If the prospect of an indie-rock opera doesn’t immediately grab you, consider that Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), Greg Brown, Ben Knox Miller (The Low Anthem), Ani DiFranco, and Petra, Rachel, and Tanya Haden have all joined to create the new record by Anais Mitchell, Hadestown. Mixing elements of country gospel, ragtime, blues and early jazz, to approximations of rock, swing, and avant-garde all crafted into an incredible story, this is truly the Dark Side of the Moon for our generation. One of the things we enjoy about our site, is that we are under constrictions. If a great artist decides to answer every questions with a single word, we’ll print it and hope you draw your own conclusion about the band. In this case, Anais went into incredible depth about her music, the Hadestown project and working with Justin Vernon. Some publications would have to edit it down to meet the constraints of their publisher. Here, we present you with the entire, unedited version of our interview with one of the great musical minds of our time, Anais Mitchell. Written by the marvelous @aemccarthy.
TDOA: Can you talk about the creative process of bringing Hadestown from its 2006 roots to the release of the album in 2010 and how it differed from writing your previous records?
AM: I can say that it was easier, and harder, than writing my other records… it made me very high and low and different times… still, I want to write another opera.
When I first started writing the songs for Hadestown I had a few friends in mind to sing the parts, mostly singers from different bands around Vermont, and they ended up being the original cast. We rehearsed in a frenzy in the evenings during what I think was a two-week period. Our rehearsal space, and the first place we mounted the show, was the old labor hall in Barre, Vt., a beautiful old historical building where a lot of union organizing went on in the thirties. There was so much about those first shows that was flawed (at least writing-wise, on my end, in my own opinion) but they were some of the most magical moments of my creative life so far. Ben Matchstick created a whole world, a whole visual vocabulary for the show, in just a couple weeks. He’s a real magician, an eleventh-hour genius; he has the ability to make something out of nothing—no budget, no time, a rabbit from a hat. Then, of course, the collaboration with Michael Chorney, who wrote some of the most haunting and beautiful arrangements I’ve ever heard on any songs. One crazy thing about Michael is he doesn’t use any composing software, and he doesn’t play the arrangements on a keyboard as he writes them; he really just hears them in his head and writes them down with a pencil on staff paper—so a lot of the music he hadn’t actually heard out loud until the band got together a few days before the show! The band was Michael’s project at the time, Magic City; they had started out as a Sun Ra tribute band but were quickly evolving into something bigger. There was really a sense from the beginning of the collaboration that the Hadestown show had three voices in it: my songwriting voice, Ben’s visual/theatrical voice, and Michael’s orchestral voice. It was a sum-greater-than-the-parts kind of thing.
The feedback we got from those shows was pretty overwhelming. It felt like we had struck some kind of nerve. Still, there was so much missing from the story; people were saying things like, “Hey, I was so moved by that … What was going on?” So when we decided to mount a second draft of the show Ben and I really made an effort to flesh out the story with the lyrics and staging—not just the metaphoric emotional stuff, but the characters, the plot, the arc. I’d say writing-wise the show took many steps forward, but a couple steps back, during that second edition. I spent months writing very expositional lyrics that eventually got cut. There was constant tension in my mind between getting the story across and preserving the poetry of the songs: not just the purdy language, but the metaphors. It really dawned on me during this process that Hadestown was never gonna be a Broadway-style show. I was watching all kinds of Broadway stuff on video, classic musicals, trying to get a feel for story arc and so on. Everything is so clear and crude in those shows. The protagonist comes out onstage and the first number is him going “This is who I am, and this is what I want, and this is what is standing in my way, la la la…” But as much as I love a clear-cut story, this show just didn’t want to go there, at least not all the way.
To me, from a writing standpoint, the second draft of the show was kind of stuck in a netherworld; it was surely more focused than the first draft, but there was also a bit of expositional overstretch … which did not in fact make the story more understandable. For example, we really went deep into the post-apocalyptic stuff in the second draft. The idea was that Hades had broken his contract with Persephone—instead of letting her go above ground for half the year, he traps her in Hadestown, so the seasons are out of whack, and the above-ground world is nearly uninhabitable. There was this one song—“Epic,” it was called—which took forever to write, and attempted to tell that backstory. It was very dense and poetic and it was the battleground where I played out the exposition-vs.-poetry conflict for months as I edited it and re-edited it. It’s where I learned firsthand this lesson I heard in an address Sondheim gave where he said, “You have to understand that an audience hears a song in real time. It doesn’t matter how clever or beautiful your lyrics are, if they pass by too quickly for the audience to comprehend, it’s not working.” After the second run I’d ask people, “So didja get the thing about Persephone being trapped in the underworld, blah blah?” and they’d be like “Nope, didn’t catch that. So anyway…” It really blew my mind. I’d gotten into a place where I was concerned with trees and not forests. I was changing lyrics right up till opening night—which I see now was unnecessary, not to mention stressful.
