IN A MUSIC industry that is turning over more new acts every week, Anaïs Mitchell is a bit of an anomaly. Shunning the hype cycles and industry events that feed omnivorously on new musical talent, Mitchell chose instead an older, more traditional path.
After she had toured her way around the US a few times and recorded three solid albums, the wider world eventually took notice of Mitchell’s immense talent upon the release of her epic fourth album, Hadestown.
Hadestown is a reinterpretation of the classic Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, transferred to an imaginary post-apocalyptic, Depression-era America. Setting the tale of hell-bound rescue to twisted country tunes and dark Americana instrumentation, the album confidently dealt with the age-old themes of love and loss associated with the story without ever sounding cliched or relying on tired metaphors. Guest spots from the likes of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco did the album no harm, but it was Mitchell’s starring role as Eurydice that won the most plaudits, including excellent reviews from the likes of the Guardian, the London Times and Drowned In Sound.
Mitchell’s music highlights her natural storytelling ability and apparently she has her family to thank for it. Although her father was a novelist, Mitchell points to a previous generation as the source of her way with words. “The best storyteller of my youth was my grandmother, Lauraine,” she says.
“I grew up on a farm with my parents and my maternal grandparents, and now my brother and his wife live there too. We’d all of us have dinner at my grandma’s place on weeknights, since both my parents worked and didn’t have time to fix dinner. And my grandma was the best storyteller; she remembered little details about scenes she was describing, what someone wore, or what kind of dishware was on the table. That is a great skill, and way of seeing the world, that is, by way of the details. In school, we’re taught to reduce the world to a series of ideas, but the real, crazy, sensual world is not reducible.”
Mitchell’s newest album, Young Man In America, is the follow up to Hadestown and it builds on the confidence and unique personality of that record. Once again the American heartland provides inspiration as Mitchell explores the modern landscape through the eyes of the Young Man of the title. It was a clear decision to play the male character herself this time around .
“Taking on the voice of a man took the songs immediately out of the realm of autobiography,” she says. “I guess I felt more free, able to trawl deep feelings in my own heart without people thinking of the stuff as confessional. But also, the first lines of that song, and the Young Man himself, just kind of burst on the scene. I was driving down the interstate highway and that first stanza came all at once: ‘My mother gave a mighty shout/ Opened her legs and let me out/Hungry as a prairie dog/Young man in America’.”