Who we are, and how we present ourselves to the world, can vary within any given situation. After a year (and some change) of world-wide lockdowns, in which we’ve been mostly isolated, our social interactions limited primarily to digital realms, those visions – both of ourselves and others – have become somewhat distorted, or at least nebulous. Along with that comes a particular fatigue, a sense that if we could somehow disconnect, we’d be able to see ourselves more clearly. PNW fusion-pop outfit Foamboy – helmed by Wil Bakula and Katy Ohsiek – understand, and they’ve somehow distilled these rather awkward considerations into something worth dancing to on “Logout,” their final single from forthcoming debut My Sober Daydream, out October 1.
Premiering today via Audiofemme, the video includes album track “Alien” as a sort of intro, in which Ohsiek confronts other versions of herself locked behind picture frames and television screens, at once horrified and entertained. Directed by Riley Brown, the clip transitions into a neon-hued live set-up featuring Bakula on synths, Ohsiek on vocals, and album mixer Justin Yu Kiatvonchareon on drums as the laid-back house groove of “Logout” takes over.
Though the songs were not initially intended to be juxtaposed in such a way, they blend seamlessly from one to the next as tracks seven (“Alien”) and eight (“Logout”) on My Sober Daydream. That owes to the way Bakula and Ohsiek worked together, though remotely, on the album. Bakula strove to cultivate a refreshing pop aesthetic with instrumental demos, which he sent to Ohsiek; Ohsiek provided lyrics and vocal melodies for Bakula’s sonic snippets – often confronting much darker emotions than the music might suggest.
“I don’t sit down and think, I’m gonna write sad lyrics to this happy song,” Ohsiek says, “[but] it’s nearly impossible for me to write a song about something that’s good.” “Alien” was written after Ohsiek moved from Salem, Oregon to Corvallis for grad school, while “Logout,” she says, is “about wanting to disappear.” Both are concerned with feeling displaced from oneself, in one way or another, but breezy synth modulations keep the mood buoyant. Ohsiek’s vocals melt into abstraction as Bakula assembles everything together in a cohesive whole, which he describes as a “weird science.”
“I usually end up with 30 or 40 chorus or verse ideas,” Bakula explains. “When I’m in the zone of working every day like I was on this album, I’m listening to all those demos every single day and it slowly comes to me, like oh, wait, this piece will go here. I create all these little pieces, and it’s just a puzzle in terms of figuring out what fits where.”
“The juxtaposition isn’t intentional, but I think it works,” says Ohsiek. “For me, the most helpful processing is when I’m writing it, and I can get it out.” By the time the song takes its final form, she adds, “I don’t even register what I’m singing about.” Notable is previously released single “Better,” not only because it confronts depression with an almost sarcastically simple solution, but because of the shift in tempo halfway through the track. No matter what twists and turns Foamboy throw into each song, the album overall has a fluid feeling as synth movements build and blend, tied together by Ohsiek’s relatable, candid lyrics.
Foamboy itself is in a state of flux, too. Ohsiek and Bakula previously released music as Chromatic Colors, collaborating with a variety of musicians across several releases while attending Salem’s Willamette University. “Chromatic Colors was definitely something where we had the room to try out a lot of different stuff. In our earlier stages that was really nice cause we had the freedom to just do kind of whatever kind of songs we wanted,” Bakula says. “Now we’re taking all that experience and focusing it into one kind of aesthetic musically and really working on editing out all of the fat of the songs and narrowing it down.”
The pandemic, in part, necessitated a leaner approach, and though the two have no plans to continue releasing music as Chromatic Colors, Foamboy has expanded to include other musicians – like Kiatvonchareon, who helped Bakula mix analogue and electronic drums for more robust percussion – as live versions of the songs on Daydream take shape. “Not every song works,” admits Ohsiek, “but we’ve been working on it.”
“We just put a group together a few months ago and it’s a bigger group than we’ve ever played with, so it’s definitely an adjustment,” Bakula says. “But it’s been really exciting to hear what the songs sound like live – and also, sometimes, really disappointing.” They’ve opted to play with two keyboardists in an effort to recreate the multi-layered synth sounds, and are looking forward to gigs they’re planning for later this year.
