Interview: Anna Tivel of Fluff & Gravy Records

From playing fiddle to picking up the guitar and breaking into the Portland music scene, Anna’s adoption in to the Fluff & Gravy Records family has fostered a creative period that now sees her releasing her first LP, Before Machines. This incredible songwriter with her fragile voice talks with us about her journey to this point, her odd comfort on stage but discomfort off, and her off-the-cuff recording choice for the album.

WB: I’d love to talk about your genesis getting into the Portland music scene. You had moved here and started waiting tables, and then broke into the Portland music scene. How exactly do you do that?

AT: It’s one of the friendliest ones I’ve ever found in this city. I moved to Portland to go to school and then hung around. I wasn’t writing songs or playing much fiddle with anyone, and I started looking for ways to play. I started writing songs maybe a few years ago and playing guitar. I wanted to do some more music and so I started looking on Craigslist on the musician page. There was everything from “dress up like a cow and play bluegrass in the mall for the release of a new app” or there’s little bands people are forming.

So I started getting together with people. Everyone was just really friendly. Just kind of [made] my way through the grapevine, I guess. I played with a guy named Tyler Stenson for a little while and met someone else through him, and someone else though him. Eventually, I picked up a guitar and started writing songs and that’s when I really wanted to take it more seriously. I did that for a year and thought maybe I could stop waiting tables for a little bit and try it out and see if I could, between playing fiddle with other people and doing my own stuff, make ends meet.

WB: So it’s working out? You’re not waiting tables anymore?

anna-0617AT: No, I was thinking about doing it this winter. I’m definitely not in the lap of luxury by any means.

WB: So you said you started writing songs about two years ago. What prompted you to begin writing songs for the first time in your life?

AT: I guess I’ve always really loved writing in general. I’ve always loved poems and stories, and the lyrics to things I’ve always been drawn to. I just didn’t really have a vehicle to make stuff into songs and play guitar. Writing songs on fiddle never really felt natural to me. I just started playing my roommate’s guitar a little bit and learning a few chords and messed around with words. Then it just clicked, I guess.

WB: So what do you draw from? There are a lot of different artists, and a lot of different styles or types of songs. Are you writing by opening your heart and writing from very personal experiences?

AT: I have this aversion to being too obvious in my songs, like saying the direct thing, whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. The more personal it is, or the feeling of it, the more truthful I feel like the song is. Then it kind of sticks and I want to play it, I’m proud of it, but when I’m writing a song that isn’t as close to home, it never really sticks.

WB: So you went from waiting tables to breaking into the Portland music scene, meeting people, and then you started writing songs. How did Fluff and Gravy come together? Did you have this album before you connected with the label?

AT: Kind of. I met Jeffrey Martin, who was living at John [Shepski’s] place from Fluff and Gravy, two years ago I think, and started playing fiddle with him and singing; then we did some touring together. He knew John, and was playing the Wildwood Festival out in Willamina. I went out there and met them. It’s the most wonderful family of people, musical people. They get together and have fires and jam all the time, and all their kids hang out.

I haven’t been doing music in this way for very long. It’s just a search to find how to make it feel right. When you’re making an album, you’re starting out as a musician, it’s a lot of self-promotion. I’m never sure whether that’s alright with me, or how to put that in a box. Fluff and Gravy just feels right to me, the way they go about stuff. John wants to do only vinyl, ever. He never listens to CD’s or anything. He’s all about the integrity of things. He writes beautiful songs, their band [Vacilando] is one of my favorite bands in Portland. It’s just a good family. I’m really glad that I met them.

WB: Obviously, from what it sounds like, they just let you do whatever you wanted to do on this album. There was no real direction or editorial oversight, is that right?

AT: Yeah, I just kind of brought it to them. I really wanted to do it live, because I was touring a lot right then, so I was by myself and I don’t usually have a band. I had a couple of friends I wanted to chord with. Sam Howard on bass, Taylor Kingman played electric guitar, David Strackany played drums, and then Jeffrey Martin did harmonies.

I just had this idea that it would feel really great to get together with them a couple times and just have a couple crash practices and record it live, all together in the room so we could feed off of each other’s energy. I respect them as players. They care a lot. I kind of wanted that feeling of a performance where you’re in the moment and everybody is watching each other for cues and the song takes on its own feeling from that. I brought that to John and in this tiny room in the studio they just made it work. They had never done that before. They just crammed us all into this room and rearranged things.

WB: That was my next question: It was a very interesting decision on your part to do a rougher, less practiced album. Are you happy with the end product?

AnnaTivel_BeforeMachines_Digipak_flatAT: I’m really happy with it. I kind of want it to always feel like a real thing. Like right now, I’m learning so much and I’m sort of new to performing and songwriting and all that. It feels like a really rough thing to me. Everything that comes out is sort of raw and I have to work on it, shape it, and it’s not polished. That’s the best part of that feeling to me, is being able to write and not judge yourself or polish it too much. The way you feel playing with people when you don’t know the song, you just really connect with each other. I wanted to make that. You can’t separate the words from the song, because we do it all live. So I couldn’t sell it to commercials if they wanted; there’s all this businessey stuff. It’s not very clean, but it just feels good that way to me, I guess.

