Anais in Wilderland

Published December 3, 2012

ABOVE: ANAÏS MITCHELL

When Interview calls up Anaïs Mitchell to talk about the year she’s had and the riveting prospects of the one ahead, the folk bard is freezing her butt off at a breakfast joint in Portland, Maine. As she steps outside to chat, Mitchell’s enthusiasm for the brief jaunt she’s about to embark on cannot be contained: “We thought it would be cool to do a second tour for Young Man In America—we’re calling it the Last Hurrah tour—and we’re really just doing the Eastern Seaboard cities, kind of sticking closer to home. We’re really excited about the places we’re playing!”

Since releasing Young Man in America on her new label Wilderland Records in February, Mitchell has lapped a transatlantic route multiple times, touring throughout the United States (including a string of coveted dates with Bon Iver) and the UK behind the album. “I think there’s a kinship between what people dig in England and New England,” she says. “There’s an openness to narrative and storytelling and poetry, and that’s a part of what music is about. It’s not just about beat or how it feels, but also this lineage of storytelling, which is definitely why I started writing songs. It’s what makes me wake up in the morning to write.”

The follow-up to Hadestown, her folk opera reimagining the story of Orpheus in a post-apocalyptic setting, Young Man In America serves as yet another platform for Mitchell’s way with words, a dense, raw record that reflects this need to play out a story through song. As we get into it about the close of 2012 and her plans for 2013, Mitchell’s ready to get the Last Hurrah on the road—even if it’s 24 degrees out and she hasn’t had her coffee yet. 

HILARY HUGHES: You’ve written an opera, you’re about to release a Child Ballads record with Jefferson Hamer—songwriting seems like a form of storytelling for you more than it does for other musicians. How do you work your way out of writer’s block?

ANAÏS MITCHELL: I rarely find myself in a situation where I don’t have a song to write, where I don’t have an idea. The ideas are easy, but I think bringing the song home the way that I want to can be really frustrating, and so that’s what my block becomes. Sometimes I would just be pounding away at something trying to take it as far as I want it to go. You know when they say you give birth, and you forget about the trouble that led to this creation of this new creature? I feel like songwriting is like that, in a way—I tend to black out how long things took [to write]. Most of my songs, if I look at them, they might start out being about something entirely different; the impetus to write them is oftentimes completely unrecognizable by the time the song is done. A lot of the time I’ll just hit a wall and kind of beat my head against it until I realize that I gotta find a way around it, that I gotta take my song in a different direction. Certain songs on Young Man In America took a really long time to write, especially the ones that felt really true to me, even though the narrator is someone other than myself in a lot of them. A lot of them felt emotionally true for me and I wanted every part of them to be as true. I like to go to the bathroom and sing to myself in the mirror [laughs]. And sometimes I’m like “Oh, I don’t really buy that—I can’t stand in my shoes and sing that.”

HUGHES: Young Man In America was the first record on you put out on Wilderland. What was that like, releasing the inceptive record on your own label?

MITCHELL: It’s not the kind of thing I would’ve attempted had I been on my own with this. I self-released my very first record, which is out of print and which I pretend doesn’t exist anymore. Young Man is the first one after the Righteous Babe era. I guess I feel like in this day and age, and the way I came up when it came to having a music career, it was always really self-directed. In that sense, [Young Man] is not a huge departure. When it came time to put out this record, we wanted to really have our hands on the reins and how it was going to go. I guess what that means is how much money are you going to spend. It’s like gambling, right? Somebody said this perfect thing about the music industry, that it’s like being in a casino: you can sit at the table and expect that maybe your ship will come in, and the alcohol is free, so why would you leave? [laughs] There’s something to this day and age. It’s just such a crazy gamble, trying to make money making music and making art.

HUGHES: I know you recently released Hadestown on vinyl, which was available to folks who caught your shows with Bon Iver. Why now?

MITCHELL: I’ve always wanted to release that record on vinyl, even when we first made it. The record label was like, “It’s too expensive.” It is expensive—it’s a long record, so it has to be double vinyl. They were like “We’ll wait and see, down the line we’ll do it.” I ended up putting Young Man independently. We got the offer to do those shows with Justin, and we thought, “Hey, this is the moment!” and we pressed it on vinyl. I really want to put Young Man on vinyl too, at some point. What I like about vinyl—especially with Hadestown—is that you really don’t listen to one track at a time. You gotta just put it on and focus. There’s continuity and an intention behind it. It feels different somehow than queuing something up on your iPod.

HUGHES: Will we see a production of Hadestown come to light in 2013?

MITCHELL: Gosh, that would be awesome if it happens in 2013. We did a workshop recently, and basically determined that I might need to write a couple more songs in order to bridge some gaps story-wise that are sort of okay when it comes to a record like that, but to make something make sense visually and theatrically there may be some gaps in the storytelling. So, that’s what I’m doing now, working on a few new songs, and it’s pretty wild to be getting back in that headspace. It’s exciting! I guess we’re going to do another workshop in 2013, and hopefully, if all goes well, we can do a production after that.

HUGHES: Is it totally nuts, seeing your songs recreated in a dramatic forum?

MITCHELL: The whole project has been awesome. When we started doing Hadestown, we did it as a stage show, kind of a DIY thing with our friends in Vermont bands. They sang the roles of the lead characters, and we did costumes and the whole thing, and that was really fun. We did a lot of concerts in different towns using singers from that region. It’s been really magical getting to know lots of different artists and collaborating with them, and a lot of people have left their mark on the piece, which is super cool. At the workshop, the actors—they were professional actors, which is a first for us—they were asking questions: “What is the character feeling in this scene? What does this character want out of this other character?” It was just pretty fascinating to open up the door to that world.

HUGHES: So, Hadestown live and in the flesh, a Child Ballads record, more tours: what else is on the docket for Anaïs Mitchell in 2013?

MITCHELL: People are like, “Wow, you have so much going on, and you’re working on all this stuff!” The truth is that it’s all stuff that’s coming to fruition that’s been in the works for a long time. It’s not like I’m crazy and prolific or anything; it just happens to be a moment where a lot of different projects are coming to a head, and that’s crazy. After the ballads, I have a couple of ideas. I really want to write another opera. That’s a big thing on the top of my list. I’d love to take some time off the road to focus on something like that. There’s always another record. In music, you just keep meeting more people, and the possibilities keep expanding. My career has been very steady with no leaps of “Oh my god, now you can make a hundred-thousand-dollar record!” It’s been very one-foot-in-front-of-the-next. I love that. I have so many more ideas about the kinds of records I could make and the people I could work it or kinds of music to explore, and I like to fantasize about that. Whatever it is.

YOUNG MAN IN AMERICA IS OUT NOW. ANAÏS MITCHELL WILL PLAY THE BOWERY BALLROOM THIS EVENING, DECEMBER 3. FOR MORE ON THE  ARTIST, VISIT HER WEBSITE.