B&L: What animal do you associate yourself with (given our ties to oxen)?
Tivel: Sometimes I feel a bit like a prairie dog, burrowed underground in my own weird brain land mostly, but popping up to stand in the sun and watch the world move around me.
B&L: Why music? Why do you seek it? Why do you create it? How’d it come calling to you?
Tivel: Music and words have always felt like a home of sorts to me. I was a quiet little kid who always felt wonderfully lost in books and records and the radio. I started playing violin in the first grade after listening to my grandpa play and loving the sound. That feeling of speaking with sounds has always seemed like magic. I played fiddle in bands after college and finally picked up a guitar and started writing songs around that time. The writing really took ahold of me in a way I’ve never felt with anything else. I think it’s the way I feel best communicating, the way that I feel most honest and connective in the world.
B&L: What’s the making of a great show?
Tivel: Hmm, so many different ways for different people. Seems like the more honest and raw someone is, the more powerful the show feels. I think listeners can feel when someone is being truly vulnerable and generous with them and they return that energy and that’s when a show is really something special.
B&L: Is it weird to step foot onstage and play to a room full of (mostly) strangers?
Tivel: Totally weird. And also totally wonderful. It’s a privilege to be able to speak your heart to strangers and have them listen willingly and come back at you with their own experiences and hurt and joy. There’s something free about communicating with strangers that can’t always exist with people you know intimately. I think (I hope) it’s like a good movie. You watch this world that a director invites you to step into and the actors bring it to life and you get to feel it through the lens of your own experience and see the bits of yourself that resonate with the story lit up on a big screen and made more beautiful and powerful than you often feel.
Being on stage is an odd and wonderful and sweat-making activity. I’ll probably never get used to it.
B&L: Let’s talk about your new record, “The Question.” What sort of goals you had for yourself when you set out to make this record? Did you pull in any lessons from past recording experiences?
Tivel: I think my only real goal going into this record was just to be open and free and let it just be a moment in time, not put pressure on it to be all planned out and perfect. My friend Shane Leonard who produced it is this amazing drummer and also a brilliant songwriter. He has a great sense of song and story and really let the songs breathe and let the words lead the music, which I loved and appreciated. I’m not a very plan-y, particular person and it felt so good to go into the studio with musical minds that I truly admire and just work things out on the fly and try to be present and feel each other and the songs.
B&L: Is there a consistent question you enter each day exploring? Or one that rears its head more often than others?
Tivel: Seems like life is just a string of unanswerable questions. Who am I? Is this thing I’m doing a helpful thing in the world? What is wrong with my brain? How can I love my people better?
I feel like I’m the happiest and the most free creatively when I let all the questions just float around and realize that there’s no concrete answer, just a constant searching and listening and trying to be better, do better.
B&L: Is songwriting an easy or arduous process for you? Are you an “in the moment” kind of writer, or do you have to actively schedule “office hours” to get words on paper?
Tivel: Songwriting just seems kind of necessary for me. I feel really good when I’m in a constant state of scribbling little lines and making little phone voice memos. Doesn’t matter if whole songs are always being written, just feels good to look at the world through a musical/lyrical lens I think. Sometimes when I’m feeling really down I’ll realize after awhile that I just haven’t been putting pen to paper in any way, that I haven’t been trying to process things in a creative way. I tend to try to keep my brain in that practice, but it definitely gets pushed aside sometimes in all the computer work/bill paying realities of life.
B&L: Where do you tend to pull inspiration from?
Tivel: I’m constantly inspired by momentary images and small stories. I like very normal still life moments that can help spin a larger story, a woman sitting alone at a kitchen table, someone’s face flashing by in a passing train. Moments that let you wonder about people feel extra magical. I also love the stories that people share after shows or just those random conversations you have with strangers. The other day in a thrift store a woman next to me held up these crazy glass looking high heels and told me that she broke her ankle on her wedding day trying to dance in shoes like that.
B&L: What’s the importance of observation and honing in on the peripheries of everyday life?
Tivel: There’s so much noise and movement all the time, it’s easy to try to tune everything out just to get through the day. But I feel kind of stuffy and stifled when I forget to tune in and wonder about people. My favorite thing in the world is to just sit by a window in some greasy spoon diner and watch people go by and listen to the conversations around me. I love people a whole lot but am pretty introverted so I don’t always like talking and being in big groups. But the feeling of watching little moments of people’s lives unfold is really inspiring and heartening to me for some reason.
B&L: What’s one tune (or, heck, a couple) that exists out there in the ether that blows you away that you kind of wish you had written yourself?
Tivel: Oh man, so many. There are just so many great songs out there. Tom Waits and Dylan and Gillian Welch and Josh Ritter and Anais Mitchell and so many others are constantly blowing my mind. I’m forever in love with this song by Joe Henry called “Our Song,” about seeing the baseball player Willy Mays at a Home Depot looking for garage door springs. It starts out with this tiny everyday image and expands and expands until it talks about the weight of all of our hopes and dreams and how we’re all looking for something to slow a heavy load and something to help us raise one up. It’s a total masterpiece and I go back to it a lot.
B&L: What can folks expect when they come out to see you perform at the Word Barn on April 20th?
Tivel: A very wordy night of word love. I’ll be sharing the show with my good friend Dietrich Struase and we’ll both be playing lots of heartfelt stories. It’ll be a really fun night. We hope to make you cry multiple times.
B&L: Question number 12. If you could have a dozen of anything, what would that dozen of something be?
Tivel: New songs. Then I could start working on another album and I love that process.
Or dogs. I miss my two goofy dogs on tour so bad and if I had the land for it, I’d probably go to the humane society once a week and adopt another snaggle toothed weirdo to be part of the pack.
Anna Tivel makes a stop at the Word Barn with Dietrich Struase on Saturday, April 20th. Click here for further information and to secure your spot!