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Anais Mitchell DSC05411 3

The Road Out Of Hell Leads Home

18 January 2022, 10:00
Words by Alan Pedder
Original Photography by Jay Sansone

Anaïs Mitchell's first album in a decade came after a return to her birthplace. She tells Alan Pedder about the reflection and nostalgia that she found leaving New York for Vermont.

Anaïs Mitchell has been to hell and back over the past 15 years, or a version of it anyway.

Her imaginatively conceived folk opera Hadestown had a long and sometimes tortured journey from DIY community theatre project to the blockbuster Broadway production that steamrolled the 2019 Tony Awards, winning eight trophies including Best Musical. For perspective, that’s the same number as the original productions of Fiddler On The Roof and Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. It was kind of a big deal, especially in an industry that seldom awards women writers and producers. Accepting her award for Best Original Score from David Byrne, Mitchell drew parallels between the Hadestown journey and working to make progressive change in the world, saying “Nobody does it alone, it takes a long time, and it’s worth it.”

The myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is unfathomably ancient and has been retold and remoulded by many who came before Mitchell. In his Sonnets To Orpheus, written in 1922, modernist poet Rainer Maria Rilke idealised the lyrist as transcendent, legendary hero – the poet’s poet, the musician’s musician. Carol Ann Duffy took an opposing view in her 1999 poem “Eurydice”, writing Orpheus as a peacocking pest who couldn’t let his wife alone to revel in the sweet release of death. Mitchell’s Orpheus cuts a much more sympathetic figure than either of these extremes. Writing in her 2020 book, Working On A Song: The Lyrics Of Hadestown, Mitchell describes a period of crisis between productions when it became clear that Orpheus needed to be less of a braggart and more of an underdog that people could root for. Ultimately, she writes, Orpheus is celebrated “not because he succeeds, but because he tries. We understand implicitly that there’s value in his trying and even in his failure.” As the old saying goes, god loves a trier. The devil, not so much.

In the book, Mitchell describes her writing in broader terms as “a process of failing repeatedly”; what we see of her work is only “the blooming flower, but most of the plant is underground.” For a long time, she was a believer in the maxim that for something to be good it must necessarily be hard and would half-joke about being the world’s slowest writer. The arrival of her upcoming self-titled album comes nearly a full decade after 2012’s Young Man In America, her last record of new original material, putting her in Liz Phair or Portishead territory but some way short of a Shirley Collins-style comeback. There has been other music in the interim – two albums of traditional songs (2013’s Child Ballads with Jefferson Hamer and the 2020 debut from Mitchell’s folk revisionist side-hustle Bonny Light Horseman), a compilation of mostly re-recorded tracks (2014’s xoa), and various iterations of Hadestown cast recordings – but Anaïs Mitchell is the Anaïs Mitchell album we’ve been waiting for.

It’s just after 8am in Vermont when Mitchell pops up on Zoom, bright as a button. The last time we talked was at the opening night of Hadestown‘s off-Broadway run at the New York Theatre Workshop, with a very simple in-the-round staging. Just over five years later, she’s halfway to an EGOT grand slam and Hadestown has fully taken on a life of its own, bigger and better than even Mitchell dared imagine. But it’s not all spotlights and award shows. Mitchell and her husband Noah have had a sleepless night trying to settle their two daughters, Ramona (8) and Rosetta (1). “It was a crazy time,” she says, holding a hand up to her head as she often does while singing. “At one point I ended up on the couch with the baby so I’m just sort of stumbling out of that world.”

Mitchell is currently back living on the 130-acre sheep farm where she was born, and where the extended Mitchell family – her parents Don and Cheryl, brother Ethan and his wife and daughter – all reside. Mitchell’s grandparents also lived on the farm while they were alive, and it’s to their old cottage that she moved her flock in those frantic early weeks of the pandemic. Mitchell was nine months pregnant with Rosetta just as New York was facing down a frightening first wave of coronavirus infections. As ambulance sirens became an almost constant part of the soundtrack of the city, she and Noah “made a very late-hour decision to move back to the farm”, and the baby was born a week later.

Mitchell describes those first weeks back in Vermont as “a bit like camping out”. Her grandparents’ cottage had been used as a preschool, before the pandemic forced it to close, and wasn’t really set up for everyday family life. “It felt right, though,” she explains. “It was kind of a good feeling to be perching in this house but not yet comfortable in it, being surrounded by all these objects from my childhood.” With Ramona spending time with her grandparents and the baby sleeping for most of the day, Mitchell found herself with big chunks of time to devote to sorting through the house, reading books from her childhood, and – for the first time in her life – joining a songwriters’ circle. “People have always been telling me that I should try it but I was always too scared to do it, or would just dismiss it – like, that’s just not how I write,” she says. “But this time I knew I just had to say yes.”