As for the new band name, the album’s title, and its ambiguous cover art, Bakula says those details are mostly arbitrary, meant to evoke a particular vibe more than connect to a concrete meaning. Warm, saturated, and bright, but not harsh, Foamboy’s energy is ultimately as comforting as a soak in a bubble bath – the perfect soundtrack for a soul-healing, unplugged moment.
We all live with other versions of ourselves, identities we’ve outgrown that may suddenly—and uncomfortably—reemerge when we revisit people and places from our past. How we react to these seemingly inevitable encounters is another story, and the topic of the new single “You Don’t See Me,” from Portland-based folk duo Vivian Leva and Riley Calcagno.
Specifically, “You Don’t See Me” centers on the phenomenon of how someone who was once dear to you can become a stranger over time, which Leva experienced firsthand during a strange encounter she had while visiting her hometown of Lexington, Virginia.
“I got lunch one afternoon at a great little spot called Blue Sky Bakery. I sat on a bar stool, facing the large window and looking out onto the street. As I ate my sandwich, someone I knew from high school slowly walked by the window. I waited for them to look at me so that I could wave, but they never did. I wasn’t sure whether they just didn’t see me, or if it was a purposeful choice,” Leva recalls.
Leva, the daughter of celebrated old time musicians in Lexington, was especially baffled by this person’s aloofness because they were more than an acquaintance—they were an ex-boyfriend. “It was someone I really knew, and that kind of blew my mind. I actually saw him twice and he didn’t say hi to me,” she says.
Calcagno, who has collaborated musically with Leva since the two were in high school, remembers how profoundly this impacted her, and how quickly she turned to writing “You Don’t See Me” in order to process it. “She just sat down on the couch and I remember it coming out all at once,” says Calcagno. “I think I left the house – I knew when to give her space to think about it.”
Fittingly, “You Don’t See Me” possesses a sort of nostalgic introspectiveness—both lyrically and sonically. There’s a bittersweet quality in Leva’s crystalline voice as it lilts against a driving guitar and violin pedal that mimics the ticking hands of time. And, as intensity builds, Leva’s exploration of this awkward encounter turns into a larger lyrical conversation about growing apart from people as we grow up—and how weird that can feel.
“A crowded room of faces I remember/From a time before/I try to wave but they turn their shoulders/They don’t know me anymore,” Leva sings. “I’m living in your little box of secrets/Where you don’t see me/And you don’t care.”
Aside from the sting anyone would feel from being snubbed, it makes sense that this cold behavior would baffle the pair. Calcagno and Leva emanate easy warmth and kindness, even in the sunlit cover image of their forthcoming self-titled album. After all, the pair grew up in the same close-knit music community, where everyone is somehow connected and old and new faces are eagerly recognized.
“I grew up playing fiddle music in Seattle,” says Calcagno. “I was actually learning tunes and hearing Viv’s parents’ music growing up, but didn’t know about her.” He still remembers sitting in the crowd at a Leva family performance in 2016, and thinking that the way Leva sang felt so familiar. When the pair finally met, they were excited to know another person in their age group skilled at playing old time music, which isn’t all that common. “I think we were inspired and struck by the generational aspect that we were having these parallel experiences,” says Calcagno.
Leva had a similar reaction herself. “On the East Coast everyone was either a couple years older than me or a little bit younger than me, and so meeting people that were at the exact same stage in life, but you know, really advanced players, was really fun,” she says.
Quickly, the pair began playing music together in an country band called The Onlies. Leva’s acclaimed 2018 solo debut, Time is Everything, which deeply considered the concept of time, featured Calcagno – but the eponymous album as a duo is the debut that finally puts them on par with one another as collaborators. It considers the ideas of distance and separation, something the duo—who sent voice memo ideas for songs across the country via text message while they were still in school in different cities—is well-accustomed to. Unexpectedly, the idea is even more resonant as we all sit in lockdown during the pandemic.
