CD Review: ‘The Number 8’ by Annalisa Tornfelt

Annalisa Tornfelt is best known for being the lead singer and fiddle player for the Portland, Ore. based Black Prairie. With a large portion of Black Prairie on tour in their sister group, The Decemberists; Annalisa is releasing her first full length solo album, The Number 8. You can read more about the process of recording the album and her musical career in the recent TAM interview.

When an album can evoke a feeling in the listener, the artist has achieved something important: a connection. When that same album can transport the listener to a specific place and time, then the artist has created a unique and important collection of music. The Number 8 is just such a rarity.

The first song on The Number 8, “Scared You’re Gonna Leave,” is a short but upbeat piece with a distinctly country rhythm and theme. On it’s own, the song may not immediately transport the audience, but as it fades away and leads into “Afterlife,” something magical may happen. The listener might close their eyes and find themselves in a small bar, listening and watching Annalisa perform a solo show with her acoustic guitar.

The play order of the songs on The Number 8 is incredibly important because of the way it gently glides between country and folk. Songs like “One Heart at a Time” and “Tired of Saying Sorry” are reminiscent of the bygone era June Carter or Patsy Cline, and are spaced out and counterpointed with a folk dancing partner.

Examples of the Annalisa’s folk stylings can be found in songs like “June June Hot Air Balloon” and “Starlighting.” Finally, there are the quiet compositions like “Nothingness to Me” that are almost ethereal in their delicate sound.

The sensory transportation that is accomplished with The Number 8 can partially be credited to the fact that each song was performed and recorded at producer Mike Coykendall’s house in Portland in the span of one day. But, the fact that Annalisa has had some of these songs playing in her heart and head for the better part of 10 years is probably the single largest contributor to the album’s success as a whole.

The Number 8 is a rarity in today’s musical world. It is a quiet, pure and joyful collection of music and for fans of country, folk and acoustic music and cannot be recommended enough.

Find out more about Annalisa Tornfelt’s The Number 8 here.

For more Annalisa, check out Black Prairie as well.

Interview: Annalisa Tornfelt from Black Prairie

originally published January 2015

Annalisa Tornfelt is the lead singer and fiddle player for Black Prairie, an acoustic band out of Portland, Ore. Black Prairie was originally an instrumental band, but as time has gone by Annalisa’s vocals have become an integral part of the band’s sound. While Black Prairie is on hiatus (most of the band members are also in The Decemberists), Annalisa is preparing to release her own solo album.

Annalisa TornfeltThe new album, entitled The Number 8, is currently available for preorder on Pledgemusic. It was recorded in eight hours in August, on an eight track at Mike Coykendall’s house in Portland. Each song on The Number 8 consists of guitar and vocals with one song featuring her playing the nyckelharpa (seen in the photo above).

After Black Prairie performed at Eddie’s Attic in Atlanta in September 2014, Annalisa took some time to talk with TAM about The Number 8, her musical roots and the unique instruments she plays.

So, how did you get involved with the violin?

I started playing violin because my mom was a Suzuki violin teacher. Shinichi Suzuki was a violinist in the 60s that really transformed teaching in America, because he believed that every child that spoke a language could also play music. My mom was super-passionate and into this form of teaching, so she went over to Japan with her younger sister and took her to study with Dr. Suzuki. I don’t even remember studying violin. I just always played. She also taught violin when I was growing up, so all of my friends also played violin. So, that’s how I got started.

How about the other members of your family? Are there other musicians among them?

My dad was a cellist and a composer, and taught orchestra. They ended up having five kids and I am the oldest. Four sisters and one brother, and we all play musical instruments, which was really how we had family time… playing music around the house together. I loved the joy that I got from being able to play with my family. My first band was a string quartet with my dad on cello, my mom on viola, my sister on second violin and I played first. I was probably 14 when we started playing weddings and Christmas parties. I got to see the insides of people’s houses in these grand Christmas parties in Anchorage, Alaska, and I really enjoyed that.

When did you begin playing with people outside of your family?

When I was 16, I was invited to be a counselor in Cordova, Alaska, a little fishing town that you can only get to by ferry, boat or plane flying into it. It is the most gorgeous, beautiful town on the edge of a mountain, right next to the ocean. That camp really changed my life because I experienced folk music, square dancing, jamming around the campfire, people staying up all night and playing and singing music nonstop.