Of course, it helps that the group in question were members of the 37d03d collective. Founded in 2018 by Aaron and Bryce Dessner of The National and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon (who played Orpheus to Mitchell’s Eurydice on the 2010 studio recording of Hadestown), the community now includes over 150 artists and a label arm whose releases to date include records by Bonny Light Horseman, Mina Tindle, and the founders’ own ‘supergroup’ Big Red Machine. Those who joined in with the circle committed to writing one new song a day for a week and, despite her misgivings, Mitchell’s creativity came through and the songs began to flow. “They started coming in and at first I was like, don’t look at them, don’t frighten them away like an animal!” she says. “For years I had been saying that when Hadestown was finished I was so excited to write songs again that were just for me. But I had a really hard time doing that in the city. It was just slow and sort of painful. I couldn’t figure out how to finish anything.”

She points to “Brooklyn Bridge” as one example. Written as a love letter to New York and the boundless possibilities it offers, the song stalled when the flushed romance of the lyric began to make her feel uneasy. It was only after removing herself from the city that the song could finally evolve into the sophisticated, unabashed piano ballad it had always longed to be. “I think there was a certain feeling in New York that was more ego-driven, more focused on the question of what’s next,” says Mitchell. “For me, that’s not the kind of space that you make art from. I think you have to be open to whatever wants to pass through. And you see that in some of these songs, like “Brooklyn Bridge”. They’re not cool songs, whatever that really means. I sort of accepted, in a way, a certain heart-on-the-sleeveness that felt true to me, and that has been really amazing.”

This idea of living and expressing what you’re feeling in the moment carries over into the upbeat “On Your Way”, a piece that Mitchell started writing during the song-a-day sessions. She was inspired by memories of playing shows with an old friend, Felix McTeigue (the son of Maggie Roche of The Roches), who briefly shared the same manager as Mitchell in her early career and performed under the stage name FDR. “Around that time he put out a record called The New Deal, for which he wrote 50 songs in 50 days, and it was so incredible. It was very heart-on-sleeve, so direct. He didn’t second-guess anything, and at the time I was feeling so slow compared to him. He was just flowing all the time. He carried a guitar on him wherever he went, always ready to pull it out and start writing.”

Mitchell says she didn’t realise at first that the song would be about Felix. That clarity only hit when, a week or so after starting to write it, she got the news that he had died suddenly from complications of surgery. He was only 48. “We’d had a running joke that we were going to write a hit song together, but we never managed to do it,” she tells me. “After I realised that “On Your Way” had to be about him, writing it felt like we were having a real conversation. I didn’t want to overthink the song like I always do, but I still wanted to do it justice. And I felt him at the table with me, looking on as I guiltily made my edits.”

In the song, Mitchell takes us on a journey through the New York subway, out to the bars of the Lower East Side where she and Felix would often play to next to no-one. Addressing him directly, Mitchell’s words are a montage of tenderly remembered scenes that peak on the song’s impeccable bridge: “You always had those laughing eyes / You wouldn’t have wanted me to cry / You wouldn’t want me haunted by / The song we never got to write,” she sings, each line answered with a chant of “on your way, you’re on your way”. It’s a beautiful send-off to a friend who never liked to say goodbye.

"I’m so curious about the things that moved me as a child, and it’s fascinating to think about my parents and the choices they made."

Mitchell diehards will no doubt pick up on the parallels between “On Your Way” and Mitchell’s doomed drummer in “Orion” from 2004’s Hymns From The Exiled, but there’s another, perhaps less obvious link between the two albums. Mitchell was in her early twenties when she wrote “I Wear Your Dress” to honour her grandmother and her role in the women’s liberation movement that transformed American society in the 1960s and beyond. On new song “Revenant”, she sings to her grandmother again, calling her spirit back from the dead. It’s another track that sprang from the song-a-day sessions, inspired by the rediscovery of a box containing her grandmother’s letters and journals – and a lock of her own hair – under the stairs in the cottage.

“Revenant”, she says, “has a lot to do with the house and reconnecting with my childhood self. When my grandparents lived here, a short distance down the driveway from our family house, it was so good to be able to just step into this alternative space, to be suddenly in a different world. Different objects, different smells, different sounds. It was literally my happy place.”

