Topical songwriting is always a challenge, something folksingers have struggled with since time immemorial. How does one comment on the world they see around them—the world which scares and inspires and moves the songwriter—without coming off too preachy or polarizing?
For Anna Tivel, the answer seems to be to simply tell a story. That is, at least, the avenue she takes with “Fenceline”—a profound, emotionally stirring new song from her forthcoming album The Question (due on Fluff and Gravy Records in April 2019).
“Fenceline” focuses on the impulse humans have had across generations and societies, to build walls in an effort to keep unwanted people out. Tivel found herself wondering: What is at the core of this need to construct barriers between ourselves and others?
“I heard an interview awhile back with a border guard,” she says. “He was in charge of a two-mile stretch of old fence and every morning he would walk along the fence line and find wire cutters and holes. He talked about the people he met, the people he helped through and those he had to send back, what their lives were like, what they were hoping for, what they were scared of. It was right after the election and it felt so good to hear someone talk about how deeply complex borders issues are, how security is important but so is humanity.”
Contemplating walls, fences, and gates brought her to the story of St. Peter at Heaven’s gate, only letting the chosen through. “Some people believe that you arrive at the entrance to Heaven and have to prove that you belong there,” she says. “Even in death we’re drawn to the idea of some kind of great wall.”
Without any apparent judgment, Tivel does what the finest storytellers do. She creates empathy, telling the story of an individual traveling only to wind up “alone in the dark at the edge of the border, a coyote calling the moon from the sky, the bright shining eye of a circling vulture and holes in the old fenceline.”
The echoing progression of piano and strings, the restraint of the electric guitar call for the listener to focus in, maybe close their eyes, picture the scene through her impeccable lyrical imagery.