The Expanding Universe Of Anaïs Mitchell

Jay Sansone

The Expanding Universe Of Anaïs Mitchell

Jay Sansone

To get to Treleven Farm from Bristol, Vermont, you take a gently undulating road through farmland towards Lake Champlain, passing big red barns and verdant stretches of open field. If you get to Otter Creek, you’ve gone too far. Four generations of the songwriter Anaïs Mitchell’s family have lived on this land, all 130 acres of it. Mitchell grew up here and attended high school in Bristol; her parents and brother still live on the farm, in houses they built.

These days, Mitchell is probably best known as the writer behind the Broadway musical Hadestown, a retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice that counts among its many accolades the 2019 Tony Award for Best Musical. She spent 13 years transfiguring Hadestown from experimental production (first staged in Barre, Vt., in 2006) to concept album (released in 2010 and featuring Justin Vernon as Orpheus) to Broadway spectacle (the musical bowed in 2019 and reopened last fall after a pandemic-induced hiatus). But before all that, she was a solo musician — and in January, Mitchell will release Anaïs Mitchell, her first solo record of new songs in a decade.

That’s not to say that those 10 years have been idle, though. Alongside Josh Kaufman and Eric D. Johnson of Fruit Bats, Mitchell is one-third of the folk supergroup Bonny Light Horseman, whose 2020 self-titled debut earned a Grammy nomination for Best Folk Album. (A second LP is on the way this year.) She’s also an avid, prolific collaborator, one point in a constellation that includes Vernon as well as Aaron Dessner; Mitchell was one of the many, many musicians who appeared on Big Red Machine’s 2021 album, How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?

When we crunched onto the gravel drive in late November, the midafternoon sun draped over the property, which is bordered by cliffs and forests. “Isn’t this light incred?” Mitchell said. A flock of geese arrowed past overhead, squawking. In a paddock to the left of the driveway, a modest flock grazed; Mitchell’s parents have raised sheep for wool and meat since the ’70s. Sometimes, there are ducks and chickens, too.

This is where Mitchell, her partner, Noah Hahn, and her daughter Ramona, then seven, fled last March at the beginning of the pandemic lockdown. Mitchell was nine months pregnant then; her second daughter, Rosetta, was born just a week after they arrived. Being in Vermont, surrounded by generations of family, made her think about growing up, as if she could see the past and the future stretched out before her. She began to write. “A lot of the songs also kind of came out of a longing or a missing of New York,” she said, “and then thinking about my upbringing in Vermont and this weird perspective moment.”

Before she suggested we go to the farm so I could see where the record was made, we met at her studio. Later that evening, she would gather a group of local musicians there to play anything from Irish folk tunes to the Grateful Dead, just like she does every Tuesday. We talked for an hour over dandelion root tea. Here are excerpts from our conversation.

Do you remember what was the first song you wrote for this album?

ANAÏS MITCHELL: I had a couple songs that were kind of kicking around that I couldn’t finish. Basically, I got so obsessed with Hadestown that I had to put the blinders on. I felt like I was cheating on Hadestown if I was writing anything else. It wasn’t until I started writing new songs that I connected to some kind of flow; then I could finish these old ones. I think “Bright Star” was the first one that I wrote in Vermont.

For years, people have been telling me to try writing a song a day. I was like, “No, I’m too slow and careful.” Really, I had gotten up in my head about being the slowest writer on the planet. You sort of believe in the stories you tell about yourself, right? And one of the stories that I have told myself is that it has to be hard for it to be good. I think there’s a confluence of factors in my life right now that are kind of disproving that theory. This person reached out and was like, “I’m doing a song-a-day thing with a bunch of artists, do you want to do it?” There’s a voice in my head that said, you should say yes. So I did, and it turned out to be really freeing to have to say yes to whatever idea came, to trust it and get out of the way a little bit. So a bunch of the stuff on the record I started during that week over the summer: “Revenant”; “On Your Way (Felix Song)”; “Real World.”

Do you receive songs from everyone else, too? Who else was doing it?

MITCHELL: You do. I don’t know if I should say. No one has asked me, but I feel like maybe I shouldn’t say just to protect the anonymity of that group. Adam Cohen and Phil Weinraub organized it. Adam Cohen is Leonard Cohen’s son; I met him in Berlin at the 37d03d residency where we recorded Bonny Light Horseman.

I also think working on Bonny Light Horseman the last couple of years has a lot to do with this record. For one thing, that is another example of, like, wow, this felt easy, so how could it be good or worthwhile or beautiful? Sometimes it can be easy. The producer of this album is Josh Kaufman, who’s in Bonny Light Horseman. The rhythm section and sax player are J.T. Bates and Mike Lewis, who also play with Bonny Light Horseman. The engineer is the same engineer, Bella Blasko. She’s fucking amazing. It’s so awesome to have a woman in the room. So there’s really a little community that had already worked together, and this felt like a bunch of friends getting in a room.

That holdover of some of the people from Bonny Light Horseman actually gets at something I wanted to ask. Because you have so much history with musicians — like Mike Lewis, Josh Kaufman, Justin Vernon — does it feel like with each project that you do with members of that group of musicians is building on the previous? Where do you draw the boundaries between, say, Bonny Light Horseman and your solo stuff?

