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Nobody Tells It Like It Is, Except Perhaps Anna Tivel

Jun 19, 2024

Nobody Tells It Like It Is, Except Perhaps Anna Tivel

“Nobody tells it like it is,” Anna Tivel sings on “Disposable Camera,” the first single from her new album, Living Thing. The song radiates with the joy and pain of reality, climaxing with the lines:

That big black train is rolling
And that deep down scream is growing
A hurricane come howling
A shot heard from the mountain
A blessing and a burden
I swear this will be worth it…

Which are followed by a melodic and cathartic yell. I don’t know how I first came across Tivel’s music, but when I found the song “Blue World,” I got stuck on it. I listened to it over and over, trying to take in every aspect of it, break it into pieces, open it up like a watch so that I could understand how this perfect song ticked. It is still the most beautiful meditation on dying that I’ve ever heard. “You come to the heavy gate and you open it all alone…” is a line I think about often. To me, it sounded like she herself was telling it like it is.

A few weeks after discovering “Blue World,” I was on tour with Kris Drever, who is one of my favorite folk musicians from Scotland. We were trading new music discoveries and I played him that song, after which he became obsessed with it. We traveled around listening to “Blue World” and talking about death for the rest of the tour. Giving someone a new song to love is a special kind of transaction. It’s a gift for the new listener, but also a point of pride to have found something that someone else also finds meaning in – especially when the recipient of said gift is a musician you admire. New song discoveries are an unmatchable currency, a communication beyond words.

“Blue World” sent me on a journey through Tivel’s catalogue, with hours spent listening to Small Believer, The Question, and Outsiders, before the release of her latest record on March 31. With Tivel’s latest collection, I have to come to the conclusion that someone does tell it like it is and that person is Anna Tivel. I spoke with her over the phone for BGS about the inspiration behind her songs and the unique circumstances that led to her production choices on Living Thing.

I’ve been a fan of your work for a long time and I’m curious to know what feels new and different about this record than your past work?

Anna Tivel: I think there are two main things. I’ve worked with Shane Leonard before [who produced Outsiders and The Question], but this is the deepest collaboration we’ve ever done. There is so much of his heart and his sonic experimentation in these songs.

We made this squarely in the pandemic years, so there was no way to call upon a band for live tracking. It was just me and him in his studio. He went insane trying all kinds of sounds, playing all different instruments, and I scribbled extra verses on napkins as I heard what he was coming up with. We worked all day, every day and I slept on his couch for a month. I tried to say yes to everything and I learned so much. I really feel like the sounds feel different than what we’ve worked on before.

The other thing is that going through that year, I was craving soaring choruses… more melody and rise and rhythmic happenings that I normally do. Maybe it was a result of just sitting and looking at the same window for so long. I usually write long and dark monotonous stories with no chorus at all, but I think I craved a little more hope and joy. In general I feel like less people died on this album than usually die my albums… it’s still melancholy as fuck though.

Knowing that these songs were written and recorded during that very existential time, and now that they are being released into a different time, do these songs feel different to you than they once did?

Yeah, it’s interesting, the whole process of putting out a record. I really got stuck in the machine for a little while so it took quite a long time for this album to come out.

They are older songs now in my soul, but the project still feels really fresh. I think because Shane drew them into this more alive, sonic world. It was really exciting and fun to explore joy and rhythm and movement, especially in that isolated time. It felt good to have some hope and just wiggle around and try to feel the good parts of being a human.

So coming back to it now, it feels new and exciting to take them out on the road with a band. It’s making me realize it’s fun to have some songs that we can really move into, rather than building up from the ground.

One of my favorite tracks from your new record is “Desperation” – “Real life is far from fair, you tried and tried and got nowhere/ It’s like somebody rigged the whole damn thing/ Bloody knuckles, empty hands, you want to fight, but all you ever had/ Is desperation.” Can you tell me a little about what led to that song?

I think that one came out of the heart of that pandemic time, watching people, and having an awareness of how close many folks are to the edge, simultaneously knowing how the people pulling the strings aren’t the ones close to the edge.

Maybe your kid gets sick, and you miss work, and then that’s that, you’re evicted, and into the car. You don’t choose what you’re born into and if you’re born with the short end of the stick, it’s so hard to imagine anything but that reality.

You can see getting stuck, because that imagination isn’t generously shared by the people that own it. But if people that are living in a different world reach out to help it can really change the situation. Sometimes that means helping people believe that a different reality is possible. You have to go into your mind to create what you need. It’s sort of the same idea as representation, in the sense that if you’ve seen people that feel like you in very different situations than you, you can imagine yourself into a different situation.

I want to work on making that imagination more widely available.

That’s an amazing point, and a great one to keep in mind especially for artists. Artists can and have played that role for people, I believe. Does this same idea carry through for the song, “Disposable Camera?”

I like songwriting because you’re sort of always looking inward… You think you’re reflecting the world, but so much of yourself gets in there and the things that you’re learning into. A lot of this album is about getting free, getting loose of the way that you’ve  taken in that it “should be,” the way that you should express yourself or the way you should move…

A lot of friends in the pandemic were having kids or trying to have kids and I was thinking about how, when we were all born, our parents were these people. [I was] realizing that everyone making babies has no idea what is going [to happen] and it’s kind of beautiful that it’s this big wheel of nobody knowing what they’re doing. Everyone is kinda hoping that someone else will be like “this is what it is,” but maybe the not knowing is actually a freedom. It feels scary to think you’re supposed to be certain, but you aren’t yet. The freedom is that nobody actually is certain and that’s not going to change.

I was listening to your song “Kindness of a Liar” and thinking about how important escapism was in 2020 and 2021. How badly I needed books and TV shows to get lost in so that I could come back to the present and have energy to cope with what was happening. Is that what this song is about to you?

In this batch of songs I was thinking a lot about what is truth, what is honest, what is listening, and what is being able to have nuance in all of those realms. You don’t just stay certain. To be able to move and shift and read situations and try to be learning in real time, messily, is very different from saying, “This is a fact and I’m going to hit everyone over the head with it until I’m proven wrong, and then I’m going to pretend I never said it.”

To try and tell stories to one another that are compassionate and messy – sometimes telling a story that might not be true is the most gentle and kind thing you can do while something hard is happening.

I think it’s about recognizing how much we crave each other’s stories and being really aware of how we paint the world for each other. The more artfully and more compassionately we tell each other’s stories the more we connect, and it’s not about trying to prove our point.

The most loving thing you can do is to share your mind and heart with people in the most nuanced way. And maybe there’s some fiction and lore in that.

Photo Credit: Kale Chesney

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Nobody Tells It Like It Is, Except Perhaps Anna Tivel
Nobody Tells It Like It Is, Except Perhaps Anna Tivel