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B-Sides: Q&A with Anaïs Mitchell

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Last month I wrote a review of Anaïs Mitchell's latest (fabulous) album, Young Man in America. I sent Anaïs a few questions about her work, past and present, and her place in the folk pantheon. Read on for her thorough, thoughtful answers!

anais

(photo courtesy of AM's website)

What is your musical story? 

I played violin as a little kid and picked up the guitar in high school. My family was always really into songwriters' songwriters: Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, etc. My dad was and is a writer and words were important in our house. I think I wanted to be a poet first and foremost and writing songs seemed like a viable way to do that. I started writing songs in high school under the influence of a lot of powerful female songwriters: Ani Difranco, Dar Williams, Tori Amos, all those really bold emotional lay-it-all-on-the-table gals. When I finished my schooling I just started taking any gig I could get, going to festivals, that kind of thing... and one thing always leads to another. I'm lucky to still be doing it.

Women have left an enormous imprint on folk music, and you are right smack in the middle of leaving yours. What trails are you blazing, and how does the history of folk music affect your work?

I'm trying to tell stories that are emotionally true for me but also really true for others in an archetypal way. I'm trying to write songs that awaken a kind of ancestral, innate knowledge. That sounds kinda self-important but it's true!

How did signing to Righteous Babe come about?

I actually signed up with the Babe back in 2007 and did two and a half records with them, first The Brightness, then a split vinyl ep with my friend Rachel Ries, and then Hadestown. Ani [Difranco] was hugely influential as a songwriter and role model when I first started writing and playing. The first songs I learned, after some of the three-chord "Rise Up Singing" folk songs, were Ani Difranco songs. Then when I started touring, in the early days, playing anywhere I could, sleeping wherever, I did a show in Buffalo put together by this wonderful promoter Michael Meldrum who happened to also be Ani's childhood guitar teacher (she put out a record of his a few years back on RBR—I'm sad to say he died not too long ago). He invited her out the show, and that's how I first met Ani and the RBR crew.

Hadestown (one of my three all-time favorite records) seems to tell the story, at its core, of two women and the men who love them. First, how did you prepare for writing this album, and second, did you find the mythology you were working with to be naturally gynocentric, or were you shifting the lens to tell this story? 

That's funny, I don't think of it as a gynocentric telling of the story, in fact I (and the director) have sometimes been concerned that the female characters weren't coming across as powerful enough! Ultimately Eurydice does have more agency in Hadestown than she does in the original myth, because she chooses to go to the Underworld rather than simply being bitten by a snake... And our Persephone is this robust, subversive character, rather than a sad, pale, seed-eating type. But I think of Hadestown as an exploration of a scenario—the scenario of wealth, poverty, the wall between them—and the characters are there embodying different ways of existing within that scenario, almost before they are men or women. As for how I prepared for the writing... the whole thing has really been a process of putting one foot in front of the other. The opera began as a live community theater show in Vermont and went through a couple drafts before I made the record. Now that we've toured the record as a concert, we're hoping to move the show back into the theater world.

I also cannot get enough of the stories you're telling on Young Man in America. This record, by comparison, is concerned largely with masculinity; growing up male, a man falling in love with a woman, a child's relationship with his mother and father, a man's relationship to his wife. How did this album come about? 

I think the most honest explanation is that by dressing up in men's clothing I was able to feel freer, that is, I could trawl some deep feelings without worrying that people would dismiss the songs as merely confessional. There's a lot of me in the Young Man in America, but he's also bigger than me, he spans more generations, more spirits and experiences than one person's story could hold. There are other reasons for all the men on the record, one thing is that my dad is an important figure in some of the songs. "Shepherd" is based on a book he wrote when he was about my age, called "The Souls of Lambs." It's my dad's face on the cover of the record.

What do you think is the value of artists switching gender perspective in writing music? Are there dos and don'ts? 

This may not be a direct answer to your question but it's a thing I want to express and haven't figured out how yet. I did this radio interview the other day and the host was like, "It's mostly men who tackle the big archetypal themes, why do you think that is?" He was paraphrasing a woman who had written something like that, I can't remember who, it wasn't his idea. What I wanted to tell him was that of course the big archetypal themes are mostly about men... The myths and legends and heroes of most cultures, definitely ours. Even the fact that for a man to write a song with a woman's name in the chorus is a classic formula, whereas for a woman to do it seems odd and idiosyncratic. For me, writing as a man and about men sometimes has given me a sense of access to the epic that is harder to get to with female characters and imagery. It's totally possible to get there, it just takes more work. What I WANT is to be able to write as a man or a woman and for men and women to have an equal place in poetry, in mythology. I think we should all write as whoever we want. If it sucks, people will tell us. 

What are you reading, watching, or listening to lately?

I really got into Robyn Body Talk and Sam Amidon I See the Sign. I listen to a lot of folk music too, Irish and American, 'cause I'm trying to learn the fiddle (I played as a little kid). I have been so busy on this tour I've barely made a dent in my books but I have Dostoyevky's The Idiot in the van, as well as Eckhardt Tolle's A New Earth (which I have already read but it's soooo good).

What does feminism mean to you? 

My parents were hippies, I was raised with with a kind of Free to Be You & Me feminism that I always took for granted—it was never a tough choice or a dirty word, to identify as a feminist was the obvious thing and didn't require much commitment. Now that I'm in my thirties (I turned 31 last night so I'm practicing saying "in my thirties"), I guess I'm a little more aware of how I quietly and powerfully internalized a lot of sexist stuff without ever noticing it. Mostly the overwhelming desire to please, to satisfy other people's desires before satisfying or even trying to understand my own.

There's a character in one of the songs who is wrestling with some of this stuff. There's a man in her life, and she becomes all these things based on his desire for her: a barber, a perfumer, a tailor. Then he leaves and she becomes all these other things sort of to spite him, but still because of him: a violinist, a sculptress, a poet. At the end of the songs she calls out a series of questions: Didn't I gleam in my father's eye? Didn't I split my mother's side? Didn't I drink her nipple dry? No one taught me how to cry for what I wanted in the night, and didn't I cry and cry? She's trying to get back to her own desire, the desire of the child who knows what she wants and needs. Those lines were very personal to me; I cried when I wrote that song. I should mention I'm married to a wonderful supportive feminist man—it's in no way a song about him. But the whole world can feel like a stern lover sometimes.

For news, tour dates, and to buy Anaïs Mitchell's music, visit the AM homepage here.

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Comments

3 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Wonderful Interview

This was a joy to read! I love Anaïs Mitchell's transparency and strength in her songwriting, and it's layered, like a good writer does, whether it's songs, poems, prose or novels. Thanks for interviewing her and letting us read about some of her journey.

Thanks!

Thanks so much for the feedback, Aviva! Sounds like you enjoyed reading about as much as I enjoyed interviewing! (A lot, natch.)

I only recently discovered

I only recently discovered Anais Mitchell when I listened to Hadestown and instantly fell in love with it. To me, she is a true artist with great depth and beauty in the art she creates. Thank you so much for this interview. It is wonderful to learn more about Anais Mitchell, her ideas, her inspirations and her life. Thanks again.