Annalisa Tornfelt: "A Nice Ring to It"
When Annalisa Tornfelt sings, she sounds like the voice in the back of your head – the voice of your best self, whispering in your ear, letting you know that, as scary or awful as whatever's next might be, everything's going to be just fine. Her voice is equal parts airy whisper and crystal clear flute. She sings her way right up next to a vibrato, never crossing over that line. It's a careful instrument, her voicebox, and she weilds it with care. Conversely, her fiddle rips and dances, just to the lovely side of boastful.
Of course, Tornfelt is best known as the Alaska-born fiddler who joined Black Prairie – what had, until then, been mostly an impressive side project for much of The Decemberists – and made them into a band with a lead vocalist. This week, Tornfelt releases a solo album that showcases her stirring original solo work that stretches from country and folk to pop, to something that is altogether her own sound. She recorded it in eight hours, on an eight-track, last August, hence the title, The Number 8.
"In high school I had a boyfriend who, when he discovered I wrote songs, he invited me over to his house," she says. "He had an eight track in his bedroom and he recorded it. It was the best day ever. Eight [songs] on an eight track, and I recorded it in August." When I press her – because, let's be honest, listening to Tornfelt's solo debut makes it clear that this record is about something much deeper than passing nosalgia – she continues, listing all the thoughts she's had about the number eight, in relation to her music, even though the real truth is that, like songs whose writer doesn't want to explain away, it just felt right.
"It’s basically the infinity sign," she adds. "It’s a series of transformations and changes. It’s my secret counting number when I go for a walk. I breathe in for eight counts and out for eight counts. You can just imagine the number eight inside your body. If you’re a number eight [according to numerology,] sometimes you’ll have eight syllables in your name. My given name is eight syllables. That’s all by chance, of course. I just thought it had a nice ring to it."
Speaking of having a nice ring to it, in addition to the typical fiddle and guitar one might expect, the disc also sees Tornfelt playing the nyckelharpa – a Swedish string instrument, which she received as a gift from Peter Buck.
She first spotted the instrument when she was attending Wintergrass outside of Seattle. She commented to her Black Prairie bandmate Chris Funk that she was becoming obsessed and simply had to find one to play. Funk happened to know that Buck owned a nyckelharpa, so made a call and, before long, a nyckelharpa was delivered for Tornfelt to use. The deal they made was that she could play the thing if Buck was allowed to help her screen, should she ever decide to start a nyckelharpa orchestra. (She's aware of a few other nyckelharpa players in Portland, and jokes about wooing them into collaboration during a monthly pancake dinner at the local Swedish center.)
"Nyckleharpa is such a traditional instrument," she says and laughs, "that I got from the biggest rock and roll band in the United States. ... The nyckleharpa just spoke to me like nothing else. ... I had no idea how to play it – it’s not very intuitive. I play the violin so I understood a little about what you’re stuppose to do, but [the first time I played it,] I held it backwards and bowed it upside down."
She continues, her fascination with the instrument made palpable by how impossible it is for her to stop talking about it. "It’s awkward to hold but it’s easy to sing with. It’s really easy to make a terrible sound on it, but if you can get it to respond, you get a really good tone and [with] all those sympathetic stings vibrating, there’s nothing like it. When I pick it up I’m inspired to write a song, just like when you pick up a banjo you’re inspired to come up with your own fingerstyle."
I could easily fill this space with more about this fascinating and beautiful instrument. But, it seems necessary to hop back to Black Prairie.
The Portland, OR-based outfit started its life as a bluegrass band, hinging on the fact that several of the members of highly literate folk-rock breakout band The Decemberists happened to have a thing for bluegrass and traditional folk music. Black Prairie's first album, Feast of the Hunter's Moon, was a collection of just those ingredients (Funk told me last year it began in part as an excuse for him to play the Dobro), showcasing exquisite dexterity and an impressive capacity for pulling tradition forward. On their second album, A Tear in the Eye Is a Wound in the Heart, Tornfelt opened her mouth to sing more, Jenny Conlee's accordion appeared more liberally, and suddenly there was a much more well-rounded, engaging gypsy-bluegrass-country-folk flair to the whole operation. Black Prairie was demonstrating it had both legs and wings, and didn't plan to sit still.
