Having released two simply extraordinary albums in little over two years, it’s slightly surprising that Vermont-born folk singer Anais Mitchell is not more widely known. Then again, it’s also quite refreshing for an artist not to have come pre-wrapped in a glitzy bundle of spin and hyperbole. Sometimes taking the long way is a lot more appealing. With 2010’s collaborative effort Hadestown Mitchell delivered a wonderfully realised re-telling of the story of Orpheus featuring a perfectly cast selection of musicians, from Justin Vernon to Ben Knox Miller, via Ani DiFranco, who originally signed Mitchell to her label. Now with a newly released, intimate, and emotionally affecting follow-up, Young Man in America, Mitchell continues to build a formidable reputation. With a Brighton show imminent, we caught up with folk music’s best kept secret.
Firstly, many congratulations on following up Hadestown with something arguably even more memorable. Did you feel any anxiety when it came to following up such a critical success as Hadestown and do you get nervous about how your albums are received critically or do you avoid reading reviews?
I try not to read reviews, but it’s hard to avoid clicking ‘em sometimes in web world. For me, Hadestown was just such a different animal, since it was developed as a theater show and had so many personalities involved from the get-go. There was no way to do that again without a pretty significant commitment of time and energy and personnel. Young Man In America was just a collection of the songs that passed through my heart during and after the Hadestown project. It really couldn’t be otherwise.
What were you striving for when you started writing the material for Young Man…? As a listener, above all it feels like a very humane album, dealing with the simple but eternal themes of childhood, parenthood, love and loss. Did the album thematically start personal and become universal or vice versa?
I’m fascinated by archetypes and the ways my own feelings and stories might merge with the bigger stuff. As for the human and the personal, my dad is a very important figure on this album, there’s that song Shepherd which is based on a book he wrote when he was a young man. Beyond that, my dad lost his father a couple years ago and seeing him go through that, and seeing my dad not as my dad but as another man’s son, and a sort of an orphan, even at his age, was really affecting. But there are other influences and characters as well. All of the songs began from a very emotional place, and evolved to tell other people’s stories.
Listening to Young Man in America as an album elicited a very strong, almost reflexive emotional and, frankly, tearful response. The opening lines of the title track, for example, are so powerful. As a writer, have you any idea what alchemy is at work in the lyric writing and what invests what at first glance seems a simple lyric/melody with such power – and how long did those first four lines of the title song take to write?
That’s so funny – the first four lines took no time at all – they were a gift, they burst out just like the young man himself. But the rest of the song took months to finish…and it’s often like that for me. I think of songwriting as part fever-dream, part crossword puzzle. You have to have both. Hey, I think your alchemy is a good word for it…since it implies both magic and method.
What music or art has (or has had) a similar impact on you – if you like a burst into tears moment – when music and lyrics create an effect far beyond what they might suggest at first glance? And what about it made you feel that response?
I think when I can feel someone’s true heart, it happens – it’s easier sometimes when you see music live. The eyes, the physical presence of the singer. I’m trying to think of the last time it happened with a song, I think it was a Sam Amidon folk song, from his I See the Sign record. I was riding on the Subway (living in Brooklyn, NY at the moment) and looking at all the faces of the people and the song went “Lord I’m climbing high mountains trying to get home…I been having hard trials trying to get home… etc.” and I thought of all these New Yorkers trying to get home on the subway and it made me cry. Also there’s a new adaptation of a Woody Guthrie lyric by my friends Mike & Ruthy called My New York City (sorry all the New York themes). Good lord it is beautiful. It’d make you cry.
In a recent interview you discussed how legends in our culture very often relate to male characters and you feel like it’s harder to write in that way from a woman’s perspective. Young Man… seems as powerful, regardless of gender perspective as any album we can remember and is as potent and poignant from the view of the reckless, wild-eyed youth of the title track and the woman trying to please her lover in Tailor. Did writing Hadestown develop your ability to write for male and female voices or did that ability develop in other ways over time?
I think what I said was that writing as a man, and using masculine imagery, gave me a sense of access to the epic, big themes that it’s harder to get to writing as a woman, with feminine imagery. For the simple, unfortunate fact that when you tell a woman’s story, it is considered a woman’s story, but when you tell a man’s story, it’s just a human story. I think it’s possible to get there via the feminine but it takes more WORK. But it’s good work.
You have previously mentioned a love of British/Irish folk music. That strong storytelling dynamic, often culminating in tragedy, is a very strong part of that scene and comes across strongly on the new album, particularly on the lovely Shepherd which was based on your own father’s writing. Why do you think we are so compelled towards tragedy in storytelling?
I have a friend whose album is called Sad Songs Make Me Happy, I just love that phrase. It DOES make me happy to feel sad by way of a song or story or some other kind of art. I’m not sure if experiencing tragedy in art is an exorcism, or more like a vitamin supplement. But I know it feels good. I am so into the British and Irish folk ballads, especially the really old ones, but not necessarily for the tragedy of them. I love the mystical weirdness of a lot of the stories. Nothing is black and white. There are faeries, witches, and every young girl is just dying to run off into the woods and get pregnant. There’s truth in that. Also the storytelling is impeccable. The imagery is fucking excellent and comes right out of the ground beneath our feet.
The album has a strong sense of humanity’s place in the scheme of things and both the ambition and yearning of humanity but also the vulnerability of our existence. Are these themes you felt strongly about expressing at this point in your life – could you have written about them effectively when you were 21?
That kind of hunger, impatience, ambition, and the feeling of never enough, those are things I understand, they feel real to me when I wake up in the morning. I think turning thirty made me take a hard look at that part of myself and go, ‘Hey, where’d that come from?’ Am I gonna live like that for another decade? The Shepherd character, and the man in Ships, these are characters that are so hell-bent in their relentless pursuit of whatever-it-is, that they end up neglecting the good, beautiful, real things right in front of them. Our culture does that, I do that. I don’t wanna do it forever.
Musically speaking did it take great discipline to keep the music and production simple on Young Man…, particularly after creating something as grand as Hadestown. It seems like much of the album’s power comes from reining in the music and letting the lyrics have centre stage?
That’s so funny, because I think of it as a fairly thick production! I worked with (the wonderful) Todd Sickafoose again on Young Man…, and his imagination is very big, cinematic even, he hears things I could never imagine in my bedroom. There are horns, strings, two percussionists… there’s a lot of stuff going on. But I do think Todd advocated for a lot of space in these recordings, even when there’s a lot going on. He kept wanting me to play and sing things slowly, slowly, way slower than I’d play them live. And he was also in favour of the intros, the outros, the instrumental bridges really stretching out. But there’s not a lot of lead lines, or I suppose you’re right that the voice and the lyrics are really the lead, and the instruments create this beautiful tapestry upon which the lyrics can sit very bold…
Where are you right now and are you looking forward to the UK leg of the tour? What sort of touring band are you travelling with this time around and what kind of set can UK fans expect material-wise?
I’m in the Young Man Van, we’re on our way to Lexington KY. The Young Man Band is my dear friend Rachel Ries (we made an EP together once) on wurlitzer piano, electric guitar and voice, my husband Noah Hahn on fretless electric bass, and our friend Ben Davis on drums, banjo, glockenspiel, and voice. At the moment we’re touring with Ben’s other band Cuddle Magic as our support act, so we get to steal their horn players…it is REALLY fun. We tend to play mostly Young Man… songs and a few things from Hadestown and previous records. I try to do a couple songs solo each night too.
“Young Man in America” is out now on Wilderland Records.
Anais plays the Blind Tiger in Brighton on 30th May.