Anaïs Mitchell is a singer-songwriter and musician who has been called the queen of modern folk music. Her 2010 album Hadestown, a folk-opera based on the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and set in the Depression era, has been developed into a folk-opera which recently completed a sold-out Off-Broadway run at the New York Theatre Workshop. She is currently on tour through the Northeastern United States and United Kingdom. I spoke with her on the eve of her show at The Hamilton in Washington, DC.
Nicole: Tell our readers a little bit about yourself and your music. What can they expect to hear at The Hamilton tomorrow, September 22, 2016?
Anaïs: As a songwriter I’m very influenced by old school folk music, lyric-driven music and storytelling. I’ll be performing solo so it’s all about the human voice, the six strings, and trying to summon all the feelings.
Your songs on albums like Hadestown (Righteous Babe Records, 2010) and Young Man in America (Wilderland Records, 2012) tell stories from the perspectives of different characters. What is it about your musical style that is conducive to storytelling and what themes do your music address?
That’s a lot of what music has always been about for me– storytelling. It’s why I love old balladry and music theatre and a certain kind of lyric-driven pop music– music is just a beautifully emotional, hypnotic, organic way to tell stories. I love trying to tell an old story in a new way, or a new story in an old way. I love tangling new and old language together. I love the feeling that whatever we are going through, individually or as a society, someone else in another time/place has been through as well.
You grew up in Vermont and lived on a farm there until recently. How is your music influenced by Vermont?
Vermont is rural, beautiful, fringe-y, folks go there who want solitude, who want to live close to the earth and the seasons, who are less concerned with (and often disdainful of) what’s happening in “the mainstream.” I love it and miss it for all those reasons, but I got to a spot where I (and my family) wanted to live closer to other humans and closer to the pulse. A lot of my songs have a lot of folksy, natural imagery in them, and a lot of seasons, the sun comes up again and again, and I’ll bet this stuff comes from Vermont. The winter is very real up there when you’re literally stacking wood and trying to keep a fire lit. This past winter in New York I was like, “wait– did that happen?”
You and John Gallagher, Jr., who is opening for you on tour, are unique in that you both have one foot in the folk-rock arena and one foot in musical theater. What was your first experience with musical theater like?
John Gallagher, Jr. is a beautiful performer. He’s got that thing of being able to inhabit someone else’s work so fully as an actor and then also has his own unique and beautiful voice as a songwriter. I have felt so privileged to get to know and work with ACTORS in this crazy phase of developing Hadestown. Actors seem to “say yes” spiritually to whatever situation they’re in. They have these powerful tools, this larger than life presence but they’re also SO willing to be vulnerable… I’m in awe of them.
Tell us about the development of Hadestown. Did it start as a concept album or was your goal to see it onstage from the beginning?
Hadestown actually began as a stage show in Vermont, a few years before the album. It was a DIY community theater show involving myself, Michael Chorney (who is still involved as primary arranger), the first director Ben Matchstick, and a bunch of our friends from different bands around Vermont. It was a much more elemental, abstract version than the show that exists now, but it did begin on the stage! Then I made that record, produced by Todd Sickafoose (who is also still involved as an arranger), and toured for a few years with a concert version of the piece– no sets, no costumes, no staging, etc. THEN I began working with some producers and the director Rachel Chavkin on developing an expanded version of the show for Off-Broadway, and that took three years. So it’s been a long gestation! And I’m now working FURTHER on it for a potential commercial version.
How closely were you involved in the process of bringing Hadestown Off-Broadway for the New York Theatre Workshop production? Can you tell us about the collaboration process and your partnership with Director Rachel Chavkin (who also directed Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812).
So yeah– very involved! The new show is twice as long as the album, so there’s a lot of new material, songs, recitatives, narration (which is all written in verse). Rachel has been an amazing partner for this… I actually discovered her via Great Comet of 1812 when I saw it play at the tiny Ars Nova Theater – of course now it’s headed to Broadway! It was so sparklingly alive and really brought together the world of theater and the world of the rock club, which felt like exactly the line Hadestown wanted to straddle. Rachel’s dramaturgical sense, and her sense of staging and how to create the culture of a show, is so smart, creative and fun, and doesn’t rely on any old tropes about what a play or a musical should be. I basically wrote and rewrote the script for three years with feedback from Rachel as well as the producers and Ken Cerniglia, another dramaturg we worked with.
You described your first album (Hymns for the Exiled, Waterbug Records, 2004) as being “inspired by the terrifying first term of George W. Bush;” Hadestown includes a song called Why We Build the Wall and you recently toured in partnership with the League of Women Voters. Since we are less than 50 days out from a presidential election now, I will ask: How do politics influence your music? Are you a political person?
I’ve always been inspired by “protest music.” My parents were hippies, so I was raised on that stuff and it holds a special place in my heart. At a certain point my songwriting took a turn away from the soapbox and toward the simple, human act of storytelling. I’m much less active politically than I was when I was younger, but I do think art and storytelling have an inherently political dimension.
We are all creating and recreating the world we live in all the time. If you go to a concert or a show and feel free in your mind and body and feel like laughing or crying and feel like hugging the person next to you, that’s political…
Where can we buy your music and where can we see you next?
Spotify, iTunes, Amazon, or at a show! I’ll be doing this little tour of the East Coast, then mainly back to work on Hadestown.
John Gallagher, Jr. and Anais Mitchell are currently on tour through the North East. They play one night only TOMORROW – Thursday, September 22, 2016, at 7:30 PM at The Hamilton – 600 14th Street, NW, Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 787-1000, or purchase them online.
John Gallagher, Jr. on Appearing Tomorrow Night – 9/22 With Anaïs Mitchell at 7:30 PM at The Hamilton in DC by Nicole Hertvik.
Review of Hadestown by Richard Seff on DCMetroTheaterArts.