Then came album number three, last year's Fortune, when the band expanded their stylistic trappings and Tornfelt proved to be a singer with even greater remarkable depth. The result was a collection of arresting songs that straddled a stylistic range from contemporary folk to the kind of indie rock that was pouring out of Olympia, WA, in the '90s. Most of it original, much of it coming from Tornfelt's pen. In fact, over the phone recently, she told me that she came to Portland in the first place, thinking she was going to do the music thing as a singer-songwriter.
"I made a record when I first moved to Portland," she said. "That’s what I imaginged I would do. That record is kind of pop-y, though." After some time, when it didn't really seem to be panning out for her as a singer-songwriter, Tornfelt moved on.
"I thought I had grown out of it and I didn’t want to do it anymore. I didn’t get much attention for it, either... And then I met Chris Funk and Jenny [Conlee], and those guys really encouraged me, and we all wrote together. I’d keep on sending them songs that I had written just around the house, and they’d turn them into Black Prairie songs. They taught me how to craft a great song and make a really good bridge. Jenny and Nate [Query, bassist] are so good with taking the songs somewhere. ... So, I learned how to cowrite with Black Prairie."
Somewhere in there, her friend Kristin Andreassen came to town, to play a house concert at a mutual friend's house. Andreassen is probably best known as the guitarist/singer-songwriter from Uncle Earl, though she's done some solo work, has toured with a percussive dance ensemble, and has a new disc out called Gondolier that's the aural equivalent of starting the day on a foggy mountain and ending it in a rocking chair with some sweet tea – smooth and inviting and familiar and just flat-out easy.
It strikes me as particularly interesting that it was Andreassen who enticed Tornfelt back into the realm of the solo singer-songwriter, since she seems to be a vortex of sorts, someone about whom so many fellow songwriters gush. Tornfelt doesn't hesitate to agree. "Kristin is a connector," she says. "She just has that gift. She’s alwayas been real encouraging. Aoife [O'Donovan] and Krisin were doing a tour together, just them and acoustic guitars. I remember being so inspired by them – the ladies standing up by themselves, singing really great songs. [They were] so refreshing and real and vulnerable. And so inspiring."
Andreassen invited her to play a solo set at this house concert and Tornfelt lept at the opportunity. But, in order to play a full hour by herself, she had to have actual songs to sing. So, she got to work by herself, in her house, trying to figure out what Black Prairie songs she could play alone. That led to writing new parts and, ultimately, new songs altogether. Tornfelt spent so much time rehearsing that set, she started to realize she was once again capable of carrying a full show on her own.
Not that she has any interest in parting from Black Prairie. But, with most of the band touring this year behind the new Decemberists project – "Me and Jon Neufeld are the only ones who aren't Decemberists," she says laughing, matter-of-factly – she recognizes there's a little downtime where her own music could fill in some spaces. She has residencies coming up this spring around Portland and has talked with Neufeld about doing some kind of duo thing while their bandmates are off being rock stars. But the real draw remains the music itself, her renewed interest in songwriting, and the possibility that The Number 8 could lead to some deeper connections.
One connection she's hoping for is that people who are interested in receiving a physical copy of The Number Eight , should write her a letter at her post offic box, requesting the album. With indie musicians capitalizing on digital downloads and online marketing, Tornfelt thought it would be more fun to eschew all of that in favor of some old-fashioned interpersonal communication. Of course, knowing that not everyone is going to take the time to do that – and that she would like as many people as possible to hear the record she spent time and love making – she is offering The Number Eight on iTunes. But for those who want to step outside of the box with her, she welcomes the mail at PO Box 18141, Portland, OR 97218-0141.