“All of these songs kind of just inherently were about distance and separation and space,” says Leva. “It’s interesting because even though it we didn’t write them in 2020, it feels really applicable to this time. We were writing it in a unique long-distance situation but now I think a lot of people are separated from loved ones.”
Today, Calcagno and Leva are both freshly graduated from college and have been living together in a house in Portland during the pandemic. Their shared living situation has allowed them to play together and remain connected to their fans and community via livestreams, like the Quarantine Happy Hour concert series (they’ll plan to play a release show for the new record as part of this concert series when the album drops on March 12 via Free Dirt Records).
“That’s been a lifeline for a lot of folks in our little scene. It was started by our friends who play in a duo called The Horsenecks,” explains Calcagno. “That’s been a really nice thing to see people and hear from people.”
Clearly, this duo—like so many of us—run on their connection to each other, the music, their fans and their community. That’s evidenced in the nuanced questions they ask in “You Don’t See Me,” as well as their biggest hopes for 2021. “Best case scenario would just be for COVID to die down, us be able to play the gigs we were supposed to play in 2020, see some friends, go to some festivals,” says Leva. One thing’s for sure, if the quality of thisself-titled debut means anything: Leva and Calcagno’s next live performance will be hard to ignore.
Real-life couple Jen Deale and Chris Spicer have been playing music together for over a decade, releasing three EPs as Camp Crush and raising two children through it all. But this year, as it did for so many musicians, presented some of the most intense challenges they’ve seen yet; time they’d booked in the studio last March quickly shifted to a home-recording process with producer Rian Lewis as the pandemic tightened its grip on Portland, where the band is based. But with a newfound appreciation for everything we took for granted before the virus the hit, Deale and Spicer penned a track called “Fangirl” – a sweeping tribute to their music industry cohorts. “You keep shining/Like the diamond that we know you are/And I’ll keep chasing you like I am your own shooting star,” Deale promises. “I’ve got a lot of heart, and it beats for you.”
The rousing track is rooted in buoyant ’80s new wave, Deale’s vocals (and white-blonde locks) bringing to mind Debbie Harry or Gwen Stefani. Bright synths, bouncy bass and staccato percussion add to the nostalgic, fun vibe that begs listeners to dance along; though Deale and Spicer had intended the track to show their own appreciation of other artists, it quickly became a tribute to their fans as well, and an important reminder to let loose and find some happiness in otherwise dark times.
Taking a cue from the same do-it-yourself spirit in which the song was recorded, Camp Crush styled the music video for “Fangirl” it as though it were a Zoom call, with the camera switching between the band, their fans, their friends, and fellow musicians, dancing in choreographed unison. Some names even appear first on the call before their respective webcam loads, a strange greeting we’ve all become well-acquainted with.
“Every time we listened to this song, our family would just get down and start dancing and our kids would start exchanging moves,” Deale says. They developed some choreography for the video but ultimately wanted to include others as well, in a move that’s become indicative of the time we now live in and how our methods of communication and togetherness have changed. “We told people to bring their kids, pets, all of that – we wanted to see elements of the life we are all leading now,” she adds. “When you’re in your Zoom calls, sometimes you’re holding your baby or your cat walks across your screen. We wanted to capture some of those weird moments.”
Deale and Spicer are particularly attuned to weird moments and unbridled nostalgia; they officially met when Spicer became the drummer in one of Deale’s previous bands, but quickly realized they’d known each other as kids. “We grew up around each other but didn’t really meet until much later in life,” Deale explains. “We looked back and realized we went to the same summer camp. He was like, ‘Did you sing in the talent show?’ and I said, ‘Of course I sang in the talent show!’ and he was like, ‘You were Blonde Jenny! I had the biggest crush on you!’ So the name of the band had to be Camp Crush, like your summer camp crush.”
