In less than 10 years, Anais Mitchell has launched a traditional folk-music career, diverted to an operatic retelling of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, and released a heartfelt album-long ode to her father.
This weekend, she appears at MeadowGrass with former Colorado resident Jefferson Hamer, promoting Child Ballads, a new album devoted to the work of a 19th-century curator of traditional folk tunes.
The title of Mitchell's latest album, her first with Hamer, refers to Francis James Child, a Harvard folklorist who played a role in the 1800s not unlike that of Alan Lomax, collecting and publishing folk tunes before knowledge of them vanished.
Mitchell — whose MeadowGrass appearances will include a Sunday performance with Hamer and a Saturday workshop on storytelling in song — is the daughter of a novelist who named her for diarist and author Anais Nin. She grew up in rural Vermont and was writing folk songs by age 17.
After two self-released albums, she signed with Ani DiFranco's Righteous Babe Records, releasing The Brightness in 2007 and Hadestown, the Orpheus folk-rock opera, in 2010. Before recording Child Ballads, she also shook up the folk-pop world with last year's Young Man in America, an album dedicated to her father.
When we reached her, Mitchell was in the midst of a move prior to hitting the road with Hamer — who began his own career playing with Sunday night MeadowGrass performers Great American Taxi.
In the following interview, she talks about spontaneity, a newly expanded Hadestown, and what it means to be a dork.
Indy: It's tough to use a tired term like "concept album," but you seem unusually interested in fully defined projects. Are you working off some kind of bucket list, or do you just have a lot of great ideas banging around in your head, that you wanted to see implemented?
Anais Mitchell: Well, Hadestown was definitely a big-time concept album, but to me, Young Man in America was just a collection of songs that happened to pass through my heart. Child Ballads is a pretty conceptually tight little project I guess, but you know, when I think about all these things, it's less like I had a grand plan and more like I just got on a jag, do you know what I mean? Me and Jefferson got on a "Child ballads" jag!
Also, I'm kind of a dork, I enjoy crossword puzzles and stuff. I suppose that setting up a little puzzle to be solved kind of inspires me, or keeps me going back to the desk.
Indy: When you brought Hadestown to Denver, and utilized local artists like Paper Bird, it seemed like something that hadn't even been tried in the rock-opera domain. Did you conceive of that as a full libretto to be staged? Did you always want to tour in conjunction with local musicians from each touring city?
AM: Hadestown began as a DIY theater project in the state of Vermont. It was me, Michael Chorney — who wrote the orchestral arrangements for six instruments — the original director Ben T. Matchstick, and a bunch of our friends from different bands around Vermont. The opera went through two drafts on the stage before we made the album with all the guest singers like Ani [DiFranco] and Justin [Vernon of Bon Iver].
After the album came out, I was just touring around with Michael Chorney and his band, singing all the songs myself, which was crazy, until we hit Boston. Then I realized how many friends we had in that town who might be up for doing the voices of the characters. It was so great not only to hear the different voices again, but also to get to hang with these songwriters who I loved and admired, and kind of celebrate the Boston music scene with them.
After that we tried to replicate that scene in as many cities as we could. The logistics were so crazy every time, 14 of us in a 15-passenger van, that kind of thing. But I wouldn't trade it for anything.
Indy: Have any theater groups or outside actors approached you about producing Hadestown as a stage piece, and would you entertain any offers?
AM: A lot of people have reached out wanting to put on a theatrical version of Hadestown. I can't wait to be able to say yes, but for the last couple years I've been in the process of developing the show with a producer, actually writing a few more songs, and I feel like we've really got to mount that "official" production before we release the rights to the great beyond.
Indy: What about last year's Young Man album, dedicated to your dad? Was that a long time in gestation?
AM: That one wasn't so intentional, but I was on a jag, and the jag had something to do with my dad. My dad lost his own dad a few years back, and it made a big impression on me, seeing him go through that process, seeing him not just as my own father but as another man's son, and an orphan of some kind. It's his face on the cover of the album.
Indy: You already were demonstrating your interest in traditional ballads when you played a few of them prior to the Denver Hadestown production. Have you known about Francis James Child for a while, or was this sort of recent?
AM: I was familiar with the Child ballads as a little kid. My parents had this hippie songbook called Rise Up Singing and it had a few of the ballads in it, always printed with the number Child had used, written beside each ballad.
It wasn't until a few years ago that I really fell head over heels for British folk music. When Jefferson and I started singing trad music together, we weren't just doing Child stuff, we considered recording some Irish songs, some American ones, you know. But there was something about sticking with the Child canon that felt really right to us. The songs all feel like they belong together.
The awesome thing about the books Child collected is that you can read a dozen versions of the same story back-to-back, which makes arranging really easy, because you can pick and choose lines or phrases from different versions. But of course, he's just the collector — the ballads themselves are ancient, phenomenal stories. I think when audiences are able to tap into the stories they are as mesmerized as we were when we first heard them. But it takes patience, and the right scene.
Indy: So what should we expect at MeadowGrass? Strict duo, all Child Ballads songs?
AM: We will be a duo at MeadowGrass, unless we meet a fiddler in Colorado, which we just might. Jefferson and I tend to do mostly ballads together, but we also do some older stuff from Hadestown and Young Man and some of Jeff's songs too. I do like to mix it up, but the real backbone of our show right now is the ballads, it's what we do together best.