Annalisa Tornfelt is a Portland musician whose violin, guitar and beautiful Swedish Nyckelharpa are a part of the sound of the city.
Best known as the singer and fiddle player for Black Prairie, she is also a member of Calico Rose and is an in-demand teacher and session player.
Her new recording is solo for the first time in ten years – The Number 8, a 15 tune set performed on her Black Beauty Arch Kraft guitar. It was recorded on real time analog tape, is a welcome sonic delight, and showcases a bounty of new tunes.
The big release celebration is March 14 at Alberta Rose Theatre, 3000 NE Alberta St, at 8 pm. The evening’s program includes a half hour solo set, a set from the prolific Michael Hurley and a set from Annalisa and The Sound Outside.
The Southeast Examiner spent a sunny February day talking with Tornfelt about her music and life.
We’re excited to hear your new record The Number 8.
I recorded it in 8 hours on 8 tracks (in the eighth month) over at Mike Coykendall’s Blue Rooms Studio in SE Portland. I’d been collecting songs and hadn’t done any solo shows for the last six years as I’ve been playing in Black Prairie that long. The good news is: this year I’m going to do more with Calico Rose as well as lots of Annalisa gigs too.
The whole structure of live music – recording, touring playing has changed a lot in the last five years.
Well, I’ve changed a lot in the last five years [laughing]! I know I feel a big transformation, and Black Prairie has helped me do that: create a supportive environment and a community I can lean on; great supportive musician friends who helped build up my self-confidence as a singer and a performer. These songs are just leftovers from the latest BP project and songs I imagine Calico Rose singing.
It seems that when Black Prairie first started out, you weren’t singing much, and it was a more instrumentally-oriented band.
It was. I was just the fiddle player and I was so excited to do just that. Then Chris Funk wanted more vocals in the band when we recorded our first record and encouraged me to send songs I had. Everyone writes in the band… and a lot! There is no shortage of ideas.
When we met, I think your last name was Woodlee.
Yes, that was from my first marriage but my born name is Tornfelt… a Swedish last name. Some of my relatives have a “d” in their name and some don’t. My great grandparents are buried in Snohomish, Washington and on their graves, there’s a “d” in it. My grandmother said it was because when they crossed over to Ellis Island, they put a “d” in it. My grandfather says the only reason I don’t have a “d” is because his dad, when he signed him up for first grade, excluded it.
My great-grandfather had a homestead in Minnesota. He came over from Sweden on a boat and actually hid in the luggage. He was found by the Captain and I guess my great-grandfather, Erling Tornfelt, was very charming. He charmed the Captain with booze and got to the States free of charge and was the Captain’s what do you call it… [cabin boy]bringing the Captain’s meals and such…? It’s fun to think about your ancestors and the story of why you’re here.
Tell me what you listened to when you were growing up.
I listened to Alice in Chains which was my first real record, Jar of Flies. Oh man, I loved that record so much. I listened to the Indigo Girls and, then, The Beatles…
Do you still teach violin?
I do. I have a beautiful studio at Mt. Tabor Presbyterian Church on SE 54th and Belmont St. and I’ve been there for six years now. The view looks out over the street, the cherry blossoms are starting and the windows open out.
Are lessons for all ages?
Yes. I like to start at age 6 but I’ve been known to start earlier. It’s fun to see students I started with in middle school and high school now. It’s a very intimate relationship because the parents are there with the children and we get to have a parent, teacher and child relationship every week. I realize the more I teach that students are teaching themselves really and you get to guide them and watch their progress and trust the process. My students are so inspiring to me.
Your songs show an active imagination and you inhabit characters, mercurial moments and interactions between people in an observant, freeze-frame way.
I believe empathy is my greatest tool for emotional survival. When someone tells me a story that moves me emotionally, my favourite thing to do is to go there and imagine being them. If it’s an extreme sadness, longing, desire, heartbreak, you know, then you really get to know a place in yourself you might be too scared or unwilling just yet to explore on your own.
Your song “Richard Manuel” is classic empathy, inside a person at a pivotal moment that feels like real time. Black Prairie’s recording is gorgeous. (Note: Manuel played in The Band and committed suicide after a show in 1986).
His story really touched me and that’s another place where we feel that sadness. I was at a hotel when I wrote that song. It’s our human experience and the only way we can understand ourselves and others is to talk about it and express ourselves. He made a choice and I respect his choice.
Making a new record is a leap of faith, even as it sometimes seems like the world is not much interested in records anymore.
Oh tell me about it! I’ve been thinking a lot about that! Once you make a record, you realize how many other people are making a record too, but I have to say, these songs have really helped me in my life, going through and working out the emotions and being able to experiment and play with different writing styles and finding the empowerment of being able to do something just voice and guitar just by myself.
I love the simplicity of someone sitting and playing a song. It’s so stripped down and so vulnerable like you have no clothes on. That’s my favourite way to listen to other people play music as well, just sitting down next to me solo.
Tell us about this amazing instrument, the Nyckelharpa.
My Nyckelharpa… I first saw it at a bluegrass festival in Washington when I saw the band Väsen. I’d never seen the instrument before and was completely captivated. I told Chris Funk and he said “I think Peter Buck has one”. Peter’s buddy Scott McCaughey brought the nyckelharpa to the studio the next day.
It has eleven sympathetic strings underneath four strings that you are able to bow. You don’t actually finger them, but you press in a wooden notch that stops the strings from vibrating at that spot. There are three rows of these notches.
It’s in the same fingering as the violin so I can understand it and you hold it down at your waist so it’s really awkward and wonderful.
What’s the one thing nobody’s asked you in an interview that you really want to tell people?
Well… I think I just want to say I’m scared, but I’m tired of being afraid. So what do I really want to tell people that nobody’s ever asked me? That’s a wonderful question. There’s so many things! I think the most important is we have to tell ourselves that we’re not afraid. I have to tell myself that I’m not afraid of this.
I have this new PO Box and I’d really love for people to write me and ask me questions (you can also send cash) [laughs]. I’m serious! I love to see others’ penmanship, I love to see the paper, and it’s exciting also to wait for something. It makes it special when it’s not instant.
So if someone wants to send a letter to you to order the new record or inquire about lessons, what is the address?
My PO Box is 18141, Portland, OR 97218. I’ve had one person write me so far…
See annalisatornfelt.com .