Something happened to me when I heard Portland, Oregon-based singer-songwriter Anna Tivel's "Letter to a Mountain." It was in a YouTube video from the 2014 Folk Alliance International Conference in Kansas City, Missouri. Her gorgeous, whisper-quiet voice and flawed guitar reached into my soul. The song is simple, the performance stripped down and Tivel's eyes remain closed throughout its running time. It's raw passion and riveting. Everything shifted. It's been on repeat for a week.
At first I believed this just to be about the expressiveness in her voice, but with obsessive listens to other songs like "Dark Chandelier" and "Saturday Night," Tivel's style revealed itself to be sneakily genre-defiant. Folk and Americana shine out in the forefront, yes, but she's got indie elements a la Jeff Mangum as well, though maybe early Avett Brothers may be more readily comparable. Still, her voice belies folk and country convention; quiet like Vashti Bunyan but powerful and clear and just a little bit whismsical like any one of The Roches.
Tivel, however, doesn't seem to take herself entirely seriously—at least not in a self-promotional way. She's never taken guitar or vocal lessons and, during our interview, she seemed less into talking about herself than her work, stating, "The showmanship of performance doesn't really feed me." She's in it for the storytelling, after all; she's a fan of Didion and Steinbeck.
Tivel grew up in a tiny town in northern Washington state, where she learned violin and fiddle (Suzuki Method during the school year, fiddle in the summer, she says) and gravitated toward folk and country. "My folks play, my sister plays, my mom was total child of the '60s guitar—Phil Ochs, Joni Mitchell—and my dad was in the bluegrass world," she says. "I lucked out." And though music was always there, it wasn't until she left nursing school nearly 10 years ago that she chose to make a serious go of it. "To me, [music] is like this beautifully connective thing where you can use a few photographs you made with words and somebody else can hear that and think, 'Oh, man. I've totally had that experience!'," she says. "The color of that makes me feel in a different way."
All things considered, Tivel's six-ish years spent touring (both solo and as a fiddle for hire) cover a relatively short amount of time, but she is the veritable musical equivalent of an old soul. "I'm a huge sucker for … the darker, the better," she says of her style. "I just don't trust happy songs as much, and there's some really great ones out there; or I'll go to shows with great bands that are just rocking out and people feel so good and I think, 'Damn. What am I doing? What an asshole! I'm just writing the darkest shit I can!', but those stories and those images from the darker corners need to be told. They're real and people need to feel them and hear them and talk about them."
So maybe it's in how relatable her storytelling aspects are, or maybe it's just in the sheer beauty of a songwriter who creates without pretense. Either way, Tivel's upcoming appearance at The Kitchen Sink Recording Studio is a must. And not just for fans, but for local songwriters as well. There's something so endearing about a writer who's willing to put it all on the line, expressing their deepest fears and connecting with audiences through mutual pain. Plus, she sounds so great it's impossible to ignore. Go ahead. Look her up. I double dog dare you.
7:30 pm Thursday Jan. 11. $15.
The Kitchen Sink Recording Studio,
528 Jose St.,