So, at that kid’s camp, I made some really good friends with the some of the other counselors. We put together a band and started traveling with the band and sharing what the camp could do for kids to inspire them to play music and be positive community members and what camps can do to enrich the community over all ages. We went to Louisville, Ky., for the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) and played for the awards ceremony there, which was really exciting. After that, my world just opened up and I just wanted to be a professional musician.

Can you talk a bit about the musical community in Portland, Oregon?

Portland has such a non-competitive, open-arms attitude. I moved from Anchorage to Portland, so I didn’t really have any other hometowns to compare it to, but Anchorage is the same way. If you play music, automatically you are plugged into the community. Everyone is excited to include you because you’re able to play.

Yeah, Portland… as soon as you walk in the door, you’re greeted with open arms. It’s a very supportive community and everyone is so collaborative because of it. With Black Prairie we did Singers: Vol 1 with James Mercer (The Shins) and Sallie Ford, which was an example of some of the collaborations and close music community that we have here. It’s really special.

Tell me how you discovered the Stroh Violin, which is featured a lot on the Black Prairie albums. It’s a very unique sounding and beautiful instrument with a lot of character.

The Stroh Violin is the proper name for it, but I like to call it the “Phono Fiddle.” It’s got a resonator from a phonograph and that’s exactly what it sounds like to me. It feels like I am listening to an old record from a forgotten age. It makes me play differently as well. It’s a great secret weapon.

I saw a picture of Amanda Lawrence, a violinist and violist that lives in Portland, playing one and I could just imagine the sound in my mind. I freaked out about it. My brother plays with Sallie Ford and the Sound Outside and Sallie Ford was making an album at the time. She’s got kind of a big, loud voice and I really wanted to find a way to get on that record… bad.

I told my Black Prairie band mate, Chris Funk, while we were recording Feast of the Hunter’s Moon that I really wanted to play it on Sallie’s record. So, while we’re recording I hear Funk call out from the recording booth “Annalisa, I found the fiddle you’re supposed to get. It has a snake head for the scroll!” So, I never had even played one before and then Chris Funk happens to find the coolest one on eBay just minutes after I suggested that I wanted one.

It arrived in a vacuum cleaner box from Romania. There was just this crumpled up old newspaper tossed in this vacuum cleaner box and the instrument was pretty much in pieces when I brought it to my violin luthier. He told me that it was indeed the resonator from a phonograph, did some research on it and found that in Romania they’re still throwing away phonographs in their junk. The trumpet horn had been all crumpled up at one point in the horn’s life and had been rebuilt. He did a wonderful job fixing it up for me. It has nails for the snake head’s eyes, which I really like.

How about the nyckelharpa? It looks very complicated.

It is a traditional Scandinavian instrument. It’s out of this world and I’m completely in love with it. I saw a Swedish band play at the Wintergrass Festival in Washington called Vasen and the band plays the violin, nyckelharpa and guitar.

Black Prairie was recording A Tear in the Eye is a Wound in the Heart at the time and again the story goes that I tell Funk what I see and he tells me that he knows that Peter Buck from REM has a nyckelharpa.  Funk calls Peter, but he is off in another country. Now, this is a great example of the Portland music community: Peter then calls his friend, Scott McCoy, who is recording right near us and asks him to bring over Peter’s nyckelharpa.

I went home immediately to figure out exactly how to hold it. So, I looked at YouTube and all of the sudden I’m watching videos on how to tune your nyckelharpa and that in itself is quite a feat. There are eleven sympathetic strings underneath the four strings on top that you play. When you play it, you feel like you’re transported. It has a natural reverb because of the sympathetic strings underneath. So you feel like you’re in a great hall or on an iceberg or an ice cave.

How did The Number 8 come about?

Black Prairie had just finished recording the album Fortune and I had a handful of songs that didn’t get on the record and were just kind of floating around. I had been playing through them on my own and I also was asked to do a solo show, so I did that. It was fun to perform by myself with the guitar, which was something that I hadn’t done in almost 10 years. So, I went over to Mike’s house with 15 tunes ready to go and we played through each of them twice. He set up his eight-track and four microphones in the living room; two on vocal and two on guitar.

We also mixed it there, upstairs in his attic. It was incredible to watch him work. Each song sounds really interesting and it is the way it is. I just recorded two takes of each song, so they’re as real as it gets. We picked the best out of the two recordings of each song. It sort of was a surprise to me that it’s all finished. It just took one day and now everything else is coming along.