The duo have released three EPs under the moniker since 2018 (She’s Got It, Run, and Feel Something) all the while developing their brand as band (if somewhat reluctantly). “You have to create this presence from your creative endeavors and it’s a lot of pressure, especially as a woman, to be beautiful, sexy and mysterious while also having a little bit of a chip on your shoulder. There’s a lot that the world asks from you in this industry,” Deale says. But, as the couple watched their children grow, it became increasingly important to stay true to their own style. “Having played music my whole life, I feel like I’ve had all these periods where… you sort of find yourself following trends. When you’re raising girls, you’re raising women; it’s so important that they have that strong example,” she says. “It’s pushed me to fight past anything that scares me – if it scares me I gotta try it. It makes me look at my choices and decisions from a different angle – I say, that’s not the message that you want to send, that’s not what you tell your kids.”
To that end, Camp Crush have used their platform to take on weighty topics: their 2018 single “November Skin” leans into the pair’s rock influences while interrogating “women in rock” stereotypes; “Vicious Life” processes the deep political divisions in the U.S. after the 2016 election.
“Fangirl” isn’t quite so serious, but it does subvert the idea that fandom is obsessive, negative, or vapid (particularly when it comes from young women) by reframing it as authentic connection, support, and encouragement. “I wanted to write something to just flip that on its head that’s fun, uplifting and that people can dance to,” Deale says.
Whether their confidence is drawn from fan support or their own values, Deale and Spicer have opened the doors for their experimental yet nostalgic sound to span decades by simply embracing a wide range of genres. “This band has always leaned into making the things that we’re excited about,” Deale says. “I think it’s because of this Camp Crush is a genuine reflection of who we are.”
When Johanna Warren was twelve or thirteen, she recalls thinking that if she wanted to be a true artist, she would have to fuck up her life. Her musical idols – Elliott Smith, Kurt Cobain, Nick Drake – all died as tortured young poets. Warren hadn’t sung in front of anyone since she was a child, writing songs with her little brother as their alter egos, Horsey & Joe. Over the next several years, she’d throw herself first into musical theater, combating crippling shyness to play the parts she’d immediately regretted auditioning for, before preforming jokey songs at open mic nights about surviving apocalyptic floods by taking refuge in the Loch Ness monster’s vagina. It wasn’t until years later, in a grimy punk house basement, that someone took her seriously; even then, she felt a dark pull toward misery and misfortune. “I wanted to be a great artist, so I had to open a chaotic portal to invite in a lot of suffering because that’s where great art comes from,” Warren says. “I think it’s a really grave miscalculation that we’re encouraged to make. I can’t help but feel that there’s some kind of intentionality there, on behalf of some dark, oppressive forces that want us to dim our light and die young and never thrive.”
Fast forward about a decade, and Johanna Warren found herself recording her fourth solo album, Chaotic Good, at Elliott Smith’s New Monkey Studio. It wasn’t the only place she recorded – what started out as angry acoustic demos in her Portland garage transformed over the course of touring behind her 2018 self-released double album, Gemini, as folks she met on the road offered her free studio time from coast to coast. But New Monkey was a significant space for Warren. “Right when I was starting to look for places to record, the owner invited me to have a free day there. It’s all functional as a recording studio, but they have done a really respectful job of preserving things more or less as they were when he was there – it felt like a shrine as much as a studio,” Warren says. “That was so meaningful and that was really the beginning of feeling like alright, I’m making a record. And it felt like it had kind of [Smith’s] blessing. He’s sort of my patron saint of songwriting. I feel like he gave me permission to make a record like this, where it doesn’t have to fit into one neat little genre box, it can just be an expression of my feelings and my own inner hypocrisies and self contradictions.”
Also of particular relevance was the time she spent at the Relic Room in Manhattan, recording with her old bandmates in Sticklips, Chris St. Hilaire and Jim Bertini. Their band had fallen apart in 2012, following the death of Sticklips’ leader, Jonathan “JP” Nocera. JP was the one who, all those years ago, had sat Warren down and made her play every song she’d ever written, recognizing in her something she couldn’t yet see in herself. “He wanted us to keep going with it, but honestly he was the glue that held it all together,” Warren recalls. “I was not capable of keeping it together after he was gone because I didn’t know myself enough musically or emotionally. I wasn’t confident enough in my own ideas because the only music I had really recorded or produced was with them, and they were all slightly older men. At the time I was all too happy to let them take the reins. I was angry about it but didn’t even know that there was another way. My frustrations with that were building but I didn’t have the emotional interpersonal skills to communicate any of that so it just exploded.”
