Photo by Vincent Bancheri
Songs penned after a long day on the road while taking a break in some random motel in a place that may have slipped the mind of a modern map maker, memories of community pools underneath the sun, and being on the road after a couple of years on hold. All of that and more came from this back and forth with Anna Tivel. On the road now overseas, the Portland singer-songwriter will be back stateside this fall with so much goodness, including new material from ‘Outsiders,’ which drops on August 19th via Mama Bird Recording Co.
Kendra: With several albums already under your belt, what’s the one obscure, little thing you hold dear about making records that those who’ve never done so would never know about?
Anna Tivel: I love the process of making records so much. I’m a very solitary writer and have done a lot of touring alone, but the way I’ve recorded has always been the opposite of that, doors wide open in-the-moment collaboration. Each album has pushed my edges and been terrifying and wildly emotional and creatively inspiring, small and momentary and meaningful all at once.
I just love to hear other voices on the songs, they get to have this whole other life when you bring them to musicians whose sonic hearts and thoughts you really resonate with. My favorite way to record is live in a circle in a room together, everyone listening intently and responding in real-time. And when a take has a certain depth of real emotion, everyone gets to live in it at once and it always ends up being the take you keep even if there are mistakes here and there.
I guess that feels obscure and intangible, that mysterious energy that gets in the room sometimes and just makes something feel resonant. But also I think that same mystery plays out in life outside the studio all the time, any conversation that suddenly gets vulnerable, anytime you suddenly feel seen or connected. It’s like that but in music speak.
Kendra: However, no matter how many records an artist has – they all likely feel like your children, or at least family. With that, which family member archetype would you say ‘Outsiders’ represents best? Would it be the baby of the family, the caring grandma with candy in their purse, the wild uncle at Thanksgiving, etc?
Anna Tivel: Oh man, I’m making a big messy family if we’re going down that road. This record would probably be the 19-year-old kid who moved away and did some heady and empathy-inducing drugs and got rocked by the big beautiful chaos of it all and came home for the reunion hell-bent on the kind of radical love and squirmy honesty that everyone takes fake phone calls to escape. But hopefully, it means something real to all of them later when they’re awake in bed and going through the pages of the day.
Kendra: Let’s talk about that title track because I was listening to it while scrolling through memes based on that new image of space from the Webb telescope and found it ironic. Once upon a time space was this glorious thing to explore and today we’re like, cool – MEMES. “Outsiders” feels like this reminder that we used to feel together, but now that is far from the case. Why do you think we’ve lost that sort of united sense of amazement and wonder?
Anna Tivel: Those Webb images blow my mind. And I’ve been trying to sort through my feelings about the way we take things in now, to separate what feels dark and detrimental from what is just my humbug reaction to new technology. Because the James Webb telescope is a new technology, and so is TikTok and all of it comes out of the same wild grab bag of humans learning from past human learning and wanting to be closer and better and more.
Maybe there was a deeper united sense of amazement back then, but maybe we also had less information coming at us to be amazed by and now we have everything all the time at our fingertips and that makes us both more aware and nuanced and also more fragmented and numb because how can you possibly just stand around looking up into the sky when all of human learning and emotion and noise is in your pocket?
Ha. I don’t know. To me “Outsiders” is a hopeful song about the way everyone seems forever united in thinking they don’t belong somehow, and only through things way bigger than us do we get these glimpses of ourselves in connection to each other.
Kendra: On the flip side, your July single, “Black Umbrella,” reminds me of driving through the US for the first time last fall. Living in California, and LA for 16 years, the mind forgets America isn’t all big cities and that there are – as you saw when you penned this – so many of these run-down places on the map that feel like time’s forgotten. However, this song is anything but forgettable as it tells a pretty insane story. Was that based on any truth or was your mind running wild that day?
Anna Tivel: “Black Umbrella” came out in a big rush in a Virginia motel after a long drive and too many hours of radio news. With all songs, but especially with story songs, I don’t seem to know where I’m going until I get somewhere, no plan or preconceived destination, just a mad tangle of emotion and images piling up over days and weeks that need to get out I guess. I think stories really help me distill the too-much-all-the-time sensory nature of the world.
You see two hopelessly sad and scabby kids asking for drug money outside a convenience store and then two minutes later you’re driving by a neighborhood of gated mansions. There’s just no way to make it all make sense, to hold it all. But stories are these slowed-down focused moments that tell just one small thing and I think that feels good to me even when the thing is sad. I guess that’s why we make and seek out art, to elevate the ordinary and make things feel meaningful that might’ve been awful or confusing or just too big to explain in concrete ways.
Kendra: Fans have gotten to hear those and more this summer as you’re currently on tour and you’ll be overseas in August, and then back on the road this fall. How has it been returning to the road after some time away due to unforeseen circumstances these past couple of years?
Anna Tivel: Everything is very new again and it feels so good to be driving around playing shows and also really raw. The energy of being vulnerable with strangers in new towns every night is powerful and feels like such a privilege after two years of not getting to connect that way.
It makes me want to cry when people are willing to be in that space with me, to pause in their busy/chaotic/painful/joyful day to listen to some random girl sing weird dark poem songs. The connection and inspiration I get from touring and the stories people share is the best part of being back on the road. There’s definitely an uneasy feeling and a doubt machine that comes along with climbing out of my hermit nature after so long and I’m slowly figuring that part out. I named a lot of new things inside me over the pandemic and it’s a little scary to step back on stage and try to honor all those new truths and not feel a bit breakable and uncertain. But every part of making music seems to feed the other parts so I’m mostly just feeling so lucky to get to bump up against the world again.
Kendra: Time for a not-so-side note – with it being summertime, I’d love to know your favorite memory from this season whether it was from your childhood or more recent…
Anna Tivel: I got my laundry out of the dryer today and my underwear is getting all worn out and pilly, and it made me remember riding bikes with those plastic beads on the spokes down to the community pool with my sister in the summer when we were kids. And we’d swim and then sit around and watch the teenagers flirt for hours and the butts of our suits were always all worn and nubbly from sitting on the rough concrete like that.
Kendra: Lastly, with ‘Outsiders’ out on August 19th and dates already lined up for the fall, are you already looking ahead to next year?
Anna Tivel: ‘Outsiders’ was recorded just before the pandemic, so it’s been stuck in the cogs for a while and I’m pretty excited to put it out. I’m actually in the mixing process of a record made during the pandemic and it feels strange/fun to be talking about one while listening to another one while getting very excited to get them all out there and have that good empty bucket writing time again.