“I’ve been thinking about how stories are often more interesting than ideas,” says Anaïs Mitchell, toying lightly with the glass on the table in front of her. We’re alone in a locked up café, let in out of hours by a sullen chef who quickly retreated to his underground domain. It’s the middle of the day, not that you’d know it. Outside, a wintry downpour pummels the street and casts the ordinarily cosy enclave of soft furnishings in a blueish crepuscular gloom. We haven’t dared to put any lights on. Camden hipsters desperate for their next hit of falafel might tear the door down. You can never be too careful with ravenous vegans.
As it happens, our shadowy surroundings are ideal for discussing Anaïs’s latest idea, one based on stories both ancient and contemporary. A voracious reader from a young age, Anaïs has always drawn inspiration from literature. This is, after all, a woman named after diarist and author Anaïs Nin and whose father is a writer. A rural upbringing on her parents’ farm in Vermont instilled in Mitchell a deep love of nature, her fellow Vermonters, and the pleasures of losing oneself in a book. She also developed what she describes as “an urban fetish” romanticised through tales of city life and socialite antics that seemed a world away from sleepy New Haven.
As a young teenager she took a keen interest in politics and studied political science at Middlebury College – a private, liberal arts institution where her dad now teaches English – alongside another great passion, languages (she speaks several). And while most teenagers obsess about popstars and TV personalities, Anaïs admits to having “a lot of crushes on journalists,” partly fuelled by her love of Ernest Hemingway. “I just like people who have their finger on the pulse of what’s happening,” she says with a shy smile, “it’s sort of a lonesome, disciplined job…a bit like being a solo musician.”
Anaïs’s musical roots have their origin in her father’s record collection, the cornerstones of which were the likes of Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen, but it was the rise to prominence of Lilith-cred artists that coincided with her decision to pursue her own songwriting, and inevitably influenced it. She penned her first songs at the age of seventeen and recorded her debut album, 2002’s self-released The Songs They Sang When Rome Fell, in a single day. Her reluctance to really acknowledge the record these days is, she says, a hangover from wearing her influences a little too plainly. She seems embarrassed that I have even heard it, but accepts that this is the age of cyber accrual where even the most basic of demos eventually surface.
If you’re familiar with Anaïs at all, you’ll know her story has taken on something of a fairytale quality in recent years as one of the musicians she most admired – idolised, even – saw in Mitchell a kindred spirit and invested in her future. Anaïs first discovered the incomparable Ani DiFranco in the early ‘90s, aged fourteen, through dynamic and politically energised albums like Puddle Dive and Like I Said. “They were so powerful for me at that time,” she tells me excitedly, knowing we possess a similar affection for the trailblazing founder of Righteous Babe Records. “It was great to see someone so independent at that time, when it wasn’t like everyone was doing it. To see her at the forefront of that was so empowering.”
Anaïs first came to Ani’s attention through her childhood guitar teacher Michael Meldrum, a much-loved figure on the singer-songwriter circuit in their native Buffalo, NY. It was Meldrum who first brought Anaïs to Buffalo to showcase songs from 2004’s Hymns For The Exiled, released through a small independent based in Chicago, and it just so happened that Ani and manager would attend one of her shows. “This was, like, a year before I signed to Righteous Babe, or even started talking to them,” Anaïs explains as I struggle to unravel the timelines. “It blew my mind that this woman, who was such an idol for me when I was young, would be there at my show. It was really a great honour.”
As it happens, when Righteous Babe originally contacted Anaïs to express an interest in working with her, the timing wasn’t great. “I didn’t have a record to make!” Anaïs laughs, “I wasn’t ready to make one. I didn’t know how to go about it.” She had begun work on a follow-up to Hymns For The Exiled, nominally a sort of concept EP called The Pursewarden Affair that she describes as “unrequited love songs about one particular character,” but it fell by the wayside as extended touring interludes inspired a change of heart. When Anaïs asked Righteous Babe whether they had any fixed ideas for her to bounce off of, their response was what many artists dream of, yet simultaneously no help at all. “They basically said no, we want you to make the album that you want to make, and then if we like it we’ll put it out, which was great in one way, and in the other it was like, ‘oh god, how do I do it?’” she laughs.
Her natural instinct was to work with long-time producer Michael Chorney in the same Vermont studio in which she’d recorded Hymns For The Exiled. “I was actually living above the studio at the time,” she confesses, “it was really an intimate scene.” Essentially a renovated industrial farm space, the former grain mill infused the songs with a warmth not always found in digital recordings. “There’s something about the wood and the sound in there that’s really lovely,” says Anaïs. “Michael loves the natural and the spontaneous, the honest stuff, so that’s kind of what we were aiming for.”