How would you describe the music on The Number 8?

I’d say the new album is folk music. It’s got a little country to it. I play in a band called Calico Rose, which is a three-part harmony country “girl band.” I wrote a lot of songs envisioning Calico Rose playing them, so I have some songs on there that have a Kitty Wells flair to them. Some of them sound a little Rickie Lee Jones or Joni Mitchell.

There is this girl, Laura Marling, that has been quite an inspiration to me this year. I actually found her on NPR’s “Tiny Desk Concert.” The video was just her and her guitar… that’s it. It was so refreshing to see. I bought her CD and listened to it. It’s really stripped down, with hardly any other instruments on it… just her and her guitar. So that really inspired me to do an “Annalisa” record, just me and the guitar.

What is next? After the album is released?

I am looking forward to just doing some Annalisa shows. It’s been a nice way to expand a little bit.

The Number 8 is available for pre-order at Pledgemusic.

How I got into THAT band: The Decemberists

In honor of #DecemberistsDay, TAM presents another installment in its series How I got into THAT Band.

One of the facts about my marriage is that my wife and I are perfect matches in almost every area… except musically. The old Osmond song “A Little Bit Country, A Little Bit Rock ‘N Roll” comes to mind when trying to explain the differences. Granted, in our version the title should perhaps be “A Little Bit Industrial, a Little Bit Hair Metal.” Our difference in musical tastes doesn’t change our love for each other, but it can lead to some interesting road trips.

All that said, every once in a while we do manage to synchronize our opinion on music. In 2006, one of these rare occurrences happened when my wife, Laurie, dragged me to a Decemberists concert at The Tabernacle in Atlanta. She had discovered the band while listening to college radio and when she found out that they would be playing locally, convinced me to take her to the show. Laurie couldn’t really describe what kind of music the band played and eventually settled upon a “kind of folk/rock” description. Of course, I was too obstinate to bother listening to the band in advance of the concert and instead used the opportunity to grouse about it.

When the night of the concert arrived and we were finally sitting in the balcony at The Tabernacle, I began to feel even more trepidation. The audience was filled with college students, including three young gentlemen dressed up as chimney sweeps. The opening bands did nothing to alleviate my concerns, as they were both ‘folky’ and did little to interest me. Eventually, The Decemberists took the stage and began performing selections from their album The Crane Wife. I watched and listened to the concert, absorbing it all and eventually found that my defenses had crumbled and I was paying rapt attention to each song.

 

At the end of the show, as we were walking out of the Tabernacle, Laurie asked me what I thought of the concert. I believe that my response was “They were very talented, musically.” I just couldn’t admit to her (or even myself) that I had actually enjoyed a band that she had introduced me to. However, for days after the concert I kept thinking about the band and their music. It had affected me somehow, but I was still hesitant to admit it. I finally swallowed my pride and borrowed her copies of The Decemberists CDs and listened to them during my daily commute. Within a few days, I was singing along to “Crane Wife” and I had to admit that they had won me over.

Laurie and I ended up seeing The Decemberists play at least two more times during that tour, including a performance at Chastain Park in which they were accompanied by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. During the band’s tour in support of The Hazards of Love, Laurie and I drove to Athens, GA and found ourselves in the orchestra pit, two feet in front of the stage. I looked at her and said “This is amazing, but the thing that sucks is that we will never have seats this good again.”

To say that I have become a fan would be an understatement. Like with most things that I fall in love with, I throw everything that I can into my passion for the band. During the tour for The King is Dead, Laurie and I helped out the Capitol Music Street Team by putting up posters and seeded the internet with links to their music videos. For our time and dedication to the band, we were given two tickets to see them play at the Cobb Energy Center along with a framed photo of keyboardist Jenny Conlee that had been on display in an art gallery in New York.

Now, almost a decade since that first concert at The Tabernacle, I am listening to What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World (read my review here) and eagerly awaiting The Decemberists’ two night return performance at The Tabernacle in April. Laurie opened my mind when she introduced me to The Decemberists, so she only has to blame herself for the fact that the new CD will be on loop in our car for the next few months.

I guess it is fitting that the romantic love of my life introduced me to one of my greatest musical loves.

What a Terrible World, What a Wonderful World is available now.

Tickets for The Decemberists at the Tabernacle are still available and can be purchased here for April 10 and here for April 11.