"Well, to answer your first question: Yes, I do want to be a star!"
It wasn't actually the first question I asked Annalisa Tornfelt during our chat in the sunny Southeast Portland studio she uses to teach violin and fiddle, but it was part of a string of queries about her approach to releasing her brand-new solo album, The Number 8. After a couple years touring the world and logging major media appearances with Black Prairie—the Decemberists offshoot that evolved from informal instrumental jamming to a full-fledged outfit that's performed on The Tonight Show, with Tornfelt on lead vocals—her initial scheme for sharing her new collection was to rent a P.O. box and take orders exclusively via the good old-fashioned U.S. mail. Asked whether the idea was a conscious withdrawal from the spotlight, Tornfelt says it was rooted more in the romance of correspondence and country music's past, sparked by a souvenir glossy photo of Patsy Cline she bought while visiting the Country Music Hall of Fame.
"I love writing letters," she says, "and I love waiting for snail mail, and I love getting packages. I thought, if I could write to Patsy Cline and order a CD, I'd be really excited." But when she shared her modest release strategy with her friend, Weinland's Adam Shearer, he asked whether she wanted anyone to actually, y'know, hear the thing. "He asked, 'Are you taking a stand against the Internet? Is it going to be a cult thing, like only people in the know?' That was not at all my intent." Shearer and others persuaded Tornfelt to initiate a PledgeMusic campaign, letting customers order more conveniently while still allowing for Tornfelt's personal touch in distribution—including the option of her very own glossy black-and-white photo.
When Tornfelt moved to Portland from her native Anchorage in 2000, it didn't take long to make the connection that opened the doors to the local music scene. Putting up fliers for violin lessons at area stores, she met guitarist Lewi Longmire, who "invited me to go to the Laurelthirst, but I wasn't 21." Playing as a duo with Longmire, Tornfelt started performing around town, eventually being invited by guitarist Chris Funk to a jam at Decemberists bassist Nate Query's house, which organically evolved into Black Prairie.
Now that her bandmates are busy again with Decemberists duties, Tornfelt says she's glad she took up producer Mike Coykendall on his open call last year to record area musicians informally on 8-track. Recording on that machine, over an eight-hour period, inspired the title of the new album, a collection of 15 lilting but often somber acoustic numbers featuring Tornfelt on guitar—and, on one track, the exotic nyckelharpa. Like Tornfelt herself, that instrument has Swedish roots, though she came by hers though Portland connections, as a gift from Peter Buck. And like the new album's release, with its mix of snail-mail orders and Internet crowdfunding, her approach to the traditional instrument is informed by modern technology: When she brought the complex, 15-string instrument home, she figured out how to tune it by looking it up on YouTube.
SEE IT: Annalisa Tornfelt plays Alberta Rose Theatre, 3000 NE Alberta St., with Michael Hurley, on Saturday, March 14. 8 pm. $15. Under 21 permitted with legal guardian.