WB: Is that something that’s possibly temporary just for this album or is that something that you think will permeate your style as a person and performer, not putting on any airs for your performances?

AT: Yeah, I hope so. I’m definitely not a performer. I don’t say the right thing or dress the right way or anything. That’s one thing about this kind of music that I really like, or the musicians that I really respect. Their songs can stand alone, and I’d like to be able to get there someday. Where you could just be wearing what you’re wearing and you can stand up on a stage and really make people feel something. That’s what I’ll try to go for.

WB: So you’ve been performing in the Portland area and the Northwest, and you said you’ve been on tour. Do you still get stage fright? Also, what do you hear from fans or first time listeners that really does it for you, gets your heart aflutter?

AT: I guess if someone comes up and says, “This line made me think of this in my own life.” That’s like gold to me. It makes me feel like a million bucks for weeks. That they could take something that came out of my guts and it spoke to theirs.

I still get terrified. I’m no good at giving speeches, and being in front of people has never been what I’m good at. It’s funny, there’s this tiny pocket of this way that I can share something with people. When you can explain it in an artistic way, the way your lyrics are, you don’t have to make sense, necessarily. Everybody takes from it what they hear in their own life, and I like that about it.

WB: So you’re a bit of a shy person in general?

AT: Yeah.

WB: But you’re at the folk festival in Texas right now and you get up on stage in front of God knows how many people. Sounds like a little bit of stage fright.

AT: Yeah, I guess. I’m playing some fiddle with Jeffrey Martin here and we’re not performing too much, but there’s something really magical about standing in front of a whole bunch of strangers and singing an artistic version of something that you wouldn’t tell your best friend; that you wouldn’t have the words to tell. There’s no other time in your life you really get to do that. It’s a weird vortex.

WB: So, it seems like a bit of a whirlwind, a fairly short curve, from waiting tables and checking Craigslist, to you having a new LP coming out on the 17th of June. Then you’re going on a Northwest tour, I see. How wild is this? Do you ever take a moment and sit back and go, “Holy crap, compared to where I was…” Do you feel like you’ve made it, or had that surreal moment where you’re like, “I can’t believe this is happening”?

anna-0749AT: Yeah, it seems fast, but I think the whole thing is just this long, weird, wonderful journey that hopefully could go my whole life whether or not I’m always doing music as my main thing. I don’t know what I did before I wrote songs. It was just this constant battle to speak to people. There’s this little thing that really helped that. I’ve always been like that about music, I guess. I could go to a cocktail mixer and just claw my way out. Or I could go to a jam with a bunch of strangers with my fiddle and I just feel like it’s the best party in the world. It’s just friendly in Portland. Everybody helps each other out. They go to each other’s shows and they play on each other’s albums.

I started playing fiddle with the Shook twins a few years ago and they’ve just been so great. I get to keep writing my own songs because of the work I get from them. They’re just wonderful and I’ve learned so much. They let me play my songs during their set and they’re just a family. That’s what they want, for venues to remember how gracious they were and for their fans to feel like they’re in their living room.

WB: Is that really unique to Portland? It sounds a lot less competitive than you might think the music business would be from a complete outsider like myself.

AT: I’ve never lived in a different city and done music. I’ve briefly been through other places. I think folk music especially is a friendly scene, generally. I think people want to grow, and they’re competitive with each other, but it’s definitely not LA where business takes up a lot more space in the music world. You wouldn’t move to Portland to become a star. You’d move to Portland to sink into a really wholesome, friendly music community where everyone is really supportive and you can work on your craft more than find the right places to get famous.

WB: It must help to have so many music venues in Portland. There’s something going on every day. It’s also a bit of a hub for any national tour. You go through Seattle, Portland, and then down to San Francisco as a pretty standard run. Has that helped, to have such a wide variety of venues and opportunities to play and hone your craft?

AT: Yeah, for sure. I am from a really small town in northern Washington, and when I moved to Portland I worked at this little movie theater serving popcorn. For a while I would spend all my money going to shows because I would look in the paper, or the Mercury, or Willy Week, and there would be something like six people in a month that I was like, “Oh my gosh! I’m probably never going to see them again!” I just had this small town mentality like, “I can’t believe I could go see this in my town!” After a while I had to cut myself off and see one show a month.

You can definitely see people that inspire you, and there’s also a variety of places to play if you want a smaller listening room or if you’re looking for stages or places to play. It’s really nice. It’s not in every city where you can play in a small listening room and book it easily.

**For more stories about Portlanders just doing their thing and chasing dreams, check this out: Poppycock Magazine

Where in Portland is Poppycock

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