Music Beat: An interview with Anaïs Mitchell

Currently touring with Bon Iver, Anais Mitchell, is a rising star on the folk singer scene. She has released two albums: Hadestown, about the Orpheus myth, and Young Man in America, which got rave reviews from Pitchfork.

The Eye's Alejandra Oliva sat down with the singer-songwriter to talk about her albums, her inspiration, and her musical relationship with Bon Iver. 

Was there a difference between creating one album that was based around one theme, like Hadestown, and an album with more separate songs like Young Man in America?

Young Man happened a lot faster, because Hadestown was this long sort of slow-burn project. It started out as a community theater show in Vermont, where I’m from. It was just all of my friends and my collaborators, from bands around Vermont, and they were all singing the roles of the characters.

We did it as a community theatre project for a couple years. Then we started making the album, which kind of became a scavenger hunt to find all of those different singers to sing the roles of the characters and go to them.

I went to Justin’s place in Eclaire to record him, I went to Ani DiFranco’s studio in New Orleans to record her part, and then I came back to the producer with all the files. There were a lot of people involved, and it was great for that reason. It didn’t seem like my album in a way, it was just this little creature that had a life of it’s own.

What were more of your inspirations for Young Man in America? I noticed again the older, nostalgic feel to it.

In the last few years I got into traditional music, which is great. I kind of went crazy for it; there were a few artists that I listened to that opened up the door to that world. I ended up buying a series of books: the Child books, the Francis J. Child Collection of Ballads---which is a collection of Scottish popular ballads, and you can read multiple versions of the same story in the text---and all this language is this really old-fashioned, beautiful language, and I just got inspired by that.

They have these turns of phrases in those old songs, phrases like “never trust a young man with a black and roving eye.” And it’s so great, because you know what that means and it still means something now. It’s got so much of that restlessness and the hunger and the untrustworthiness, and so to be able to grab a phrase like that and put it in a song and put it in a new context feels like there’s something really powerful about those old songs.

Some people pointed out that it’s not that dissimilar from Hadestown because there’s some sort of recession inspired stuff, and this idea of America as just this wild frontier place, and it’s every man for himself, and you don’t know if anyone’s got your back. It’s just this incredible restless anxiety and ambition, because we’re raised to believe that we can do whatever we want, and we can be whatever we want, and we don’t necessarily have to answer to anyone.

You and Justin Vernon seem to have a really great musical relationship. You collaborated on Hadestown, he covered one of your songs from Young Man in America, and now you’re on tour together. Can you tell me a little bit more about  your musical relationship?

Justin is incredible. I’ve gotten to see his show a few nights in a row on this tour. He just never fails to completely stir me with the depth of his presence and his purity of heart. Where his music comes from and where his songs come from, you can just feel his heart in them a lot. As for our collaboration, I just feel like it was almost this cosmic. The universe just says “I’m gonna do something nice for you kid,” and that was what happened.

I was working on Hadestown, and I was hunting for an Orpheus character, and then out of the blue, those guys [Bon Iver] reached out to me and asked me if I wanted to open for them in Europe, and I was like “Oh, yes, absolutely”. That’s when I heard Justin sing, and then I was like “Oh, he’s just got to be the Orpheus character.” His voice was so ethereal, and emotional and feminine in a way, and then masculine, really powerful too. I just loved that the Orpheus character could encompass all of those things.




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