MITCHELL: I definitely have felt like Justin and Aaron — because they are doing a lot of teamwork these days — have been nothing but a blessing in my life in terms of opening creative doors. Bonny Light Horseman was a project I had just started working on with Josh when they were like, hey, we heard you guys were working on a thing; do you want to play a set at Eaux Claires? It’s cool that those guys are in a place in their careers where they’re having a lot of fun fucking around. The happy collateral of that is that a lot of weird collaborations happen. The extended Bonny Light Horseman family is like a chance to reconnect with music for the joy of the music. Side projects kind of have that energy sometimes, where it’s not your identity per se, and you’re able to feel more free. I don’t know. I’m thinking about Big Red Machine.

Right, I imagine that might serve the same purpose for them as Bonny Light Horseman does for you. I imagine also that Bonny Light Horseman being primarily vintage covers —

MITCHELL: It was, but we just made a new record that’s oridge.

Oh! I wanted to ask where that was, because I read you were working on a new one.

MITCHELL: We’re so psyched — that’s where we’re at in the process. We have a master, basically, as of today. It’s going to be a while before it comes out. As I’m sure you know, everyone’s very backed up in the vinyl world. But I’m also sort of promoting this other record now, so it’s OK. Eric’s got a record too, and Eric made a record with Josh, so it’s like, everyone has all the permutations happening.

Is there anyone you would like to add to that web of collaborators in the future?

MITCHELL: Wow, yeah. It was really cool to be on a track with Robin Pecknold from Fleet Foxes [Big Red Machine’s “Phoenix”]. I loved that. We were never in a room together — we did perform that song on TV at one point, but we had never met. I think of that whole Big Red Machine album as this collage where we all knew the tiny piece that we were working on, but we didn’t necessarily know what the whole tapestry was.

I read, I think in an interview with Josh, that for one of the Taylor Swift songs, he didn’t know that she was on the song when he was recording his part for it. So it does really feel like this tiny slice of a larger entity.

MITCHELL: Yeah. I love it. There’s this playwright, Enda Walsh, that I’m kind of obsessed with. [Walsh wrote the musical adaptation of the film Once; his play Medicine was staged at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn this winter.]

Does that mean that you want to do more theater?

MITCHELL: Yeah. I’m having so much fun making records right now and I want to keep doing it. But when I went to New York to watch the reopening of Hadestown on Broadway, I spent the first act brainstorming other musical ideas.

You said earlier that working on things that were not Hadestown was a little bit like cheating on Hadestown. How immediately were you able to make that switch back into working on your own stuff?

MITCHELL: It was a total rediscovery. I think it took a while for me to be ready to do it. Hadestown was up for basically a year before the pandemic happened, and I thought, oh my god, I’m just going to go write a ton of songs — but that wasn’t the experience. Instead, I ended up writing a whole book about Hadestown, [2020’s Working On A Song]. But it was almost like I had to process it. [softer] There’s a couple songs on there that I kind of couldn’t let myself write before.

Yeah?

MITCHELL: Well, for one thing, “Brooklyn Bridge” — I had written that phrase, and it almost felt too sentimental when I was living in Brooklyn, too heart-on-the-sleeve. When I left I was like, I miss New York, I’m just going to write it. “Real World” was the same way — it just kind of came out and it felt like a folk song that I would write when I’m 20 years old at a folk festival. I was like, am I too cool for that? No, I’m not — I’m just putting it on. I got in a flow, where one song lit the candle of the next one, and that’s a feeling I hadn’t felt in a long time.

When was the last time you felt it?

I guess maybe there was a moment writing Young Man In America, where the songs started to speak to each other. I didn’t set out to do it, but it’s funny that [on Anaïs Mitchell] the speaker is all me, and the stories are mine. That’s not something I’ve done. It’s always felt easier to take on the voice of another character or just dress up my own big feelings with language or a story that felt like it could be somebody else’s. These are all — there’s no costume, you know?

In Working On A Song, you mention at one point that “poetic portraiture” is what you deal with as an artist, while when writing for theater, you’ve got to move the plot along through the song. But at the same time, “Revenant” and “Brooklyn Bridge” feel very narrative. Did workshopping songs for the show for so many years have an impact on how you think about storytelling in your own work?

MITCHELL: Well, if we were developing those songs for Broadway… [laughs] I think there’s less of a chasm between the kind of songs that you write for theater and the kinds of songs you write for an album than I maybe at one point thought there was. It’s funny that you said that, because I was really reveling in the fact that I didn’t have to do that stuff on this album, and that a song like “Revenant” could be kind of abstract. That felt very freeing for me.

I wanted to ask you about “Latter Days” from the Big Red Machine album. I understand it was written before the pandemic started, but it sounds like a plague song. Did you go back to it at all before it was laid down for the record?

MITCHELL: Do you know what’s funny? When I wrote those words, I was pretty specifically thinking about Hurricane Sandy — the imagery all came out of that other time. [In March 2020], I had to recut my vocals for the chorus, and Aaron said, “Hey, can you go to this studio in Brooklyn and just lay it down.” This was just days before we left the city. I walked there, I didn’t want to take transit. I’m trying to think if it even crossed my mind in the headphones that the meaning of the song had completely changed. I think it did. I think it did. Because certainly, then, when the song came out, it felt like it was about the pandemic.

It does feel like it could be about what people do in the aftermath of any disaster — but we were in the middle of a particular disaster at that point, so it was like, how could this have been written before?

MITCHELL: Right, I know. It’s a funny thing. But that’s not the last sort of apocalyptic event that we will go through. My experience with Hadestown was really like, this shit just keeps coming around, you know?

Anaïs Mitchell is out 1/28 on BMG.

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