We've all heard, ad nauseam, about how the September 11, 2001, tragedy "changed everything." The phrase is so well worn that it has become banal. But the music of singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell gives it new meaning. A 25-year-old Vermont native and former waitress, Mitchell manages to weave together the most private and personal, deeply human moments with the most public images of our post-9/11 global landscape. And she does it with an ease and sophistication that belie her relative youth.
After graduating college, Mitchell traveled extensively, with several jaunts in the Middle East. Upon her return, she moved to Austin, Texas, where she began performing regularly. It was there she recorded her now out-of-print debut CD, The Song They Sang When Rome Fell. Mitchell was soon a fixture at the Kerrville Folk Festival, where she received the coveted New Folk award in 2003. Returning to Vermont, she teamed up with jazz composer Michael Chorney, who produced her 2004 release, Hymns for the Exiled. The album, distributed by Chicago-based Waterbug Records, contains an eclectic mix of Dustbowl-style ballads and contemporary protest songs.
Mitchell's astonishingly powerful tunes collectively sound like an extended meditation on a 21st-century fortress America, where nothing and no one can be trusted. But she uses songwriting to scale those walls and craft revealing stories; she sings them in a vulnerable soprano, sparsely accompanied by simple guitar riffs and finger-picked licks. The result feels remarkable and new, capturing essential truths about the world in beautiful and honest music.
Mitchell plays at two major Vermont music events this weekend: the Champlain Valley Folk Festival and the NorthEast Kingdom Music Festival. Seven Days recently chatted with her about performing, her music, and her upcoming CD.
SEVEN DAYS: When and why did you first pick up a guitar?
ANAIS MITCHELL: I took violin as a kid for seven years. It turned into one of those beautifully intentioned, long-standing guilt trips between me and the ones paying for the lessons. When I finally picked up guitar at age 14 or 15, it was going to be on my terms. I studied with a very laid-back, double-jointed jazz guitar player who rented the empty house on our family farm. The zeal for guitar, I think, came from having been introduced to Ani DiFranco and wanting to play her early songs.
SD: Your music blends the intimately personal and the "big-picture" political in such unique ways. Can you talk a bit about how you marry the two in your writing?
AM: A lot of my songs start out as love songs. I used to tell my man, "Hey, I'm writing a song about you!" and he'd say, "Sure, sure," because inevitably, by the time the song was finished, it would be about a mining disaster or something. I think this is why the songs end up sounding emotional as well as journalistic. Also, I found early on that the language we use to talk about politics is often hopelessly un-poetic. It's hard to make unwieldy . . . words like "emancipation" resonate in a song -- unless you are Bob Marley, in which case you can say anything you goddamn want. So the poet who tackles politics is forced to find a more visceral vocabulary, and this often brings in the imagery that is more "intimately personal," as you said.
SD: Take your song "1984," for example. You channel George Orwell's Big Brother when you sing: Down at headquarters there's a big database / With black and white photos of the side of your beautiful face / And library records of all your test scores / And an invitation to party like it's 1984 . . . Sinister stuff. Where'd that one come from?
AM: Ha! That is one of those rare tunes that literally took five minutes to write, and no editing. A gift from the ether! So I'm kind of unqualified to talk about it. What you hear is what you get, really. I was actually embarrassed by its simplicity at first, and I had no idea people would latch onto it the way they did. Buzzflash.com promoted the record for a little while based on that song, and Michael Chorney and I actually got to play it on Air America. Sing Out! even printed it in their magazine.
SD: What about "Cosmic American," which is a real sexy song in some ways, but sounds like this wonderful metaphor comparing a relationship to a misdirected electronic miscommunication of sorts. I'm a live wire, I'm a short wave radio / Do you copy / I'm a flash of light from the tower to the runway / If I leave you I'm gonna do it / Semi-automatically... What's going on there?
AM: Well, I think you've got it. "I'm a live wire, I'm a short wave radio" came from the ether. I was living in Cairo. I'd play that line in the bathroom of my apartment. Bathrooms are important creative spaces for me because of the starkness and the instant reverb. When I was writing it I had this great sense of the relentless hand of fate with regards to my own recklessness. "If I leave you, I'm gonna do it semi-automatically -- do you blame me?" I meant that it couldn't be helped.
SD: You have a new CD coming out soon. No title yet. What can you say about it?
AM: Well, I'm very excited about it! I recorded it in Bristol, Vermont, with Michael Chorney producing, which is how I made Hymns, but this time around we recorded over the course of many months and had the benefit of time and space. I also was a real pain in the ass about my vocal takes this time around, sometimes recording more takes of a song than I'd like to admit. But I wanted the deliveries to be magical, bursting with intimacy. Also, there are horns on this one. The songs themselves are a motley crew, but there are several love stories and unrequited love stories in there.
SD: "Fonder Heart" is a beautiful new song. What's the story there?
AM: Unrequited infatuation. Creative sublimation. And a phrase from Lawrence Durrell's Justine, something to the effect of, "We who have loved much and traveled much, we understand the complexities of tenderness and that the line between friend and lover is very fine."
SD: And who is this Uncle Louie in your new tune "Out of Pawn?"
AM: I'll never tell. But it's (mostly) a true story. The neighborhood bar was called "Saturn Bar," and it's still there, in the 9th Ward. That night Uncle Louie also said, "All culture ended in 1995!" Funny, here was a case of me wanting desperately to write a "political" song about what happened -- and didn't happen -- in New Orleans, and the words just wouldn't come. It felt more compelling as a love story.