Tornfelt. It’s become my go-to album for times of stress at work. I flip it on and let Annalisa’s glorious voice, beautifully crafted, humble songs, and soft guitar accompaniment take me away. It’s the kind of album that most songwriters try to make, but few succeed at, because few have put in so much time and focus to become true masters of the craft. That sounds a bit hype-y, I know, but have a listen and I think you’ll agree.
At first, I wondered why more people hadn’t heard of Tornfelt’s album, since she’s quite well-known in the roots world not only for her work as the frontwoman of alt-stringband Black Prairie and her guest turns with The Decemberists, but also because of her much earlier work with key bluegrass band Bearfoot. And I do mean earlier work: she’s been playing music since she was 3 years old in Alaska and joined Bearfoot as a young teenage fiddler. That makes for a lifetime of music under her belt and accounts for some of the raw confidence and mastery you can hear on her new album.
It’s not easy to make an album like The Number 8. With such minimal instrumentation (I think it’s just her and her guitar, but I can’t be sure because her voice always sweeps me away and I lose track), it’s hard to hold the audience’s attention, but each song is a carefully built vignette with melody lines that make each song stand out from the other. It’s a lovely little glorious album and I can’t believe it’s not blowing up everyone’s year-end best-of Americana lists. But Tornfelt didn’t seem to mind at all when I called her up at her home in Portland, Oregon. In fact, she’d rather talk about the new album she JUST dropped, Search Zero, an album of cunningly curated covers. Itself a delight, Search Zero goes to show that Tornfelt’s on her own track moving forward and doesn’t have time to look back. She’s having too much fun just making great music with great friends.
A CONVERSATION WITH ANNALISA TORNFELT
Devon Leger: Tell me about your new solo album, The Number 8, and how it came about and where the songs first came from. You wrote all the songs on the album.
Annalisa Tornfelt: I did. All the songs on The Number 8. There are 15 of them which I debated about… “Is this too long? Are people going to get bored?” and then I thought, “I like each one. I’m going to put it on anyway.” I wanted to record them because I wanted a nice recording of all of my extra songs. I play in a band called Black Prairie. I play violin and I sing in it. Black Prairie, we write so well together and we write so much, there’s never a shortage of material. I write songs fast and easily; it’s something that I really enjoy doing, so I have a big library of Annalisa tunes and anytime Black Prairie needs something… if we’re going to do a record, I’ll send all of them to Black Prairie. Some of them are used and a lot of them aren’t, maybe because we’d need something else with a different feel. All the ones that haven’t been used on our latest record Fortune and before, I put on The Number 8. A lot of the country tunes on my album I wrote and used to play in my three-part-harmony girl band called Calico Rose.
Who else was in that?
AT: Anita Lee Elliott and Kate O’Brien.
Hmm. I remember Calico Rose.
AT: You’ll hear “Rules of my Heart;” I wrote that for Calico Rose. We never put out a record and I really liked the tune. So, I put it on there. Everything that I had at the time, all of my songs that weren’t recorded yet.
Do you feel that The Number 8 is really different from what you do with Black Prairie? I think there’s a lot more country and roots in The Number 8 but maybe that’s there in Black Prairie too in your way of thinking. What do you think?
AT: “Scared You’re Gonna Leave” is a song I wrote after listening to Sallie Ford. I just love her singing and I saw her show because my real dream is for other people to sing my songs. I was thinking if I had all my songs out on a record, maybe somebody would like to pick it up. I was thinking, “Maybe Sallie Ford would sing this song. I wonder what it would sound like if she would sing it.” [laughing]
Are there other songs you wrote with people in mind, specific people in mind?
AT: Yes, I wrote “Starlighting” with Michael Hurley in mind. I wrote that after watching a Michael Hurley show. For “Know the Answer,” that song I stole from my husband, he basically wrote that guitar part. He does that cool Travis picking. “One Heart at a Time,” that was my oldest song. I wrote that probably more than 10 years ago. I always liked it and I started playing it again because I went through all of my songs. What I had to do was I had to play a show. It had been so long since I did house concerts. In the last 10 years I’ve been playing with Black Prairie I hadn’t had to play guitar and accompany myself, just me and the guitar for this house show. I was trying to work up some songs. I started playing some of my really old songs and I picked out “One Heart at a Time” and then I wrote the last verse to it but, before that house concert, I really liked it and it brought it back to me.
Yeah, it’s lovely. I liked too. It makes more sense because you released videos, as I recall, that had you playing with specific people in Portland. Was that part of the plan, to bring on people to cover the music informally?
