Anaïs Mitchell is back from hell with a new album
For the last several years, Vermont songwriter Anaïs Mitchell  has been consumed with her critically acclaimed “folk rock opera,” Hadestown . Her masterful retelling of the Orpheus myth culminated in a star-studded studio album that featured the likes of Ani DiFranco, Greg Brown, recent Grammy winner Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and drew wide-ranging, international praise.
Now Mitchell is back with a new project, Young Man in America, released on her new label, Wilderland Records — her previous efforts were all on DiFranco’s Righteous Babe imprint. Though a comparatively more traditional “album,” and far smaller in scope, the record is an equally compelling artistic work. Through a variety of characters — including the titular young man — Mitchell delves into themes of obsession and ambition, success and failure, and the unseen costs of each. Reuniting with Hadestown producer Todd Sickafoose, the project boasts an impressive roster of talent, including the Punch Brothers’ Chris Thile, songwriter Rachel Ries, and a slew of highly regarded jazz and rock players from New York City. Her old friend and producer Michael Chorney lends a hand, as well.
Seven Days spoke with Mitchell by phone from London — while she was eating shepherd’s pie — in advance of her show at the Higher Ground Showcase Lounge this Friday, February 24, with songwriter Rachel Ries .
SEVEN DAYS: You’ve been immersed in Hadestown for years now. What was it like to dig into something so removed from that project?
ANAÏS MITCHELL: There are some ways that this album rode on the heels of Hadestown. One was that Todd [Sickafoose] was the producer of this record and Hadestown. I’ve developed a sort of vocabulary with him. So in that sense this record almost felt easy. There are also a lot of characters and “story” songs on this album. So it’s not a complete 180 from the opera.
SD: It is more of a traditional album, though.
AM: It’s more intimate, definitely, in terms of the number of people involved. And a lot of the songs feel more intimate and life-size, rather than this sort of larger-than-life, mythological stuff.
SD: It’s not a rock opera, but there is thematic consistency. Where did the general concept of the record come from?
AM: I don’t think it was a grand plan. The songs came along and sort of seemed to link arms at a certain point. For me there are two really important characters or themes on the record. One, of course, is this Young Man in America guy, a really youthful, hungry and reckless character who is sort of so free that he doesn’t have anyone to answer to and is calling out for a mother or father or some sort of direction, guidance.
And then there’s a sort of older character. My dad is an important figure on this record, and it’s his face on the cover. And one of the tunes [“Shepherd”] is a song version of a story he wrote when he was about my age from a book called The Souls of Lambs. The character in that story is a shepherd whose wife dies in childbirth as a result of his fixation on bringing in the harvest before the rains come. I read that at a young age, and it’s always struck me as such a sad story. It’s about the things that we are relentlessly pursuing and then the rich, beautiful things that we plow under in our pursuit. He’s similar to the young man, but in a more mature way, if that makes sense.
SD: You’ve said the recent economic collapse was an inspiration. How so?
AM: Watching the footage of families losing their homes and seeing their furniture out in the streets, I had this idea of our country as a wild place, a frontier place. You don’t know if anyone has your back, or if you can afford your medicine. You don’t feel taken care of and it’s every man for himself. “Wilderland” came out of that idea. And this Young Man character, that was the world he inhabited. He gets really high and low. It can be exhilarating to be alone in the world. But there’s an emptiness that also sets in.
SD: I feel like I know that guy. Being that you aren’t a young man, how were you able to get into his headspace and write from his perspective?
AM: He kind of announced himself. The first stanza of the song came when I was driving, and I loved it. It was like he leapt out of his mother’s womb and is hungry and thirsty. And I thought, Oh my God. This song is going to take, like, 18 verses. But he kind of put the wind in my sails a little bit.
But I identify with him, too. I’m not a man, obviously. But I have my own anxiety and ambition, and feelings of misplaced-ness sometimes. So he was sort of an avatar of me, in a way.
SD: Is he based on anyone in particular?
AM: Yeah. [Laughs] There are a few guys … but I’ll never tell.
Anaïs Mitchell plays the Higher Ground Showcase Lounge in South Burlington this Friday, February 24, at 7:30 p.m. $15/17. AA. Rachel Ries opens.