There are some songs that are gifts. They come into your life at just the right time. All at once, something you’re reaching to reconcile is named. For me, Anna Tivel’s performance of “Illinois” was one such song. After reconnecting with a dear friend who is a survivor of abuse, I’d grappled with the beauty of having her within arm’s reach, and the heartbreak of learning her story. Enter, “Illinois.”
This song, written by Tivel for a friend who’d been through an abusive relationship, imagines the moment she drives away for the last time. Tivel’s voice is a warm comfort amidst stark, deeply personal imagery. Her performance is laced with the melancholy brought by understanding and empathy. Yet, there is a quiet resilience that rings through her vocals and echoes across each lyric. She wants more for the subject of her song, and her vulnerability is utterly captivating.
“Sometimes songs are these elusive specks of dust floating around in a tiny sliver of brain light, hard to grasp and even harder to shape,” Tivel notes. “Other times they come rolling from the depths of your gut, scalding hot and untameable, a feeling that you needed so badly to express. I guess ‘Illinois’ was one of the latter. It felt both terrible and relieving to write, the release of an ugly thing, an attempt to make sense of it. There’s a lot of ugly in the world, right now and yesterday and tomorrow. But there’s a lot of beauty there too. I’m forever hoping to tell a story in a way that shows the ugliness with honesty, but lets the beauty keep breathing.”
Listening to the lyrics, it's clear that, for Tivel, “writing is something that makes [her] heart race.” To watch Anna Tivel is to be engrossed in raw, detailed images that hit at the core of an emotion. One particularly striking lyric describes the "brightly colored blood of ugly words.” In another, Tivel’s word choice creates the perfect juxtaposition of beauty and pain: “Underneath the heavy sky the highway shines, a razor blade cutting down to bone."
Of her unparalleled use of imagery, Tivel reflects: “There are songs that elicit the same power that are made of a million tiny photographs that make you feel so deeply because you’ve seen or heard or felt something similar... a way to share a feeling without telling someone what to feel. We all experience life so viscerally and certain moments and emotions are all tied up in the way the air hung, the way someone moved or looked or spoke.”
So what is it like to perform such emotional, personal pieces? Tivel says, “When something gets finished, there’s this crazy electricity around it and it feels so good to share.”
It feels good to listen too.