AT: Yes, while I was practicing for the recording, I was really lonely. I was practicing by myself and instead of being with my band, with Black Prairie, I’m playing these songs. I’m getting them ready to record and while I’m playing them, I’m imagining other people singing with me. That’s really where I have the most fun. I would stop and I’d call up my friends that I’d imagine singing with. It was starting to be summertime and I wanted to be outside for a lot of them. I bought a tripod and I thought it would be fun to record because I’m super into low-fi iPhone videos. I watched a girl called Soko. I found her online. She had homemade iPhone videos that I really liked. I was thinking, “Well, if I really like Soko’s videos, then I’ll make some of my own and keep them for myself, like a home video.” You know how it’s fun to go back and watch them sometimes after a while. I started collecting [these videos]… it was something to do over the summer and it got me out of the house and got me playing music with my friends and I started collecting all these songs that I was going to put on my record. Each song is about something different. One of my favorite videos is Luz Elena Mendoza. I think she has the most haunting voice. She’s such a goddess to me. She sings a really beautiful harmony part on “Sound of Song.” Oh, yeah, Michael Hurley was the first one.
Luz Elena Mendoza…. I saw her at Pickathon with Edna Vasquez and she sang mariachi and it was AMAZING!
AT: I know. She’s sooo incredible. She takes me to another world.
Yeah, it was really stupendous. Portland, obviously, has a big musical community. Do you go out and see a lot of your friends a lot in Portland? Does Portland have a self-contained scene there?
AT: [Laughing] Oh man. I read a really great quote. “When the people are happy, they have no reason to leave.” I feel that there is so much great music going on, so many amazingly talented people, it’s just really blessed. I feel really blessed to have a community like this, right where I live. I love music; it’s my medium. It makes sense that you’re able to communicate that way with your friends about what you’re into and they’re also into the same thing.
Well, tell me about the new album you just put out, Search Zero.
AT: For The Number 8, to manufacture CDs and graphics, I did a Kickstarter. During that campaign, one of the things that I offered was a cover song of your choice. I had some people request cover songs for me to do. I loved the cover songs so much! I wanted them to sound the best ever, so, at first, I was just going to record the cover songs at my house and then send them to each person quietly until I did that. Then I decided I really loved these cover songs so much and I wanted to do them justice. So, I went over to Mike Coykendall’s where I recorded The Number 8. We had so much fun doing the covers; he played drums and bass on some of them and recorded guitar over some other ones and basically, put together his one man band and the cover songs came out so great. I made a playlist of them and was listening to them in the car and thought, “I really want to share this.” Listening back it to it, it sounded like something that didn’t have anything to do with me. All the songs were chosen for me. I didn’t pick any of the songs personally but they became something that I really loved. I connected with each of the songs and it felt very old-fashioned to have songs picked for you. That was fun. I learned about artists that I didn’t know about before like Bette Midler. Now, I’m completely obsessed with her and I’ve watched all of her comedy and I think she’s hilarious. I love her song, “The Rose” and I love the lyrics of that song. Recording these songs at Mike Coykendall’s studio… he’s so talented and he really helped make the record what it is. We did it to the same 8 track that I recorded The Number 8 on. I feel like it’s a partner to the record and that it’s connected. I couldn’t have had one without the other. I made Search Zero on vinyl but we only made 33 of them.
Who’s going to get the 33? Are they up for sale?
AT: I’m all sold out. It’s all gone.
You’re not going to make any more?
AT: I don’t plan on it. It was a special little run. Even though Search Zero is not available on vinyl anymore, I’m selling a personalized Polaroid that I took with the album on the back. I think that’s pretty special because there’s not another one in the world. You have your own one. I’ve been handwriting credits and then put it in a really cute little envelope. You can buy those online, which I think is kind of weird. It’s like a letter that you’ll get in snail mail. I think that’s pretty cool.
Is this part of a larger aesthetic? Because both Polaroid and vinyl are vintage technologies that had really specific reasons for existing that still resonate today. Is there a larger aesthetic behind combining these two ideas?
AT: I love letters and I love writing and I love handwriting and seeing other people’s handwriting. When I first made The Number 8, I imagined people writing to me and sending me a check or cash in the mail. Then, I would have my little desk with all of my stamps and everything and send them a CD back. I thought that sounded really fun. I talked to Adam [Shearer of Tornfelt’s record label Woodphone Records] about it and he said, “Do you want to send them a record?” and I said, “No.” He was able to put it up online and this way, I can also write my letters when I get my Polaroids and also people can order them online. I think that’s a pretty good compromise.
So when you put out The Number 8, you were thinking about how there would have to be interaction between you and your fans?
AT: Well, I thought about what was fun for me. It’s a lot more fun for me to write a letter than it is to write an email. That’s all. The most important thing is the personal connection and that’s what we’re all looking for and that’s why I play music. That’s why I put out records. I made the The Number 8 and I bought CDs, compact discs, and I have tons of them in my basement still. Then, I made Search Zero and I thought, “I didn’t really plan on making another record, this is a covers record. I don’t want to make a whole bunch more CDs that are in the physical world, but, if I can do digital downloads and keep the truth and stories and just put a sticker on the back, I feel like there is less waste in this world and also something that is a one of a kind.”