By the time her third album The Brightness was released by Righteous Babe in early 2007 – to widespread acclaim, let’s not forget – the record had long been completed and Anaïs’s mind was already on her next project, the idea that’s brought us to this sanctuarial café out of the dreary London rain. A folk-opera based on the Orpheus myth might not seem like the most contemporary concept, but add in the setting of a commercially exploited Depression-era factory town transformed according to a vision of “vintage futurism” not unlike the post-apocalyptic ‘90s films of ‘Amélie’ director Jean-Pierre Jeunet and visual auteur Marc Caro, and the relevance to these uncertain times is clear. “A lot of the vintage ideas for Hadestown came out of the 1930s,” says Anaïs. “It’s a time that is very evocative for me, I think for the whole folk world, the Dust Bowl and the Depression, and the obviousness of the corruption and exploitation of workers. I think it still goes on now, but it’s less obvious, it’s more globally oriented.”
In the two and a half years it has taken Anaïs, Michael and theatre director Ben T Matchstick to transform the concept from its early beginnings as a stage musical to a Righteous Babe-approved studio recording, the script and songs have undergone a number of edits and evolutionary steps. The first production, she says, was staged in Vermont at the end of 2006, and contrary to her fears, turned out to be anything but a public embarrassment. “It was so awesome, the feedback was really great!” she says, big eyes sparkling and with a giant grin. “Of course, it made us all realise a lot of things about the show that we wouldn’t have been able to see from the writing desk, and I wanted to work on those.”
While it was tempting to make an album of the songs right away, Anaïs wisely chose not to head into the studio with a work in progress. “I’m glad it gave it time to become clear, politically,” she says. “It was a bit nebulous before, like Hadestown is this big bad capitalist thing, but now it’s more refined. I think the underlying premise isn’t that music can change the world, rather that it’s important that people try to change the world with music, whether or not it works.”
The tragedy of Orpheus and his wife Eurydice has inspired countless works of art in several mediums, but for those unfamiliar with the classic Greek myth, the four major players are Hades, King of the Underworld; his wife, Persephone; Eurydice, a tree nymph who is bitten by a poisonous snake and dies, descending to the Underworld; and Orpheus, her musically gifted husband who is so distraught at her death that he goes down to the Underworld to try and persuade Hades to free Eurydice and return her to life.
In Anaïs’s vision, Hades is “a sadistic wall-building boss-king” while Persephone is portrayed as “the proprietress of a speakeasy” where she peddles various artefacts of life above ground to desperate dead folk who miss the simple things like the sky. Inhabiting these characters, as a writer, has been a creative revelation for Anaïs, allowing a fresh and fun approach to songwriting, which she admits she’s often quite serious about when writing for her own voice.
Anaïs is clearly quite serious about her labour of love, however, and the songs are full of clever wordplay and threads of the original myth ingeniously woven into the fabric of the songs. Take ‘Our Lady Of The Underworld’, for instance; a perfect introduction to the character of Persephone, it’s a bawdy barroom rally cry that asserts a sassy playfulness you probably couldn’t imagine coming from Anaïs unless you’ve heard it. “What’s my name?” she exclaims in the chorus, alluding to the traditional interpretation that to say Persephone’s name out loud was the ultimate taboo. It’s these little touches that reveal Mitchell’s brilliance, her songwriting skill really coming to the fore.
Another triumph, ‘Why We Build The Wall’ is in the vein of early Bob Dylan ballads like ‘Who Killed Davey Moore’ and ‘The Lonesome Death Of Hattie Carroll’ in that each verse exposes different parts of the overall picture until you see that it’s really a system and not an individual that’s behind everything. It’s not a ballad, but it’s similarly complex and packs an emotional wallop. “Dylan’s early ballads were such an inspiration to me because he was obviously exposing the corruption of a whole system and a whole way of life, yet he did it by revealing all these little stories. It’s the idea of peeling off the layers to reveal the white hot core of the matter that I love, approaching at an angle as opposed to head on.”
You may be wondering how this could possibly get any more exciting, but Anaïs has news for you. “I just got back from Ani’s studio in New Orleans where we recorded my parts…Eurydice’s that is. And I am completely beside myself that Ani is singing the part of Persephone on the record!” I nearly spit out my drink. Seriously? She laughs. “I’m freaking out!” But that’s not all. “Michael wrote these beautiful arrangements for a six-piece orchestra, and Todd Sickafoose, Ani’s bass player, is producing. There are a couple of other very exciting guest singers on the record too…Justin Vernon of Bon Iver will sing the part of Orpheus and Greg Brown will sing the part of Hades.”
Wow! She pulls a face. “I just wish it was all done and I could have it in my hot little hands.” I assure her that she’s not the only one. Fear not, though, the official release of the music from Hadestown should be sometime this summer and the album looks set to be one of the most talked about releases of the year. If DiFranco’s Persephone is anywhere near as convincing as the one Anaïs transforms into at a sold-out show later that week, and Greg Brown’s Hades as defiant and blindly tyrannical, we’re talking album-of-the-year calibre stuff.
Brushing off my wild speculation, Anaïs is modest as ever. “I’ve learned a lot just by performing a lot, about being present with a song,” she grins. “It’s a process. I hope I keep growing, for sure. That’s what I want, to go in a lot of different directions, explore, and become more fully who I am, what my way of talking about the world is.”