Before you come into the world you should know // there are things that will hurt and things that won’t //
like scraping your knees on the asphalt // and the freedom right before you fell//
nobody tells it like it is // they say ‘isn’t it lovely,’ and ‘buck up kid,’ // but you learn how to breathe just by
doing it // how to dream until you believe yourself
Living Thing, the newest full length album from Oregon based songwriter Anna Tivel, is an arcing dive into
the existential. Written through the tumultuous eyes of 2020 and recorded in Eau Claire, WI in profound
collaboration with long time friend and producer Shane Leonard, these are songs of struggle and aliveness
expressed with great joy.
“I wrote feverishly in the strange chaos of that year, suddenly out of work and attempting to understand the
shifting human fabric, the depth of desperation and the overwhelming tenacity of spirit. The resulting songs
felt rhythmic and vital, with more melody and soaring chorus than I’ve explored in the past. There was no
way and no means to gather a full band, and I brought the songs to Shane’s doorstep knowing and fully
trusting the skill and exuberance of his creative imagination. Shane stripped everything down to the studs and
we rebuilt it together, just the two of us for a month in his garage studio, Shane dreaming up each sonic layer
while I chased the lyrics to one last double chorus.”
The album takes off with the song ‘Silver Flame,’ a sweeping embrace of uncertainty. ‘Satellites and angel
voices // yesterday tried to destroy us // morning came up golden anyhow // maybe there’s a great creator
// a far off planet trying to save us // but we’ve just got each other for now.’
Tivel is a writer drawn to seminal questions, and this album is no exception. She illuminates the seeking
rather than clinging to conviction. What is it that makes us human? What are we for? How do we move as
we reach toward each other, change our minds, learn to love? The nine songs that make up ‘Living Thing’
look deep into the core and do so with groove and energy. Shane brought a dynamic vigor to the table,
drawing the tender lyrical thoughts into a more potent sound world. He acted as producer, engineer, band,
and trusted creative comrade, even mixing the album on his analog board, playing the faders like an
instrument in an inspired momentary performance of each song.
“Shane gave his whole beautiful heart and mind to this record and I’ve never had such a freeing and powerful
collaborative experience. I learned so much from watching him explore in the studio. We followed the rules of
improv, said yes and tried every idea that percolated – sampled an 8 track symphony backward, looped wine
glasses and lighters, read poetry into lofi microphones, and recorded a thunderstorm into a tape machine.
Shane went on eternal drum tone quests, chased intricate melodic bass lines, and gently encouraged me to let
go and sing from a deeper place. I love this record because it feels like a joyous musical conversation with a
close friend about the big vast mystery of being alive.”
Nobody tells it like it is // they say don’t blow around on a different wind // but you’re gone and you’re not
even listening // they were wrong and the wind is a living thing // and you’re taking a picture you won’t
forget // something real and the way you remember it // you’ll be everything, you’ll be riotous // what a
feeling to be alive
Nick Delffs grew up in Mendocino County, a lawless stretch of coastline that’s hard to get to and, for many, hard to escape. Nick did — emerging in the early aughts as the frontman for Portland band The Shaky Hands, whose sharp, jittery rock was anchored by Nick’s quavering vocals and questing lyrics. The Shaky Hands were mainstays of Portland on the verge of a major shift, and they rode that shift a while, signing to Kill Rock Stars and touring internationally with some of the bigger names in indie rock. But a hiatus in 2011 became indefinite and Nick Delffs was once again cast into the world: working as a sideman, releasing solo records, doing manual labor, going deeper into his spiritual practices, and, crucially, becoming a father.
Becoming a parent can affect different artists in different ways. Nick rode that change with surpassing grace and maturity. 2017’s Redesign, his first full-length under his own name, reflected the transition. In “Song for Aja”, Nick touched on other concerns familiar to those who follow his work: love of the natural world; longing for spiritual and physical connection; the desire to suffer with meaning and exult with abandon, to embrace somehow the world in its maddening contradictions and find the unity at the core.
Childhood Pastimes, his second release on Mama Bird Recording Co., is both more focused and, despite being technically an EP, more ambitious. It’s a four-song cycle — one song with many movements or four songs that bleed into one another, depending on how you hear it — that can be viewed either as a personal journey or an archetypal passage of a human being through four discrete stages: roughly, the movement from childhood innocence into adolescent adventure (The Escape); the sudden immersion into a life of discovery and excitement (The Dream); the first experience of romantic love, followed by the onset of heartbreak, dissolution, breakdown of self (The Affair); the emergence into a new way of thinking, a fresh perspective that encompasses all the suffering and joy into a balanced whole (The Outside).
Nick plays nearly all of the instruments here and the result is a unified aesthetic, born ultimately of his deep-seated love of rhythm: the thrum and throb of the acoustic guitars, the percussive melodic bang of the elegantly-crafted piano lines, and always, always the insistent, driving drums, propelling the record, and the listener, on this journey as the four tracks bleed into one another, one body, one blood, one beating heart. The concept of four songs that are really one suite of music requires a sure hand, and Nick’s never shakes: the way the songs blend together while retaining their distinctiveness — from the poppy exaltation of “The Escape” to the cold intensity, almost like an acoustic Kraftwerk, of “The Affair” — shows a songwriter and musician who has fully grown into his powers.
Those who have followed Nick’s career may see this as a culmination of years and years of honing and fine-tuning his bountiful gifts, and wonder with delight what might come next. For those who haven’t listened to Nick before, Childhood Pastimes is the perfect entry point, a distillation of what’s come before and the promise of a new beginning.