Anna Tivel’s new album is called The Question. But rest assured that the Portland singer-songwriter presents more than just one query on her fourth release, whose title track is premiering exclusively below.
“It feels like this similar thread between the songs is sort of grappling with trying to figure out the meaning of a bigger thing and struggling with that — just the humanness of spending a whole lifetime struggling to figure it out when maybe it’s figuring out the struggle is the thing that actually gives it meaning,” Tivel tells Billboard. And much of what she writes about on the 10-track set was inspired by being on the road, “driving around and listening to the news for hours and taking in people’s stories and how everything that’s going on is affecting people in different parts of the country.”
The Question‘s title track, meanwhile, came from a specific encounter during Tivel’s travels. “It’s about being in New York and looking up into a window and seeing a man putting on makeup and a wig,” Tivel recalls. “There’s a lot of people I know and friends of friends who are transgender, transitioning or just struggling, and having the president sort of waffling backwards on any progress that’s been made with that. I started writing this (song) as a poem that night and put it to chords later back at home.”
The Question, which comes out April 19, was produced by Shane Leonard, mostly at Hive studio in Eau Claire, Wisc., with engineer Brian Joseph, who’s worked with Bon Iver and Sufjan Stevens. “It was very collaborative and alive,” says Tivel, noting that Leonard frequently pushed her out of her comfort zone during the sessions. “He really stretched me way outside of my normal, more folky zone to get some other sounds, synthesizers and different rhythms. There’s songs where he would say, ‘OK, you’re not gonna play guitar on this one, and I want you to speak it more than sing it…’ Because I tour solo so much and play the songs how I write them, without any voices chiming in on the arrangements, it was difficult and really fun to work on his suggestions. Some things we’d butt heads on and finally I’d try them and it’d be awesome.”
Tivel plans to hit the road to support The Question during March, with dates planned into the fall as well as overseas. “Hopefully I’m gonna take a person or two or three out on the road and try to have a little bit more of a sound,” Tivel says. “I’d really like to represent the sound of the album in the live shows as much as I can.”