Despite the buzz around the band’s two LPs, 2009’s It Is Like a Horse. It Is Not Like Two Foxes. and 2012’s more minimally-named Zemi, Warren had decided to go it alone, and moved to the West Coast, touring with the likes of Iron & Wine and Julie Byrne. “It was definitely kind of traumatic because I felt like I’d always wanted to be in a great band – I was obsessed with The Beatles and Radiohead. Right as things started to really gel, it all fell apart. And I was so young at the time, it was really formative. I’m just now starting to open the door to collaborating with other people again, cause I’ve been licking that wound for the last decade.” Her first solo album, Fates, arrived in 2013, followed by numun (pronounced “new moon”) in 2015. After recording both Gemini records, but unable to find a label that would release them, Warren formed Spirit House Records from the ashes of a label that JP had gifted her upon his passing. Over time, it has evolved into a collective of experimental folk artists, mostly in and around the Portland scene. Later, Sadie Dupuis of Sad13 and Speedy Ortiz would re-release the Gemini records on her Carpark imprint Wax Nine, as well as put out Chaotic Good.
In the process of recording Chaotic Good, Warren says she looked to that younger version of herself for gems of wisdom and truth that had gotten buried and forgotten over time. “That’s sort of a theme of the album – burying the dream that never came true, and the presence of death and the spirits of the dead, but then the rebirth and new life that springs from the ruins of whatever you’ve buried and grieved,” Warren explains. “This last couple years have been all about a kind of return. It has led to me stepping into my own power, and then also remembering: I have a band – I left them in New York ten years ago. I just need to hit them up and make some amends.” Warren did just that, reuniting with St. Hilaire and Bertini to add drums, synth, and bass to her demos. “It was so healing for everybody to play together again in a completely different context, and for me to be able to assert myself and hold my own. It felt so satisfying to pick up that loose thread and weave it back into the tapestry.”
It was validating, too, to be in control of that process – the band added their parts over the vocals she’d recorded in Portland, as opposed to Warren adding her parts over Sticklips tracks. Back then, Warren says, “I was like the icing on the cake – even though it had been my song that was the foundation around which all of the other instrumentation had been built, I always felt like my stuff was just an afterthought. I didn’t even have the vocabulary to say I can’t hear myself, it doesn’t sound like me, it doesn’t sound like my song anymore. So to work this way with the same people, but have my parts actually be the backbone of the whole recorded construction was really cool. It was such an amazing testament to the collective work we’ve all been doing in the last ten years around gender and power and breaking down these oppressive hierarchical structures.”
The metaphor of excavating her old selves pops up in two videos for the album’s early singles, the graceful stop-motion of “Bed of Nails” and “Only The Truth,” which posits Warren as a Druid resurrected in present-day Los Angeles, still able to find magic in a neon-lit roller rink. “It was so fun to play that character for a couple days, cause I realized, I didn’t really even have to act – this is how I’ve always felt moving through the world, especially places like LA. So much of her world has been lost and destroyed, but magic still exists in everything, and that’s kind of what the song is about too,” she says, before quoting a lyric from the song: “I see light everywhere I go, I see the love in all of you.”
Warren, for what it’s worth, has long identified as a witch “as kind of an eco-feminist fuck you to the patriarchy,” though she doesn’t rely on ritual these days as much as she once did. She practices plant medicine and reiki, and her spiritual beliefs are subtly integrated throughout the album. “What you call God, I call the mysteries of the universe/What difference does it really make after all?” she asks on “Rose Potion,” a song that hints at her experience weaning herself off of pharmaceuticals prescribed for chronic illnesses that only worsened until she was able to find natural remedies and process past trauma. Piano-driven, woodwind-embellished album closer “Bones of Abandoned Futures” describes, in essence, a binding ceremony, in which Warren releases herself from the spells of the past: “Expell from my body the putrid mess inside me and call back my magic to me,” she sings, describing the process as “killing” and “slaughtering” the darkness before she comes to the final, poignant lines, “The time has come for stillness and mindful cultivation of light/Removing the sting and the sorrows of losing by singing with all of my might.” In that way, Chaotic Good is medicine all on its own – the album sees Warren confronting abusers past and present, personal and political, and stepping into her own power and anger as a woman.