As for the staging, the second time round we had more money and more time (though not by much!). The cast was expanded; Ben had pulled together some crazy awesome stuff with lights and this “utility chorus” that moved sets around on stage and populated the world he’d created. He really wrote some crazy beautiful staging sequences for that second draft of the show. As for Michael’s arrangements, he added an instrument (viola) to the band during that second year, and made all kinds of changes and improvements and additions to the score. There were a handful of new songs, intros, bridges. His was a hard position to be in vis-a-vis the collaboration because as the story was changing and Ben and I were rethinking plot points, lyrics, etc., there was plenty of perfectly gorgeous score that had to be modified or even scrapped to accommodate the changes. It’s hard to edit lyrics and staging, but probably even harder to edit a score for six instruments!
That year we had a more ambitious tour schedule put together in conjunction with Alex Crothers of Higher Ground Music: kind of a Vermont legend, he runs the one rock room in Vermont where nationally touring bands play. We actually did “tour” around Vermont and then down to Boston. We were driving this old schoolbus painted silver that used to belong to a local circus company. We were loading the entire set, the sound and light equipment, onto this bus and setting it up on different stages. We were crazy to try and tour a theater show like that. It was full-on winter and there were white-out blizzards a couple of nights. I lost a bunch of money on that tour, because of a few very dead towns, but a lot of the shows were really fantastic.
After the second run, there were again a lot of changes I wanted to make. I wanted to go a step further toward fully-realized characters, and a step backward toward the simplicity of the story in the very first show we did. I wanted to let go of some stuff that had never really sat right with me as a lyricist. We talked briefly about trying to mount another run the following year but the consensus seemed to be that to finish the songs, the song-cycle, should be the priority before staging again, and what better motivation to do that than booking studio time to commit the stuff to tape forever and ever? I worked real hard in advance of the recording but it was not as easy as I’d thought it might be to get things to a finished place. It felt a little like doing a crossword puzzle where there’s just a few squares missing, and it can only be one very specific thing. That is, we’d created a world, and now I had to be consistent within it, lyric-wise, music-wise. “Wedding Song,” “Flowers (Eurydice’s Song),” “Nothing Changes,” and “I Raise my Cup” were all new additions. “Wait,” “If It’s True,” and the two “Epics” also underwent major changes. I cut a song that had had a gorgeous score, and one that people were sorry to see let go. It was pretty tough!
But there was a crazy motivating factor, and that was, one by one these guest singers were getting on board. Ani DiFranco was the first, and I owe much of the momentum of the recording to her faith and belief in the project. I don’t think she’d even heard the Persephone songs when she said she’d sing them. That’s brave! Then there was Greg Brown: I’d imagined him singing the Hades part for a long time but still whenever I hear his voice coming in on “Hey, Little Songbird” I laugh for joy. His voice is subterranean, it has strange overtones, I feel it in my belly almost before my ears. He and Ani were both early songwriting heroes of mine. … Then there’s Justin Vernon: That was kind of a cosmic casting situation. Justin and his manager reached out of the blue and asked if I wanted to open the Bon Iver tour of Europe. They’d never met me; they had just heard my record once and liked it, and they thought, Let’s have her open the tour! It’s unthinkable, really. The very first night of the tour, when I heard Justin sing “Stacks” in Newcastle in the UK, my heart exploded; I thought, “He HAS to be Orpheus.” I wrote my manager Slim [Moon] and Todd [Sickafoose] the producer: “He is the Orpheus of the century!” I loved the idea that Orpheus, as a supernatural figure, could sing with many voices at the same time. But I had to have a stern little talk with myself that night; I was like, “This guy doesn’t even know you, and he’s already doing you a huge favor having you on the tour; you can’t ask him right away, you might weird him out, wait till the end of the tour and then see if it’s the right thing to ask him…” But the second night of the tour we were on a ferryboat from Scotland to Norway and I’d had a couple glasses of wine and I couldn’t bear it any longer—I just blurted it all out in a rush: the opera, the record, will you please please please be Orpheus? and Justin just said, “yes.”
