Pssst … didja hear? Anaïs Mitchell made a record with Greg freakin’ Brown! And Ani flippin’ DiFranco! And that guy from The Low Anthem! And Charlie Haden’s daughters! And … and … bon motherfuckin’ iver!
Well, of course you’ve heard. If you’ve read any of the roughly 10 gazillion articles written about the studio recording of Mitchell’s epic folk opera Hadestown since it dropped last month, you couldn’t help but be browbeaten with the knowledge that she enlisted some pretty famous costars for the project. Depending on which sources you’ve read, you could be forgiven for thinking that Hadestown is something like the Greek tragedy of orpheus and eurydice meets “We Are the World.”
Settle down, people.
Clearly, Mitchell’s big-name colleagues lend the record a certain cachet. And, yes, this writer falls squarely in the rank-and-file of media types fawning over said high-profile talent — hell, I’ve been drooling over that aspect of the recording in this column since last fall. It’s the big, juicy, obvious hook. So it’s no wonder scribes from 7D and the Freeps to national outlets like Paste magazine and Brooklyn Vegan, among others, have homed in on it. And given just how phenomenal the record is, the adulation is justified. Justin Vernon’s unconventional interpretation of Orpheus really is nuanced and brilliant. Greg Brown seemingly was born to play the dark and charming hades. Ben Knox Miller’s take on hermes is fun and devious. But lost in the media glare is something absolutely critical to the project’s success that has nothing to do with names on the marquee. Hadestown would not be Hadestown without the efforts of three people you will hardly read a word about in most national musings: director Ben T. Matchstick, producer Todd Sickafoose and arranger Michael Chorney.
It’s no coincidence that on Mitchell’s website those three are listed first in the project’s credits, ahead of Vernon or DiFranco or even Mitchell herself. In a recent email exchange, she writes that, from the earliest drafts of Hadestown, it was the collaboration with Matchstick and Chorney that “kept the wheels spinning.” In particular, Mitchell says, she drew specific inspiration from Chorney and his unique approach to his craft.
“Michael is a rare, powerful artist,” she writes. “For years I’ve been inspired by his creative process, how he opens himself completely to the world, and then really rolls up his sleeves. There is patience and honest conviction in him that I will spend my life trying to learn. Michael’s music leans toward the true, the unexpected, and the twinning of dark and light. All this he brought to Hadestown.”
She cites the song “Chips,” which Mitchell originally wrote as a folksy, fingerpicked number, but was profoundly transformed when Chorney got his hands on it.
“When the bass line comes in, you suddenly feel the song in this very deep, sexy way I never would have hit on if left to my own folky devices,” she writes. But Mitchell doesn’t stop there.
“It’s almost embarrassing to sing that song onstage with the orchestra playing Michael’s score. It’s just so sexy I don’t know what to do with myself!”
Um … where was I?
Oh, right. Hadestown. Is it getting hot in here? (Rimshot!)
Anyway, the point — yes, there really is a point — is that Hadestown was impressive long before it was cast into a national spotlight. And it evolved into the brilliant work it has become in the hands of people like Chorney, and the group of local singers, actors and musicians who first breathed life into Mitchell’s characters as a small, grassroots production years ago. Which reminds me…
This Friday at the Higher Ground Ballroom, Mitchell begins a run of regional tour dates in support of the album. Fittingly, the band with which she is touring the record, the Hadestown Orchestra, is composed of several of those same local musicians. Led by Chorney, it includes longtime Hadestown/Magic City residents Geza Carr (drums), Andrew Moroz (trombone), Rob Morse (bass) and Polly Vanderputten (cello), as well as a pair of new faces, violist Adam Moss and cellist Nelson Caldwell. Not only that, but opening duties for several of the shows, including the HG affair, will be handled by the Chorn-dog himself and his provocative new group, the Michael Chorney Sextet.