As well as her grandmother’s letters, Mitchell has been re-reading the diaries of her namesake Anaïs Nin for the first time since was in high school, before she had the life experience to really understand them. It’s prompted her to think about the extent to which our beliefs and desires can be steered by the things we are exposed to in our youth. The books we read, the music we hear, the things our parents and friends say. “It’s so interesting how these moments can turn out to be the driver for your entire life, and it’s sometimes easy to forget where the impetus came from,” she says. “I’m so curious about the things that moved me as a child, and it’s fascinating to think about my parents and the choices they made. Like, they were just some stoned kids who made a choice one day that they would move to Vermont and run a sheep farm, and then that became a whole universe in itself.”

The mystery of where our inspirations come from is at the core of “Bright Star”, the album’s mythopoeic first single. Mitchell conceives the star not as a person or a celestial body, per se, but as a representation of the creative force that she’s been trying to keep pace with since childhood. Mitchell sings of something unknown – unknowable, even – that has “launched a thousand longings” and sent her the world over, in love with its secretive light. Written on the farm, the song touches on her homecoming from the years of hot pursuit, ultimately thankful she was always in the rear.

According to the Quaker faith in which Mitchell was raised, a person lives best by tuning in to their spirit and letting it move them through the world, to find their calling through studying the art of living. Mitchell is grateful to have found hers early on. She knew as a teen that music would be her life’s purpose, though she didn’t yet know what shape it would take; what it would cost her – or how it would reward. “I loved growing up Quaker,” she tells me. “The whole idea of not needing an intermediary to connect with the holy felt so radical. Going to a Quaker meeting where everyone sits together in silence, all waiting for some kind of divine intervention, feels quite similar to creative work, you know? With this record, I wanted to prove to myself that I could still step into that river. And when the songs started to flow, it felt so joyful to be reconnecting with what it was to write a song, just between me and the muse.”

Mitchell finds it funny that stepping into the river meant stepping into herself in a way she’d rarely done before. Certainly, she’s never made a whole album so nakedly about her own life and the people in it. She uses the term “confessional songwriting”, fully aware that she’s in a very different place to where most people assume songwriting of that type comes from. “I’m not 25 anymore, you know?” she says with a shrug. “It’s not like I just got my heart broken for the first time. That’s just not where I am at now. But I still have things to say, even though I’m at this more grown-up spot.”

"People in New York are sort of divorced from the spectrum of aging. They’re almost ageless. But you really feel it in a small town."

Inevitably, much of what’s been on Mitchell’s mind deals with transitioning into middle age. Moving back to Vermont, she says, has felt like a constant process of having to confront the onward march of the years. “People in New York are sort of divorced from the spectrum of aging. They’re almost ageless. But you really feel it in a small town,” she says. “I’ve really noticed how much older the people around me have become – my parents, my friends, my English teacher from eighth grade, and so on – and realised that I must look older to them too.”

Songs like “Little Big Girl” and “Now You Know” mine this and other vulnerabilities for songwriting gold. Mitchell began writing “Little Big Girl” in 2016 while on tour with Patty Griffin and Sara Watkins but found she couldn’t get beyond the first verse. “I tried for years to finish it, but I just couldn’t figure out how to do it in a way that felt true and could do the idea justice,” she says. “Maybe I just needed to live a few more years in order to get it done.” Whatever the demands of the spirit, it was absolutely worth the wait. “Little Big Girl” is a standout not only on the album but across all of Mitchell’s canon. There are too many devastating lines to quote just one, but it’s her breathless, urgent vocal that nails it. “I was like, I’m just going to sing this as hard as I fucking can,” she says. “That’s what the song wanted to be.”

If the seed of “Little Big Girl” is old, “Now You Know” is even older, having appeared in solo acoustic form on the xoa album. Mitchell says she wrote the lyric “When I think about dying I think about children / And when I think about children I think about you” before she became a mother, “in that time of our lives when we’re no longer being parented but are not yet parents ourselves.” In the eight years since, she says, the meaning of the song has deepened. “The song is a bit about letting go of your young life and sort of accepting the joys of being on the other side of it. Trading the night for the morning, you know?” She laughs. “And that continues to be true, thinking about last night, rocking the toddler on the couch at 3am.”

In her diaries, Anaïs Nin suggests that writers “write to taste life twice, in the moment, and in retrospection.” As Mitchell has discovered, the revelation of the second bite – of stepping back into the river of her memories – is the sudden coming in to focus of previously unnoticed truths. Take the song “Backroads”, for instance. Mitchell began writing the song purely from a place of nostalgia, thinking back to her teens and her rebel high school boyfriend (“a very fascinating and inspiring character”), driving too fast down unmarked roads and underage drinking at tailgate parties. But then the cop murder of George Floyd happened and the Black Lives Matter protests brought people out on the streets again, in greater force than ever.