The first thing we recorded was Michael’s orchestral arrangements, and it was a powerful thing to hear them in the clarity of the studio rather than the rush of the stage. They positively soared. We recorded them with some incredible musicians mostly from Todd’s Brooklyn scene: Jim Black on drums, Michael of course on guitar and Todd on bass, Josh Roseman on trombone, Marika Hughes on cello, Tanya Kolmanovitch on viola, and at some point Rob Burger popped in and laid down some mind-boggling accordion and piano. We were in a beautiful and expensive studio so we had to act fast to record all twenty tracks or whatever it was. Todd is a great producer, able to hear everything at once, able to know if a take was “there” or not, able to encourage everyone to feel the same things, breathe together, breathe magic into things, even in studio world. He was marvelous in that stressful situation. Then he laid down all sorts of other instruments, sometimes following the notes of Michael’s score but in another “voice” or register, sometimes supporting the score from beneath with a lushness and weirdness. He recorded some very weird stuff: a glass orchestra, a trumpet player who mostly played percussively, and at one point he said something about how he was hunting for “vintage futurism” sounds. “Vintage futurism” is how I had once described the Hadestown story. Together we sorted through the vocals—from New Orleans, Iowa City, Eau Claire, Los Angeles, Vermont—at Todd’s home studio in Carroll Gardens. Todd is patient, totally discerning, and totally open at the same time.
TDOA: Can you explain your choice of subject and setting in Hadestown? I find the conjunction of the mythology with the Americana to be fascinating
Ah yah. Well I think it started because I had this vision of the speakeasy scene that Persephone presides over in the opera. I saw the scene, with this wall, with a crack in it and a binocular machine pointed at it, so the underworld people could see the night sky. I am not a real theatrical gal. Many of the visual and staging ideas that ended up in the opera sprang out of the mind of our director, Ben Matchstick, but the speakeasy scene was like this early vision, and the initial version of the Persephone song came out of that. It had different lyrics. It went “Come and see the stars! They’re fixin to fall. Slidin and a slippin in their gravity shoes. Old man Mars takin Venus to the ball. Big dipper dippin to the blue sky blues. How selfless! The silent moon. Holding a mirror for an ungrateful sun. Hey Orpheus, are you leavin so soon? Every night around here is a fateful one…”
Anyway, once we were in a speakeasy we were kind of in the depression era, which led to the company town. I guess basically I’m saying, at first, there was no grand scheme, but the songs pointed the way and we went there.
TDOA: Slim Moon described the story of Hadestown as, “the story of Orpheus and Eurydice set in post-apocalyptic Depression-era America.” Did you think it also applies to our current socio-political situation as well?
AM: Well it’s funny, you know I started writing the Hadestown songs as early as 2004-5. Way, way before the economy went south. So everything became kind of freakily relevant the last couple years. I guess I’d like to think of Hadestown as a real archetypal story. It doesn’t HAVE to be America, even. Everywhere in the world, everywhere in history, there are lovers, walls, there’s wealth and poverty, there’s doubt, there’s music.
TDOA: I can’t imagine what it must be like to be on Righteous Babe. Can you talk about the first time you met Ani DiFranco and how she’s influenced you life and music?
AM: I met Ani in a bar in Buffalo. I had been brought to town by this wonderful promoter Michael Meldrum, who was Ani’s childhood guitar teacher and she happened to be in town, so he invited her to the show. It was pretty surreal for me, I came of age listening to Ani Difranco records. Her songs were some of the first I learned on the guitar and she was the kind of artist who occupied a mythical spot in my life. She would walk through my dreams sometimes, like Bob Dylan. It’s been a tremendous honor getting to know her and work with her.
TDOA: Just one more Ani question, I promise. What do you think is the best advice she’s given you as a young musician?
AM: Well, during my time with RBR, Ani’s always been really supportive of whatever I happened to be into. I mean, she’s not like doling out advice, but as an example, I’ve always admired her bravery with politics and emotional nakedness. The way she sings, which is SO expressive, sometimes almost uncomfortably so, in a good way, her power as a live performer, her old-school outspoken feminism, which we need in this generation of quiet hipster feminism, her prolificness and her sweetness despite being such a terrifying badass.
TDOA: The guest singers on your record sound like an all-star indie/folk lineup. What was it like working with Greg Brown, Justin Vernon, and the other musicians?
