If you were to judge purely by her quiet, breathy voice and earnestly clipped diction, you might think Anaïs Mitchell was just another mousy folk singer. You would be wrong. Mitchell is a powerhouse and a visionary.
“I could tell you stories like the government tells lies.” The first line of the first song on Mitchell’s first album (Hymns for the Exiled, 2004) announces to the world this poet’s essence. She’s a storyteller with a distrust of traditional authority. One might argue those are common ingredients defining “indie.”
But Mitchell specializes in defying expectations. The Vermont native is neither a standard guitar-slinging lefty nor an indie punk. The song “1984” on the first album demonstrates this. The simple guitar and banjo accompaniment — used throughout the album – and the gentle, lilting rhythm belie the song’s dark humor. Yes, the title refers to the Orwell book, but its message is couched in a sweet, even joyous love song. And why not? There’s a love story at the center of the novel. But, as is typical of Mitchell, with just a few words she twists the romantic scene of the first few verses into an Orwellian nightmare: “Sure is gonna be lonely / after I turn you in.”
In contrast to such a political opening salvo, on her second album (The Brightness, 2007) Mitchell lets another aspect of her personality shine, namely her ability to put the mundanity of human relationships into words. The song “Santa Fe Dream” is an exquisite ode to someone who wakes up in the middle of the night and notices not only the moonbeam shining on his lover, but also everyday things like “the clock on the table and the cable bill.” (Oddly, the title of this song is switched on Spotify and iTunes with that of “Hobo’s Lullaby,” but is labeled correctly on the CD.)
Given what’s happened in Mitchell’s career over the past couple of years, however, the most important song on The Brightness is “Hades and Persephone.” This turned out to be a small taste of quite a significant work. Mitchell told me in 2016, when I had a chance to interview her, that she had grown up loving ancient Greek mythology. Around the time she was writing songs for The Brightness, she and Ben t. Matchstick [Yes, the middle initial is lower case. Artists! —Ed.] were also co-creating a “folk opera,” as Mitchell calls it. Hadestown is a Depression-era retelling of two myths: the heartbreaking love story of Orpheus traveling to the Underworld to save his wife, Eurydice, and the tale of how Persephone was tricked into marrying Hades, king of the Underworld.
And now that little show, done for friends and fans in rural Vermont, is a big show rumored to be Broadway-bound. Hadestown enjoyed a sold-out run off-Broadway in 2016 in a production at the New York Theater Workshop directed by Rachel Chavkin. Currently Mitchell is retooling the musical with the hope of bringing it to the Great White Way. Not a lot of folk singer-songwriters have ever been eligible for a Tony Award, but Mitchell has again plowed her own path.
The first recording of the Hadestown score was released on Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe label, and has indie rocker DiFranco singing the role of Persephone. Mitchell sings Eurydice and fellow folksinger Greg Brown is Hades. When that 2010 album came out, the country was not quite primed for its message of a despot blind to human needs and equality. (Again, Mitchell intertwines love stories and politics.) But when I attended an off-Broadway performance, the 2016 presidential election was in full swing. The song “Why We Build the Wall” stopped the show and left us breathless. “How does the wall keep us free? The wall keeps out the enemy.”
Here is a video of “Why We Build the Wall” from an earlier concert version, featuring Mitchell. The cast album from that NYTW production is also available, with several new songs added to the score.
Before being swept up into the world of high-profile theater, Mitchell recorded another album of new material. Young Man in America (2012) marks a change in production concept from her earlier records. Besides the usual voice and guitar, the tracks feature added sounds such as flutter-tongued flute, creaking wood and snare drum. Those layers sit rhythmically askew, giving the songs a metrical freedom also evident in Mitchell’s loose vocal phrasing. A good example is the song “Wilderland.”
Clearly a woman who never slows down, Mitchell has also made two albums of pre-existing material in the past few years. Xoa (2014) contains simple, scaled-back recordings of 15 of her own songs; the new vocals have a painful beauty. Child Ballads (2015) is a celebration of Mitchell’s roots in traditional folk music, presenting story-songs as preserved in the famous 19th-century musicological collection, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, by Francis James Child.
It’s tempting to pigeonhole Mitchell as a contemporary folk singer, given her devotion to acoustic recording and performance. But she has a greater panoply of influences, not to mention goals. Like most artists carrying on the legacy of the civil rights movement, she wants to make the world a better place for the average Jane and Joe. She also has the poetic sophistication of an Emily Dickinson and the imagination of a C.S. Lewis. Average, she is not.