For songwriter Anna Tivel, speaking up isn't always easy.
"I'd rather sit at the edge and watch everybody. It's less helpful for other parts of life," says Tivel over a spotty phone connection while on a train from Suffolk, England, where she played a festival. "Turns out it's helpful for songwriting."
The singer-songwriter just finished a European tour and says she's eager to return to Portland. At her homecoming show this week, she'll debut new material from her upcoming album. The album won't be released until winter, but it's already recorded. Funded by a Kickstarter campaign that brought in a generous $25,000, Tivel traveled to a recording studio in Wisconsin last May to work with producer and drummer Shane Leonard, bassist Jeremy Boettcher and guitarist Courtney Hartman.
Tivel's untitled fifth album was built from stories she'd collected over the past few years. "I think I'm drawn over and over again to small, hopeful stories of people who aren't quite making it happen for whatever reason," she says. "Those little bits of hope, and little bits of darkness, are the ones that don't get celebrated as much."
Just a few years ago, Tivel was waiting tables and literally fiddling with music on the side. "I've played fiddle since I was a kid, and [after moving to Portland] I started playing with different bands around town," she says. "It wasn't until later that I picked up a guitar and started writing songs. That's the thing that really grabbed me by the guts, and I found that I wanted to do it forever."
Not long after she started writing, Tivel moved into a travel trailer and traded in part-time waitressing to be a full-time musician. Her lyrics are snapshots of her experiences on the road and encounters with strangers. The gentle strum of Tivel's acoustic guitar and the soulful lilt of her voice is woven with hidden stories from the world around her.
Tivel has the poetic ability to spin darkness into light. On her last album, Small Believer, she sings about rain that falls "like a dark chandelier" on a drunken, despairing man who's lost his factory job of 30 years. On "Last Cigarette," Tivel describes burns on a line cook's arms that mirror the bruises he gave his girlfriend at home.
Even when she's singing about dark subjects, Tivel's lyrics extract their colors from small, everyday tragedies, and use them to paint masterpieces.
"Songwriting is the only thing I've found," she says, "where I've felt like I could speak quietly, say what I'm trying to say, and connect with people in a way that I can't in everyday life."
SEE IT: Anna Tivel plays Mississippi Studios, 2943 N Mississippi Ave., mississippistudios.com, with Jeffrey Martin, on Thursday, July 12. 8 pm. $10 advanced, $12 day of show. 21+.