AM: I used to play Greg Brown on my college radio show, mostly tracks from his early live album One Night, and most especially this one song, ‘Canned Goods’. For me Greg Brown goes in a category with Dan Rather and Garrison Keillor as excellent American men who make you feel that there is order and meaning left in the world. In his songs he comes across as a family man and an unbridled poetic sex machine at the same time. Once in college a friend and I went to see him play at a concert series at the Knights of Columbus legion hall in Middlebury, VT. We got there late and there was an unforgiving woman at the door saying the show was sold out. We were sitting on the steps of the hall feeling sorry for ourselves when a man in a big jacket appeared with a guitar. “Are you Greg Brown?” we cried and he said, “Well, yes I am” in his deep voice. We explained our situation and he nodded an went indoors. A minute later the door lady came back and grudgingly let us in; we were now on Greg’s personal guest list. I never forgot that kindness from him.
When we started thinking about who to ask to sing the roles of the different characters in the folk opera Hadestown, right away Greg Brown came to mind as Hades. There’s something subterranean about his voice, it has strange overtones, you feel it in your body almost before you hear it, so for the Lord of the Underworld it seemed cosmically great. I’m lucky that Ani Difranco is a friend of his and asked him if he’d do it. I don’t know how much he understood about the project before I got to Iowa City, but the whole thing was fairly kamikaze, we had a little window of studio time, the deal was that Greg’s longtime musical comrade Bo Ramsey was just finishing a record at the same studio and we were gonna get in as soon as they were done, at an undetermined late hour of the evening. It was cold and wintry, but we ate ice cream at Greg and Iris’ and listened thru the Hades songs while little kids ran around the house till we got the call to come in. When we got there at ten or eleven, the band was all leaning back on the raggedy couch in the control room smoking cigarettes (you can still smoke indoors at this studio), with an air of satisfied completion. It was funny to be just starting our own thing at that hour.
When I wrote the Hades songs, and my friend Michael Chorney scored them, we pitched them for the guy who was playing Hades in the live stage show in Vermont, who is a tenor. I sent the demos to Greg before we laid down the basic tracks with producer Todd Sickafoose, to make sure he’d be able to sing them in their original keys. But he never really got back and when I pressed him he said, ‘Oh, I can sing in just about any key…’ But I was pretty nervous going into the recording that the songs would be impossible for him to sing. In fact, he sang them all an octave below where they had been written. When his voice first comes in on ‘Hey, Little Songbird’, it still makes me laugh for joy.
We were desperately seeking an Orpheus for the studio album of the Hadestown opera when I got asked to open one of Bon Iver’s tours in Europe. It was a complete surprise and shows how pure-hearted those guys are cos they could have asked someone way cooler and more high profile to do it. The very first night of the tour, when I heard Justin sing ‘Stacks’ in this beautiful hall in Newcastle, my heart exploded, I thought, “he HAS to be Orpheus”. I wrote Todd Sickafoose (the producer) and Michael Chorney (who wrote the score): ‘He is the Orpheus of the Century!’ But I had to have a stern little talk with myself that night, I was like, this guy doesn’t even know you, he’s already doing you a huge favor having you on the tour, you can’t ask him now, you might weird him out, wait till the end of the tour and THEN ask. But the second night of the tour we were on a ferryboat from Scotland to Norway and I had a couple glasses of wine and I couldn’t bear it any longer, I’d been thinking about it all day, I just blurted it all out in a rush, ‘the opera, the record, will you please, please, please be Orpheus?’ And Justin just said, ‘Yes’.
We recorded the Orpheus songs at Justin’s house in Eau Claire in darkest winter. I’d teach him the melodies, then go out of the room and cook or read or whatever so as not to weird him out by hangin around. I’d hear him from the kitchen, but just one part at a time, one line at a time, so I was pretty clueless until he’d say ‘OK!’ and I’d run back in the room to hear the symphony of harmonies and countermelodies he’d created. He’s such an intuitive guy, he hears everything in his head, I think I saw him go to the piano ONCE to work something out. There was this one song where he sang some syllables, not words exactly, just sounds, they definitely weren’t part of the lyrics, and I was like, ‘hey man umm… what are you saying there?’ and he said, ‘I dunno! It just felt right” and I was like, ‘ok we’ll keep it!’
I love the idea that Orpheus, the son of a muse, able to make stones cry and milk flow from virgins’ breasts with his singing, is able to sing with many voices at the same time. When Todd and I went through Justin’s vocal files back in Brooklyn we came up with little names and numbers for his different voices, cos they’re so different, his low ones are so manly and sensual, and his high ones so ethereal and emotional, and the combination, to me, is a very Orphic thing, emotional manhood, I love it.
TDOA: This was such a massive and lengthy project. I read an interview where you said you’d almost written enough songs for another record. Can you talk about the themes of this record and is it daunting to think about following up this one?
