For Portland, Oregon songwriter Anna Tivel, the open road is more than a way to bring her songs to new places, it's also a near-endless source of stories. On her new album, Small Believer, Tivel taps into the stories she hears every night, after every show. “When you're touring,” Tivel explains, “you're naked onstage each time. You're doing this vulnerable thing in front of strangers and it encourages people to open up themselves.” You'll see it after one of Tivel’s shows, a young woman who steels up the courage to go up and speak to her. Something in a song has touched this person and her story comes tumbling out, tears streaming down her face. It's powerful to watch, and a testament to the intimate connection between the songwriter and the audience. For Tivel, herself a naturally soft-spoken introvert, perhaps people see in her the struggle they see in themselves to be heard in such a noisy world.
The songs on Small Believer were written while Tivel was touring, but also in-between shifts at the odd waitressing job, or driving Meals on Wheels in her spare time. She has an extraordinarily keen eye for recasting the images she sees into song, so that a homeless man drawing comfort each day while sitting and watching a building go up, brick by brick, becomes the song “Riverside Hotel.” A chance conversation with a neighbor, also a waitress, who makes an empty promise becomes “Last Cigarette.” Each image or moment that burned itself into Tivel’s memories becomes a launching pad for a larger story that she spins into song. And each song of Tivel’s is full of blazing moments that go on to implant themselves into her audience, touching each person. It’s a turning cycle, a spinning wheel of time, movement, and stories that defines Tivel’s passage.
To make Small Believer, Anna Tivel drew her close community of friends and collaborators in Portland, starting with Austin Nevins (Josh Ritter, Della Mae), who produced the album. Nevins shared a deep love for the kind of quiet stories Tivel loves to tell. Nevins brought together Portland collaborators to make the understated accompaniment that pervades the album: slow-driving fiddles, accordions, electric guitars moving beneath and supporting Tivel’s soft words.
Even in Americana as a genre today, people tend to forget that the best songwriters are great storytellers, and the best storytellers source their material from what they observe around themselves. The best songs don't need to be complex or virtuosic, they just need to mean something to someone. That's how they last.
"Everything here is testament to her storytelling gifts (she’s been likened to Steinbeck and I suspect she may have a novel or short stories collection in her) with her finely drawn characters and observations of an emotional life that ranges from defiance to regret, joy to sadness." - Folk Radio UK
“Anna Tivel’s voice is haunting, exhibiting the timbre of a precocious child, whispering to a teddy bear underneath the covers.” – The Bluegrass Situation
“To be sure, these are organic songs that freely reveal the poetry of the mind, heart and soul, the sharp imagery of the world translated into sound, and both the simple and complex things represented sentimentally and at length.” – No Depression
“Portland songwriter Anna Tivel is a favorite over at Hearth. She’s a deft, clever songwriter with a knack for observing the small, subtle beauties of our lives.” – Kithfolk