One of the most prolific folk artists of the past decade, Anais Mitchell is finally breaking out from the underground, literally and figuratively. In 2012, she followed up her folk opera Hadestown –based on the subterranean Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurdice — with the familial allegory of Young Man In America, which was no. 28 on FP’s top 50 albums of the year. This fall, she and her band toured across the country with Bon Iver, captivating audiences who came to see Justin Vernon and co. but likely came away from the concert with a new favorite artist. I know I did. (For a tiny taste of Mitchell in concert, check out her recent Tiny Desk Concert on NPR)
Mitchell’s set on December 2 at Local 121 in Providence, RI consisted mostly of tracks from Young Man In America, The one wildcard of the set? The band played a cover of Robyn’s “Hang With Me” from 2010’s Body Talk. Mitchell recounted how she first discovered that brilliant, danceable pop album last New Year’s Eve after a rough solo show and many subsequent drinks in succession at a party. Body Talk received a lot of rotation in the Young Man in America tour bus, so the band decided to learn one of the songs. It was one of the many highlights of her awesome set.
We at FP can’t wait to hear Child Ballads, Mitchell’s forthcoming English folk album, especially if it’s half as good as Young Man. From writing and making music about Greek myths to the recession to old English folk tales, Mitchell will certainly continue her busy streak. In an interview with me before the show, Mitchell and I talked about Young Man In America, her tour with Bon Iver, her upcoming work, and why she considers herself an “academic dork.”
Frontier Psychiatrist: How do you feel that [performing in the basement of restaurant Local 121] is going to be completely the opposite of the last time you were in Providence? This, as opposed to opening for Bon Iver in a huge space (the Providence Performing Arts Center).
AM: This place (Local 121) is awesome. To be honest, I love to play smaller places. I love to be able to look at the audience and see their faces. That Bon Iver tour was so amazing, it was such a great opportunity and those guys were so sweet, and their music and everyone who’s part of their touring machine is really awesome. But it was also exhausting to be in front of that many people night after night.
FP: I feel like Young Man In America, as opposed to Hadestown, has a smaller scope but it definitely sounds pretty big, and it sounded awesome in a huge venue. It’s probably going to sound equally good here but I feel like it’s got that sort of big sound.
AM: Thanks! We were really lucky that some of those guys from Bon Iver joined us to play horns. That definitely helped to recreate parts from the record.
FP: Who were those couple horn players you introduced as friends?
AM: That was Mike Lewis and C.J. Camarieri. I don’t know if we maybe had Reggie come out, too at that point, but those guys are all in [Bon Iver].
FP: I don’t think you had Reggie, it was just the two guys.
AM: We added more horns. As the tour went along we ended up stealing more and more members from the band (laughs).
FP: In terms of the new album: that’s your dad on the album cover, right?
AM: It is!
FP: And, it was when he was the same age (30) as you are right now? What do you think the significance is of that age of thirty, and how did that influence what you talked about on the new record?
AM: Great question! The photograph was a promotional photograph. My dad was a writer, and maybe you’ve read all of this already (laughs) but that song “Shepherd” is the song version of a book that he wrote.
FP: I didn’t know that the specific song was based on him.
AM: Yeah, when he was a young man he wrote a book called Souls of Lambs, and it was sort of a fable, and it had these illustrations, and it was set on a farm, and I grew up on a farm, and we had a flock of sheep, and that was part of my upbringing.
FP: You grew up in Vermont?
AM: I did, kind of a rural spot. The book is the story of “Shepherd”. It’s about this man whose wife is pregnant and she goes into labor and he is trying to finish all of the work he has to do before they go to the hospital and she ends up dying. It always struck me as such a sad story and I think my dad was dealing with a lot of stuff when he wrote that, too. I’ll speak for myself, not for my dad, but what I took from it is “what are the beautiful, important things in our life that we trample down and plow under in our single minded pursuit of whatever?” Whether it’s your work or these different obsessions and addictions we have. I guess for me, turning thirty was a question of looking at how I’ve been living the past ten years and asking, “Am I going to do that for another ten years?” Or am I going to make some changes? I woke up one morning and thought, “I gotta call my parents more.” You can get so self-focused in your twenties.
FP: The new album is a lot more personal. You take an album like Hadestown about a Greek myth that features a lot of “who’s who” in folk at the time, and then this one sounds bigger but it’s a lot more personal and relatable. Talking about the term “young man in America” at this time, how much of the album was about the recession and the notion of family in these contemporary times?