Tell me about your interest in vinyl. Do you have a big vinyl collection yourself? How did you get into vinyl music?
AT: Well, what’s so great about vinyl is the picture’s so big and you have to hold it and flip it and open it up. Just the act of smelling the paper. It’s so big, it has to be special if you want to bring one home. You have to really want to have the physical copy. Do you know what I mean? I’m not really that crazy of a vinyl person as in I don’t go hunting. Some of my friends are real vinyl hunters!
You have a lot of different musical interests. Obviously, you came out of bluegrass when you were 3, right?
AT: I came out of the world from bluegrass. I was born from bluegrass! My parents had 5 kids and they were both music teachers in the school district, orchestra teachers. In the summertime, we would go on road trips and we’d go to festivals and most of those in Alaska were bluegrass festivals. That’s where I made my friends when I was a teenager. People were jamming around the campfire and I wanted to be a part of it so bad. It was so fun to stay up all night and have a fire and play music. I knew how to play violin. I’d been playing violin since I was 3. My ear could tell me what to do, a little bit. I would play along on my fiddle. My friends were super into bluegrass music: Angela Oudean was a great fiddle player. She taught me everything I know on the fiddle. Then, I joined her band: Bearfoot. It was Angela, Jason Norris and Mike Mickelson and myself and Kate Hamre. We were all camp counselors over the summer at this music camp and Angela and I taught the twin fiddling class; I was 14. We thought it was the best thing in the world to be playing music and camp counselors and hanging out. We went to Kentucky… Mike’s mom brought us to Kentucky which is where I first learned about Bill Monroe and I saw people jamming in the hotel, every single corner on every single floor. I couldn’t get enough; I was hooked forever. My life was changed. I toured with that band for almost 13 years.
Do you ever go back to bluegrass? Do you ever jam with bluegrass bands in Portland?
AT: All the time. Yes. Mostly around the living room. My husband, John McDonald, is a really great bluegrass guitar player and singer, so that helps a lot. He’s from the band King Wilkie that is a really great bluegrass band. I met him in Ireland when Bearfoot was playing and teaching at a kid’s camp. He was hired to play at the American Folk Park, the ultra American Folk Park. The promoter of that festival always says that she set John and I up by hiring our bands. It was a really fun time of our lives. The bluegrass scene is pretty small, as you probably know. If you’re a band in this genre, you see each other a lot if you’re working and touring. That’s the way it worked with King Wilkie and Bearfoot; we’d see each other a lot. It’s cool. It creates a family. It creates a really tight-knit community where you can make some deep connections. That’s the best part.
Your interests now seem to be more far-reaching. Do you think that comes from being in Portland where there’s so many different traditions coming together and all these different ideas being put forth?
AT: My best friends are in a rock band. They really informed me and my musical tastes. The rest of Black Prairie is also in The Decemberists. I learned all about playing with a drummer from them, with one of the greatest drummers of all time, John Moen. He’s incredible and I learned all about playing in a rock band from them. I learned about amplifying my fiddle and what amps to use and pedals and how to write a pop song and also how to write weird instrumental songs with accordion and crazy time changes.
So, before you came into Black Prairie, you felt you had more of a folk or roots focus in what you were doing and then Black Prairie really expanded that?
AT: Oh, yeah and that’s a beautiful way of saying it. I had a classical background because my mom plays in the opera, plays cello. So, I knew a little bit but I also stopped doing that when I was 16 and then got totally immersed into bluegrass. But that’s one of the reasons why Black Prairie wanted me because they wanted to play bluegrass. They were rock and rollers that were like, “Let’s do some acoustic music. Who do we want to play with in Portland?” Then, they picked Jon Neufeld from Jackstraw who’s the greatest flatpicker. He knows the neck backwards and forwards. Then, they picked me; I can play fiddle and sing and I know bluegrass. I thought that was really great. Then, we get to play super weird instrumental music. It was because of them that I learned how to branch out and be weird. There are no rules. I learned that from Black Prairie. Absolutely no rules and every idea is a good idea.
What else are you up to now?
AT: I have a new group singing with me, my sisters: The Tornfelt Sisters. I’m excited to do more stuff with them. Our youngest sister just moved to Portland and they are such amazing singers. We’re doing a lot of three-part harmonies. They sang with me on Search Zero but I want to do all Carter Family songs. [laughing] I can’t get enough of the Carter Family. I’m totally, completely…. And I’ve been this way for so long. I just got the box set out and I’m obsessed.
What do you like about the Carter Family? What’s drawing you to the Carter Family?
AT: I love the despair and the bleakness and I just love the sound of the recordings, how crappy it sounds but in this warm, crispy way. I love imagining sitting by the record player and listening to the radio. I love where the tiny, tiny vibrato and the stiffness of the rhythms and I could go on and on.