“A big part of it [was] just recognizing that I have always had anger in me, inviting that energy into the room, learning how to scream, and giving myself space to do that vocally for the first time,” says Warren, who is at her most brazen on “Twisted,” a seething send-off that sees the singer posit herself as a warrior broken by loving someone incapable of empathy or understanding. “In my previous work I tried to repress it, because I thought it was ugly and scary and bad. I’d been limiting myself to this really pretty, clean, crystalline quality that gets praised a lot. But [for] this record and this time in my life, I’ve given up on prettiness and just gotten more interested in being whole, embracing all parts of myself and not trying to cut things out cause I don’t think they’re pretty.”
Parts of Chaotic Good still rely on the haunting beauty of Warren’s voice – like hushed ballad “Hole in the Wall,” rambling confessional “Every Death,” or wistful, warm acoustic number “Thru Yr Teeth” – but juxtapose them with with the same bitter emotions. As Warren lived her nomadic lifestyle, touring behind Gemini and snatching up time to experiment with newer songs in whatever studio spaces she could, the instrumentation on Chaotic Good grew more robust than any of her previous work, drawing that bitterness out sonically on songs like “Faking Amnesia” and “Part of It,” on which she sings “This is a time for me, everything else can wait/Whatever is meant to be will be and everything else can fall away.”
Indeed, Warren herself is the centerpiece of Chaotic Good, even as springy bass and shuffling drums give the tracks more punk rock energy than the pristine folk she’d cultivated in the past. “I was the only consistent player throughout – it was just me and my guitar and my traveling hard drive flitting around the whole country and working with different people in different places,” Warren says, noting that such an usual way of working was incredibly freeing in that it allowed her to explore different elements and ideas. “It was re-enlivening to get so many pairs of fresh ears on it, a day at a time. It was such a unique way of working. I’m not in any rush to go back to doing it the other way because it gave me so much time and space to reflect and change things up with low stakes.”
“That’s part of the namesake – the chaotic nature of recording it,” she continues. “I was like some little pollinating insect flying around flower to flower and getting the nectar of each moment in time in space,” she says. “I’ve never worked like that before… I feel like it translates to me synaestehtically; when I listen to the record all my senses are flooded with this feeling of variety. I feel like I see rainbows when I listen to it because there are so many moments in time, so many places, so many people, it feels like a travelogue of the last couple years that have been so beautiful really. So chaotic, but so good.”
More than any other song on the album, “Only The Truth” encapsulates Warren’s tumultuous journey, not only as a singer- songwriter, but as human being drawn into a series of co-dependent relationships. As the track builds, she calls out her past reliance on creating songs out of personal tragedy, describing “the sacred well of pain that I’ve returned to time and time again to fill my vessels with the nectar torture poison that my thirsty muse took a liking to.”
“That is to me, an encapsulation of a big over-arching process that I’ve been really invested in personally,” Warren admits. “I’ve taken a real stance against that in myself and in the world around me. It is possible to be happy and make great art and thrive and be healthy and live to a hundred twenty. And I want to do it. I want to prove to myself that that’s possible.”
Warren is currently holed up Wales, following the postponement of a European tour in support of Chaotic Good; she’s planting a garden, foraging wild foods and setting up a recording studio in a spare room, realizing that she needs this time to heal the body she’s put through years of touring. “I feel really happy right now, and honestly, I haven’t had that burning desire to create that I did when I was a tortured 20-something, when that was my only outlet,” she says. “Now, I feel really peaceful when I just wake up and walk outside and plant my beans. I don’t feel the urgency that I did, but I feel that I am making good work that I stand behind that is serving a purpose. And I feel very invested in dismantling that programming that has been running itself out in my mind for a long time and creating and alternative.”
