Anna Tivel wraps her music around relatable characters in profound moments

Anna Tivel is a bard of new-millennium America
Photo by Matt Kennelly

Anna Tivel builds her songs to human scale. With a poet’s economy and eye, the dog-loving Portland songwriter compresses the scruffy details and lingering mystery of characters scrambling to maintain toeholds in towns she’s drifted through during her gig-logging travels.

“Homeless Child,” “Two Strangers,” the angel-beseeching migrant of “Fenceline,” and sleeping lovers of “Minneapolis” (“Curled like two questions, a couple of dancers/ Alone in our separate thoughts”): They rivet her attention throughout her fourth album, “The Question,” which she’s currently promoting with a West Coast tour.

“Lined up with the laundry, your slacks and all those stockings / Suit jacket and
the soft things you dance in when you dream / The neighbors never mention,
the woman they see leaving /
Is the man who works the morning shift selling gasoline” (from “The Question”)

Spare in her presentation and vocal delivery, Tivel likewise measures the weight of the words she chooses with scene-painting care. (Sign up for her mailing list, and you’ll get a monthly poem along with tour updates.) Part of the tension in her music arises from the contrast between the drama of the stories she tells and the deceptive girlishness of her singing voice. Listen to the burned dignity of “Worthless,” though, and the steel inside her tone reveals itself as she moans over a smoldering groove, “I never did wrong/ I never was tempted ’til the day you named my anger,” before her despairing protagonist falls on the sword of her own will.

On the album, producer Shane Leonard’s arrange- ments subtly magnify the otherworldliness of Tivel’s keenly imagined tales. This Friday she arrives at McCabe’s with a four-man band similarly adept at framing her nuanced storytelling.

— Bliss Bowen

Anna Tivel performs at 8 p.m. Friday (May 10) at McCabe’s, 3101 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica. Tickets are $18 at (310) 828-4497 or