AM: It was definitely a factor in the songs “Wilderland” and “Young Man in America”. I thought of it as this character that was set in this terrain, this backdrop of every man for himself where you don’t know if anyone’s got your back. So you try this wild, feral, dog-eat-dog type of thing: both the freedom of that and the sadness of it, the crazy highs and lows. That was a factor for sure, but the songs didn’t come from any kind of platform. It wasn’t like I was trying to make any sort of statement socially or politically. It sort of just worked out that way. For me, the phrase that I never really wanted to say, because it sounds super dorky and academic, is that some of those songs are about an emotional side of capitalism. Do you know what I mean? (laughs) It’s not a political statement, it’s more about what it feels like and what we’ve internalized. If you wake up and feel guilty, sad, reckless, and empty, where does that come from?
FP: Would you consider yourself an academic dork?
AM: Yeah (laughs). I try really hard to pretend I’m Bohemian, but in fact, I’m not.
FP: You went to Middlebury, right?
AM: Yeah, my dad ended up teaching English there. That’s why I went there, I got a discount. But it was close to where I grew up.
FP: Not a bad place to go.
AM: That’s true. It was cool.
FP: I’m kind of an academic dork, too. I go to school here.
AM: Oh nice, where do you go?
FP: I go to Brown. Have you been to Providence besides touring?
AM: I visited a friend at Brown one time and I visited a friend at RISD, but I barely remember the campuses. It seems like a different town now.
FP: A bit, yeah. Organizations like [AS220] have helped revitalize the downtown area. It’s become very arts-centered.
AM: We were walking around on the street that has that place Craftland, it has a lot of letterpress stuff. I met an artist who is part of a collective here.
FP: Is he part of AS220?
AM: I think that’s it, maybe there’s another name for it. Print oriented stuff…[Providence] definitely seems like a visual arts town, but a music town, too! I’m friends with the guys from The Low Anthem, they’ve got this beautiful project they’re working on. It seems like you guys have got a great scene.
FP: It’s definitely really enjoyable. What Cheer? Brigade is playing all the time, and they’ll come to Brown for our Spring Weekend shows for a huge discount. But anyway, where do you go from here? Do you have any idea?
AM: After the tour, go back to Brooklyn.
FP: You’re based in Brooklyn?
AM: Right now we are, yeah. We’re going to move to Vermont eventually but we’re spending a couple years in the city. I’m putting out another record in a few months. It’s a duo project…with my friend Jefferson Hamer, he’s awesome. It’s all these British folk ballads. They’re incredible, they’re seven minutes long, all these wild folktales. It’s a lot of close harmonies and guitar arrangements. We’re going to put that out next year.
FP: You have the most personable fan list emails, must I say. They’re so nice…It’s not like most band emails, it seems like you’re actually talking.
AM: I feel like I have to put in a little bit of effort because I still haven’t learned how to use HTML (laughs) and all of my friends have these beautiful newsletters with photographs and artwork and I can’t figure out how to do it.
FP: Are you going to learn how to use HTML sometime in the future?
AM: Someday (laughs)
FP: It’s one of those things. So you’re putting out the record. How long do you tour for?
AM: We’ll tour most of the Spring, maybe some festivals in the Summer, but we’re going to do a lot of touring in the UK because the songs are British songs and my manager’s over there.
FP: Your main manager is in the UK?
AM: Yeah, she is.
FP: One thing I’ve always wanted to ask you about the Young Man in America songs on record as opposed to live: live, you do a lot more with the percussion, you use some xylophone.
AM: The glockenspiel?
FP: Yeah! It’s not in the record, is it?
AM: No, it’s not. [Drummer Ben Davis] is kind of a musical monster, playing all of those things at once.
FP: He’s like the guy from Wye Oak.
AM: Yeah, I’ve never seen them but I know them. It was hard to figure out how to recreate the sounds from the record because there was so much going on. Todd Sickafoose, the producer, had this vision for what could get on the record, and then it came time to tour, and we were like “wow, how are we going to do that?” The glockenspiel became a way to add another melodic instrument.
FP: It definitely gives the songs a beautiful, haunting quality live. The first time I heard it reverberating throughout the walls of the Providence Performing Arts Center I was like “wow, this is insane.”… I don’t have any more questions for you, is there anything else you want to tell me?
AM: No, I think you’ve covered a lot of bases. I can tell you one more thing: I’m working on putting Hadestown back in the theater. That’s been on my mind a lot lately, and I’m working on a few more songs for it so it can be a piece of theater as well as a piece of music.
Jordan Mainzer is a Young Man in America.