Follow Johanna Warren on Facebook for ongoing updates.
The Mojave is a rain-shadow desert, which means that the mountains block rain weather systems, casting a “shadow” behind them. In the arid heat, one can find the kind of solitude needed to write music, sheltered from the sun by the summit’s back. Singer-Songwriter AC Sapphire, aka Annachristie Sadler, spent five years meditating out there in the badlands, only to find herself now in Portland, Oregon with an EP, Omni Present, due in February; its first single, “Mini Tour,” premiering today; and a full-length tour in the works.
Sapphire began her music career in Sisters3, with her siblings Beatrice and Cassandra by her side. The first “mini tour” they went on was not far from their hometown Downingtown, PA; she got on the road with three other local Philadelphia bands (The Naughty Naughty Nurses, The Extraordinaries and The Clouds). “I have memory of my dear friend ripping up the Bible from the hotel drawer and us rolling joints with some of the torn out pages,” she says, “in combination with a breakup that I was going through at the time – one of those situations where you are on Facebook, scrolling, and get drawn in and stuck on your ex’s photos. This song is about wanting to get drunk to forget and wanting to get sober to remember and wanting to go back to simpler, younger times of my first mini tour.”
After eight years on the road, Sisters3 called it quits. Moving to the desert was part of an escape plan. “The time in between Sisters3 ending and me moving to the Mojave desert was a grieving and healing time for me, trying to not give up on music and finding my own voice as a solo artist,” Sapphire admitted – a difficult task when you’re used to performing in three-part-harmony, often a capella, at live shows.
On “Mini Tour,” Sapphire utilizes harmony, but this time it’s her own voice filling up the room, echoing along the canyons. “I want to fill my cup, I want to get fucked up and not remember you, baby,” she breathes, giving the lyrics the kind of effortless cool one pictures of a desert musician. “Mini Tour” was conceived along with a bit of good luck: she found $5 in the pocket of a jacket she hadn’t worn since her first mini tour. That bit of cash provoked a slew of memories from the good ole days, the kind of faded flashbacks that you can’t find on social media. There’s something warm and cozy about the song itself, a memory blanket of sorts.
“Mini Tour” was mixed and mastered in Joshua Tree and Portland, a befitting start to a song that brings to mind an Astro van full of guitars heading full speed across the sand. With the rain-shadows of the Mojave behind her, Sapphire has become greatly enamored with Portland and is planning on making use of recent heartbreak for her next inspiration (“I’ll be working on some of those songs once the dust settles,” she says). In the meantime, she’ll be hitting the road in 2020, with her first big gig taking place at the legendary desert hotspot Pappy & Harriet’s on March 12th.
Border crossings are headline news nowadays, with stark images of children and adults being processed as they cross imaginary lines in the sand. Portland-based singer-songwriter Anna Tivel’s song “Fenceline” paints a picture of what that crossing looks like and what an immigrant sees for themselves within the land they’re trying to reach.
“I crawl in the dirt, to the edge of a country / My hammering heart and the dust in my eyes / I traded the night for the last of my money / And holes in the old fenceline,” Tivel gently sings, allowing a simple guitar strum to accompany her piercing voice. “Fenceline” manages to bring the listener along, without preaching or passing judgement; it’s the simple story of a journeyman, looking for a place to call home.
The song served as the lead single for Tivel’s latest record, The Question, which arrived in April via Fluff & Gravy Records. Audiofemme is pleased to present the exclusive premiere of this haunting live-in-studio rendition of “Fenceline;” read on for our interview with Anna Tivel below.
AF: Many critics have compared your songwriting to poetry. Are you fan of traditional poetry and if so, are there any poets you go to for inspiration?
