Part of Jun 2011 by

Anaïs Mitchell Meets Austin

Anaïs (pronounced “uh-NAY-iss”) Mitchell is the daughter of “hippie back-to-the-landers”. Her father was a novelist and English professor, and from an early age, Mitchell was exposed to a lot of old folk and psychedelic albums as well as an endless stockpile of books. Mitchell now calls a 200-year-old farmhouse in rural Vermont home, but judging by the finely-aged quality of her music, she could very well be writing her songs as a ghostly apparition forever haunting the library of her childhood home.

In 2004, Mitchell recorded the album that she now considers to be her debut, Hymns for the Exiled. Upon hearing Hymns, Ani DiFranco offered to release Mitchell’s next album, The Brightness, on her iconic folk label Righteous Babe Records. Mitchell has stayed with Righteous Babe, releasing Country E.P. (a collaboration with Rachel Ries) and most recently Hadestown.

Mitchell recently played Cactus Café in Austin on Saturday, June 18th. AdobeAirstream caught up with Mitchell as she entered the Texas portion of her tour to discuss Hadestown, an epic “folk opera” reimagining of the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus set in a “depression-era-esque company town.” According to Mitchell, “one of the first scenes that got [her] excited was the speakeasy scene with Persephone; the idea that the queen of the underworld is the proprietress of a speakeasy and smuggles contraband in from the outside world. That got the wheels spinning with imagery from the prohibition times, but there was so much else that pointed in that old direction: Hades is called ‘the rich one’, the underworld as a mine, the depths of the earth that bring forth riches of gold and silver, and also the coal and ore that built the industries back in the day.”

Intertwined with the retelling of the Orpheus myth is a very relevant and modern political/social commentary as well. As Mitchell explains, “at first it wasn’t so much a grand plan to weave a specific political/social message into the myth as it was just images that seemed to vibrate together; but as [she] got into it, the politics made themselves more and more clear. You can’t have a world of wealth and a world of poverty without a wall between them. [Mitchell] wrote a lot of the first drafts of the Hadestown songs during the height of the George W. Bush administration. [Along with] collaborators—Ben T. Matchstick, the director, and Michael Chorney, who wrote the arrangements and instrumental stuff—[they] were all feeling the scariness and impotence of that time while [they] worked on Hadestown.

Being that Mitchell’s namesake, Anaïs Nin, is a prominent player in feminist history, it is fitting that Mitchell’s adaptation of the myth of Orpheus would give the ladies more bravado than the original tale. Mitchell points out that “the Eurydice character doesn’t have a lot of agency in the original myth—actually, no one does, as the fates are pulling strings left and right—as she simply gets bitten by a snake and dies.” But in Mitchell’s Hadestown, Eurydice “makes a conscious choice to travel to Hadestown to try and improve her lot. Persephone [voiced on the album recording by Ani DiFranco] has a pretty bold voice in the show, and it is she who is ultimately the chink in Hades’ armor.” That said—Mitchell would not go as far as claiming there is a strong feminist vibe to her interpretation of the Orpheus myth; though she adds “there is a great play by Sarah Ruhl called Eurydice which taps into a kind of feminist vein in the story.” Mitchell aspires to “be able and free to write about men and women both in such a way that there was absolutely no question that they play equally powerful mythological roles in the stories we the people are collectively telling and hearing.”

As for the collaborative and theatrical nature of Hadestown, Mitchell explains that she would have never written the songs on Hadestown “without the motivation of other voices. At first it was the voices of [her] friends from the music scene in Vermont who were the original singers of the songs, and later the guests who appeared on the album gave [Mitchell] a major motivation to write and rewrite with their voices in mind.” Unfortunately, Mitchell has not been able to pull off any one concert featuring all of the singers from the recording (Ani DiFranco, Justin Vernon, The Haden Triplets [Petra, Rachel and Tanya], Ben Knox Miller, and Greg Brown), though some of them have joined shows at different times. Mitchell has however put on concert versions of the Hadestown show in various cities “using singers from that part of the world; for example, [they have] done ‘New York sings Hadestown’, ‘Boston sings Hadestown’, ‘Glasgow sings Hadestown’, ‘London sings Hadestown’, etc. It’s been a wild ride but very remarkable way to hear the songs sung by many throats and also have wicked fun times with comrade singers.”


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