GENRE: Folk, Americana
ESSENTIAL TRACK: “The Question”
FOR FANS OF: Anaïs Mitchell, Patty Griffin, John Steinbeck
Listening to a record by Anna Tivel is akin to immersing yourself in a good book.
You can expect to be absorbed into worlds of characters portrayed with the care of a painter, every lyric a careful brush stroke that reveals the nuances of an unseen life coming into focus. For Tivel, this is a choice. She chooses to observe those around her and to lean in to the tarnished parts that most people keep hidden.
“The darker bits and the more lonesome bits always feel like they need to be told,” Tivel says. “Those are the things that connect us as people... seeing the underbelly and the flawed parts of each other.”
Her keen pursuit of stories that struggle to be told is a rebellion against a culture that constantly tells us to show only our best selves. “I grew up so quiet,” Tivel remembers. In her family life, there was a clear message: “You should always make everyone around you feel like everything is fine. Don’t talk about any of that stuff or let yourself out and don’t try to find that out. People don’t want to talk about that. Don’t let that out.”
In her mid-20s, Tivel began to re-examine that approach. Exploring the idea that darkness and difficulty should be swept under the rug gave her a piece of her personal puzzle: songwriting.
“I think writing songs was the first time that I discovered that [it’s just about] being vulnerable,” Tivel says. “That’s the piece that makes us real and that’s the part that connects us even if we are really different from each other. That’s the part that feels the most true.”
“I remember the first time that I wrote something that had a real emotion in it that was my own, or when I started writing stuff that had real emotion coming from characters, and I remember feeling the way that would change a room.” She adds, “I can feel when I let myself say the deeper thing or the truer thing; it makes my gut clench up.”
On her latest, appropriately titled record, Tivel grapples with the idea of questioning. The Question, her fifth full-length, was recorded in Eau Claire, Wis., with Brian Joseph (Bon Iver, Sufjan Stevens) and produced by Shane Leonard (Will Oldham, Damien Jurado) after the two met at the Sisters Folk Festival in Central Oregon.
The title track, “The Question,” arose from a late night walk in New York City. Glancing up into a window, Tivel noticed a “man, or what looked like a man, putting on a wig and makeup.”
The fleeting intimacy of the moment struck her. “I’d been reading a lot of stories and meeting a lot of people at shows who are struggling with identity and gender,” Tivel says. “So, I started writing a poem from that direction... it feels like a prayer.”
It is a song, Tivel has found, that resonates strongly with many people.
“A guy came up a few days ago after a show,” Tivel says. “He was an older guy, a little rough around the edges.” The man told her that the song reminded him of friends in his past who had shared with him their struggle with their assigned gender. “‘Listening to your song, I thought for the first time it must have taken so much bravery for them to tell me that,’” Tivel recalls him telling her. “It made me feel like that is the whole reason [to write and perform],” she adds.
“The ending line of the song [‘The Question’] is: ‘the glory of the question and the answer is the same,’” Tivel tells. “Maybe it’s all right that all of life is just this string of wondering and chipping away at what feels true to you. How to best see each other and love each other.”
That is the beauty of Tivel’s work. Her ability to see the world as it really is allows the listener to see it too, and, in turn, themselves. The Question’s lead single, “Fenceline” (watch a live video below), opens with a reference to our southern border “and holes in the old fence line,” telling an evocative story about humanity and the divisions we create, in both our physical life and spiritual afterlife. Tivel’s unique capacity for telling these stories with a plain honesty gives her a platform to connect listeners with narratives that might be outside their personal experiences.
For Tivel, it is the sharing of these stories that creates moments of empathy and understanding to recognize the emotional journeys of those around us—hopefully leading us to find common ground in our complicated world.
UPCOMING RELEASE: The Question out April 19 via Fluff & Gravy Records