AM: Ha! Yes. Well, actually as I write this I’m in John Raham’s studio in Vancouver BC working on a record of traditional British and Scottish ballads with my friend Jefferson Hamer. We’ve done a fair bit of rearranging and rewriting of lyrics, but it’s been a great project because it leans so heavily on the source, and it’s something completely different for me. I’m really crazy about the ballads. There are fairies and elves in them and everyone gets pregnant and dies. And yah, later this year I hope to record a new solo record. I guess it is kind of thematic as seems to always be the case, but i’m trying to be a bit loose with it too, make songs for the sake of songs and not some grand scheme. Sure it’s daunting, but all any of us can do is write what passes through our hearts.
TDOA: What are your suggestions for young women in your industry? How the hell do they compete with the blondes and the ass-shakers?
AM: Ah, that’s funny, cos I have been blonde on and off in my life and I just went back to blonde! No one can stop me now! No, you’re right, there’s much that’s unfair when it comes to women, conventional beauty and the music industry. I like how if you watch old VH1 music videos from the eighties, everyone looks like a freak: women, men, and they dance freaky. The role of the musician was to challenge conventions, not adhere to them. Leave that to the J Crew models. Hot, rockstar androgyny is inspiring. That still exists. I guess I feel like as a singer-songwriter the double standards are really apparent in the “singer” part of the job, but in the “songwriter” field I feel a lot of equality, mutual respect and camaraderie with men and women songwriters. That’s comforting too: songs transcend gender. When I get depressed about career things I just think how far a good song goes. I mean, we’re recording these ballads. They’re hundreds of years old. Who knows who wrote them, a nursemaid maybe. No one cares if it was a man or a woman.
TDOA: Socially, what impact do you hope Hadestown has?
AM: I only hope that people feel it emotionally, that they feel the political story in an emotional way and that is raises questions.
TDOA: The record has generated a lot of buzz in England thanks to its inclusion in NME’s “best albums of 2010, thusfar” article. How does it feel to know that your record appears to be crossing genre lines (folk, alternative, etc.) and getting some great critical praise?
AM: Totally awesome. I must give mad props to Michael Chorney, who wrote the orchestral arrangements and Todd Sickafoose, who did an amazing job producing the album in a way that celebrated it’s weirdness, but also made it accessible for listeners. I wouldn’t have dreamed that this weird stuff would strike a nerve.
See Anais Mitchell live:
Aug 21 2010 Bridge School Benefit Middlebury, Vermont
Aug 28 2010 Great Waters Music Festival Wolfeboro, New Hampshire
Sep 2 2010 Ginkgo Coffeehouse St. Paul, Minnesota
Sep 3 2010 New York Mills Regional Cultural Center New York Mills, Minnesota
Sep 4 2010 Storyhill Festival Midwest Brainerd, Maine
Sep 7 2010 Bob’s Underground Cafe, Grinnell College Grinnell, IA
Sep 8 2010 Cafe Paradiso Fairfield, Iowa
Sep 9 2010 The Billiken Club (SLU) St Louis, MO
Sep 10 2010 Evanston SPACE Evanston, Illinois
Sep 11 2010 WFMT Folkstage Chicago, Illinois
Sep 18 2010 Madison Square Park Studio Series New York, New York
Sep 19 2010 FTC on Stage One Fairfield, CT, us Find Tickets
Sep 25 2010 Colonial Theatre Bethlehem, New Hampshire
Oct 16 2010 The Band Room North Yorkshire, UNITED KINGDOM
Oct 18 2010 St. Bonaventures Parish Social Club Bristol, UNITED KINGDOM
Oct 19 2010 Hare and Hounds Kings Heath, Birmingham, Birmingham, UNITED KINGDOM
Oct 20 2010 Latest Music Bar Brighton, -, UNITED KINGDOM
Oct 23 2010 LA SUONERIA Settimo T.se (To), -, ITALY
Oct 25 2010 La Salumeria della Musica MI, Milano, ITALY
Oct 27 2010 Bang Bang Club Berlin-Mitte, GERMANY
Oct 28 2010 The MAZE At The FOREST TAVERN Nottingham, UNITED KINGDOM
Oct 29 2010 Cluny 2 Theatre Newcastle, UNITED KINGDOM
Oct 31 2010 The Pleasance Theatre Edinburgh, SCOTLAND, -, UNITED KINGDOM
Nov 1 2010 The Green Hotel Kinross, Perthshire, UNITED KINGDOM