As the daughter of “hippy back-to-the-landers” in liberal Vermont (Bernie Sanders is state senator), Mitchell’s work has often been political – from songs like “Belly & The Beast” and “Two Kids” off Hymns To The Exiled through to the Hadestown lynchpin “Why We Build The Wall”, which pre-dates the madness of King Trump by almost a decade. “Watching all this happen, it became so clear to me that “Backroads” was a song of white privilege,” says Mitchell. “Everything about it, but especially how the cops would come and shut down these parties and give us nothing more than a slap on the wrist. They were there to protect us, to take care of us. And that’s not the experience of a black kid growing up in this country, it’s just not.”

Mitchell says she had gone so far down the path of nostalgia with the song that she couldn’t just scrap it. Instead, she decided to muddy the waters, writing in a counterpoint to her lived experience. “It was the only way I could conceive of finishing the song,” she says. “It’s funny being in my hometown now and sort of seeing it with new eyes and feeling grateful for all the institutions of it that were created by my parents’ generation. We were able to feel like we were living on the edge in some way, but we absolutely were not. There was no edge in sight. We were completely embraced by the adults that were holding that community together.”

Listen carefully to “Backroads” and you might notice references to “Bright Star” (probably intended) and to album closer “Watershed” (fully intended). The Watershed is a real place in Vermont, roughly 15 minutes’ drive from the Mitchell family farm. Spread over a thousand acres of protected lakes, hills and forests, it’s where she and her high school boyfriend used to go and “make out or lie on a blanket and read poetry, or whatever we did back then”. “I couldn’t remember what it was called so I texted him and asked,” she says. “He told me, and somehow that word ‘watershed’ just exploded in my heart, and I knew I had to do something more with it.”

"I think a lot of people looked at the first phase of the pandemic and made some kind of sense out of it... but the fact that it is still going on two years later, well, it’s very messy. Narratively, it’s harder to make sense of.”

The song “Watershed” is another high point in Mitchell’s career; poetic, moving, gorgeously arranged and produced. Lyrically, she imagined it in the style of a graduation speech and was at point worried about coming across as presumptuous. “There are a couple of lines in it that came to me, ‘The heaven you seek is not separate / From the heart that speaks when your cheeks are wet’, and I remember I had to write to my manager and ask, like, am I allowed to fucking say that? Is it great, or just so condescending?” Well, the lines stayed in, and when Mitchell was invited to her alma mater last spring as the 2021 commencement speaker, it was “Watershed” that she sang.

The song can be seen as a sort of bookend to “Brooklyn Bridge” in that both tracks are partly about being in transition, on the cusp of something huge. In “Brooklyn Bridge”, Mitchell is full of possibilities, open to them all. The journey’s just getting started. In “Watershed”, she’s older and wiser; the panorama in this song shows from where she’s come, not just the ways ahead. I suggest that the song is partly about contemplating life after Hadestown, life after the city. “That’s certainly a part of it,” she says. “It’s also about the fact that for most of our lives we’re in the woods, just putting one foot in front of the next and trying to keep up with our loved ones. Then, every once in a while, we get a vista of it all. That’s what I got coming back here in the first phase of the pandemic; for me it was a healing experience.”

Of course, Mitchell doesn’t downplay the fact that for many others the pandemic has been a uniquely destructive time. As much as she wrote “Watershed” for herself, she also wrote it for a friend whose marriage had imploded during lockdown. “I was thinking of him and how all those years of time and energy just went up in smoke. It made me think of this haiku (by 17th-century Japanese samurai-poet Mizuta Masahide) that goes “Since my house burned down / I now own a better view / of the rising moon”, and I wanted to write something for him that conveyed that same feeling of opportunity that can come in the wake of destruction.”

Like Eurydice in the underworld pining for the memory of flowers, Mitchell is keen to get back out on the road with her band. Already she’s had to push back some dates of her US tour with Bonny Light Horseman, which was due to start next week in California. "I think a lot of people, and maybe especially writers, looked at the first phase of the pandemic and made some kind of sense out of it. Whatever their experience was, they made it fit into the narrative of their life, tied a bow around it, and were like, okay, so we all learned something here,” says Mitchell. “But the fact that it is still going on two years later, well, it’s very messy. Narratively, it’s harder to make sense of.”

Whatever the year has in store, there’s more new music coming from Mitchell with a second Bonny Light Horseman album in the can and scheduled for autumn. As Mitchell explains, “This one is sort of meant to be in conversation with the first record, which was different levels of interpretation of traditional text, and some traditional music. I think the new songs could live in that world a bit too, but this time we co-wrote them. This time they’re all originals.”

Anaïs Mitchell is released on 28 January via BMG
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