Anais Mitchell: Telling stories

by Kristen Stanovich

photo by Jay Sansone

Anais Mitchell’s influence is far-reaching. In interviews with singer-songwriters, Mitchell’s name often tops the list of musical heroes among Ani DiFranco, Leonard Cohen and Gillian Welch. Now, with a music career that spans more than a decade, seven live theatre award nominations, and several highly acclaimed albums, Mitchell is back on tour this spring to grace us all with her poetic prowess and storytelling. 

For anyone who knows her music, to most Mitchell is a veteran of politically charged, detailed songs played sweetly and simply. Her voice, which has been compared to Joanna Newsome, Ani DiFranco and Joni Mitchell at times, is both cutting and soothing, holding perfect cadence with her scene-setting lyrics on albums like Hymns for the Exiled and Hadestown. With each description a flag quivering in a hand or a program playing on the television in the background, Mitchell brings her listeners into her stories making each person feel like an important part of the album’s narrative.

“I began writing songs in high school under the influence of a lot of powerful female singer-songwriters coming up in the late 90s, like Ani DiFranco, Dar Williams, Tori Amos,” Mitchell said in an email.  “The first songs I wrote were terrible, I’ve repressed them entirely.”

Though it’s hard to believe someone with such a knack for character-driven stories and emotive expressions in her song lyrics could possibly have written something unremarkable. “I could tell you stories like the government tells lies/ Oh, but no one listens any more/ In the rooms the women come and go/ Talking on the mobile phones/ And the television talks about the war,” she writes in “Before the Eyes of Storytelling Girls” a song written about a character witnessing war in the Middle East.

While Mitchell’s writing is often based around specific characters, she said the protagonists in her songs are mostly avatar-like models based around her own emotions. Her feelings about the world influence the character of each person in her story. As her career progressed and diverted in some ways from her folk artist roots, so has her writing style, Mitchell said.

“I more and more realize that oftentimes the simplest choice is the best choice,” she said. “This is hard for me to accept because I love to write a fuckton of words, but I actually think simplicity is the direction I hope to go in.”

Over the span of her career Mitchell has seemed to hone a perfect match of simplicity in her music with the complexity of lyricism as she takes on larger topics many deem hard to sum up in three-minute track. While she is often referred to as a “concept” artist, Mitchell feels that some albums can be mistaken for a purposeful concept.

“I tend to get on ‘jags,’ like variations on a theme, with my songs, so I think sometimes a batch of songs appears to be a ‘concept album’ when really it’s just, the songs I happened to write in a particular time frame,” she said.

Mitchell has often expressed how challenging writing can be for her as well. With an album like Hadestown, collaboration amongst multiple artists, Mitchell said she had specific assignments to fill into the narrative of the story in “crossword-like” fashion, which she says can be exciting.

Hadestown was released on Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe label in 2010 with tracks sung by DiFranco herself, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and Greg Brown among others. The album centered around a dystopian narrative built upon the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and received widespread praise among musicians and critics before it’s transition into an off-Broadway play in collaboration with Rachel Chavkin in 2016. Most recently the folk opera has been nominated for seven Lucille Lortel awards recognizing outstanding work in off-Broadway productions for Outstanding Musical, Outstanding Music Design, and Outstanding Scenic design among other nominations.

“It’s very gratifying,” Mitchell said of the nominations. “I’m so proud of the beautiful cast and design team we assembled… They are all magicians and they made magic together.”

The production of Hadestown as a musical was 10 years in the making before its debut. This shortly after having her “Hadestown blinders” on for so long, Mitchell feels she is a little out of touch with the folk side of her writing. While the world of theatre and a new version of live performance has opened up her life in many ways, she misses the parts of her folk roots where she began.

“I’m not sure exactly who I am right now as a writer and singer of regular, non-theatrical songs,” she said. “Lately I see more plays and musicals than concerts, by a long shot. I miss musicians, I miss touring. I’ll be great to get out on the road for a bit! But I’m so grateful for this beautiful world of theater artists that has opened up in my life.”

Though, reverting back to the life of a touring musician has its challenges. Mitchell said that while she started out touring constantly in the beginning of career, she finds she needs to be more deliberate about where and when she can take the time, particularly with a child at home. Mitchell also sees the challenges that go along with being a touring musician these days in terms of self-promotion and finding reasons to keep pressing onward when faced with the pressures of making a career out of art.

“I think it’s hard as any kind of artist to stay connected with the spiritual ground of why they make art, without getting sidetracked by the hustle, the vanity and the inevitable rises and falls of a career,” Mitchell said. “Especially for folks doing a lot of DIY work, as many of my folk music friends are, they have to be in the business of selling not just their art but themselves — like it’s hard to extract one from the other. Ultimately I think anyone able to make a living off of their own creativity is a lucky one.”

Mitchell returns to Bellingham to play The Green Frog Friday, May 12 at 7 p.m. For more information about Mitchell and her music, see www.anaismitchell.com.