AT: Poetry is a world that I love so much and am only starting to dig more deeply into. I love the more contemporary, rough edged stuff that makes you squirm and smile and feel seen. Ada Limon is amazing and I’ve been reading her most recent two anthologies lately. A friend just turned me on to Rita Dove and I’ve been working my way through a book of Margaret Atwood’s poems. It seems like an endless and never ending well that I’m excited to submerge myself in.
AF: You grew up in northern Washington state, a truly beautiful part of the country. When did you first start writing your own music and how did the scenery you grew up around effect your songwriting?
AT: I first started writing songs in my mid-twenties in Portland. I was waiting tables and playing fiddle with other bands on the side and borrowed a friend’s guitar and got instantly hooked. The northwest is always creeping into my writing – rivers and deep forests and stillness and rural space. I grew up in a wild place with deer and frogs and hawks and coyotes and I think that wonder and natural cycles will always be part of me. There’s a slowness to rural places that always seems to match the pace my thoughts and creativity seems to move at. I’m forever attracted to the juxtaposition between the natural world and the things we create to mold it to serve us – big oil rigs in the middle of nowhere desert, factories skirting rivers, etc.
AF: Tell us about “Fenceline.” What was the genesis of the song?
AT: “Fenceline” came out of hearing a really beautiful interview on the radio with a border guard. He talked about finding wire cutters and holes along the two mile stretch of fence he was in charge of patrolling. He told some deeply affecting stories about people he met who were trying to make a better life, people he let through and people he had to send back. It got me thinking about all the ways we build divisions, from simple fences to the gates of heaven where you have to have lived ‘right’ to make it through.
AF: When you’re performing, how aware of the audience are you? Do you adjust performances regularly for the crowd or do you find that a crowd’s mood shifts toward your own?
AT: There’s a real magic to the way a group of listeners shape a show. I like to think of it as a conversation that has just as much to do with the audience as it does with the person on stage singing. Every little grunt of recognition and inclined head creates such a specific energy in the room. I always shut my eyes because it feels a bit too raw and terrifying to look at everyone while singing, but I’m always working on being more open with audiences. Shows seem to feel the most human when I’m vulnerable and then people are vulnerable with me in return. There’s sort of a sharing of permission that happens I think, if I’m willing to really let my heart out then people feel that and open up their own hearts and it can get to a very special place on a good night. It’s definitely something I think a lot about though because I’m pretty introverted and would rather stand in a corner with a bag over my head.
AF: What artists do you have on rotation right now?
AT: Oh man, so much good music out there. I’ve been listening a lot to my friend J.E. Sunde’s new record which is not quite out yet but is so dang amazing. I return over and over to Bruce Springsteen, Tom Waits, and Gillian Welch and am a big fan of Andy Shauf and Adrianne Lenker, Anais Mitchell and Jeffrey Martin. On this spring tour I’ve been working my way through Randy Newman’s catalogue which is totally joyful. There’s just so much good stuff to find.
AF: As a musician, do you have any goals you’re working on right now in terms of mastery? Instruments you’d like to learn or projects you currently have on hold?
AT: All the time. I really want to get myself to learn more guitar. Whenever I sit down I just get so excited about writing that I don’t tend to focus much on learning new chords and musical bits, but I’ve been trying hard to just play sometimes, try new things, listen to sounds. Also I just got an electric tenor guitar that I’m super stoked on. I’m a fiddle player and it’s tuned the same so the intervals make more sense to my brain than guitar. I’m writing a lot right now and just enjoying the brain freedom that comes after a record gets finished and the slate is cleared for new ideas.
AF: What advice do you have for a young singer-songwriter who is just now picking up their guitar and finding their voice?
AT: Just be honest and try to be as free as you can. There’s no wrong way to go about writing songs. I really believe that. The deeper in your body and brain you can get and the more you can shake off ideas of what it ‘should’ sound like, the better. It’s a weird and wonderful way to move through the world.
Anna Tivel’s The Question is out now on Portland label Fluff & Gravy Records, and you can catch her on tour through the end of May.
Each week Audiofemme gives away a set of tickets to our featured shows in NYC! Scroll down to enter for the following shindigs.