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Glasgow Walking Tours Blog: Anais Mitchell at Celtic Connections

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At the age of 38, Anais Mitchell is something of a Celtic Connections veteran, having performed her Child Ballads album at the 2013 festival with fellow singer/guitarist Jefferson Hamer and an early concert version of her folk opera Hadestown at the Old Fruitmarket in 2011.

Nine years later, Hadestown is a multiple Tony Award-winning toast-of-Broadway sensation but the New York-based Mitchell has reacted to that success by heading in the opposite direction, back to the more intimate folk recordings on which she built her career.

Her latest outfit, Bonny Light Horseman, named after an old Irish ballad, is a self-styled “astral folk” trio featuring US indie rock musicians Eric D Johnson and Josh Kaufman which she characterises as “a bunch of Americans getting excited about traditional folk music from across the pond.”

We spoke to Mitchell ahead of her two – count ’em – Celtic Connections appearances – one with Bonny Light Horseman and a cosier affair called Anais Mitchell’s Campfire, capturing her eloquent thoughts…

…On Bonny Light Horseman

I’ve been living in this single-minded state of passionate anxiety for as many years as I can remember – I didn’t realise the extent to which Hadestown and the theatre world was going to take over my creative life. This was the complete opposite. Because the material is so old, even the stuff that we are having our way with or it feels like we’re co-writing with the trad scene, it’s a place to rest. It feels like water from a deep well.

Because of who I am I have a hard time believing something is good unless it’s hard, d’you know what I mean? I tend to really labour over my own songwriting and this project felt charmed and almost easy. I had a hard time trusting at the beginning that it could be good or beautiful if it was easy but in fact I found myself really falling so in love with it and I think part of it is that it’s not held too tightly. It’s music that we can make it our own, we can inhabit it but it’s never going to belong to us, it feels bigger than any of us.

Photograph by Andy Willsher

At the beginning we decided that we didn’t want this to feel like a research project. We wanted it to feel alive and really open. We found that this music is easy for people to fall into and we wanted to leave space, like real estate, for the music to speak, and there is a lot of repetitive choruses and wide open space in the songs.

I’ve always loved that song Bonny Light Horseman and a lot of the versions I’ve heard have a lot of military imagery in them, the cannons, the cavalry and Napoleon standing there and it felt like for this version just to present those birds, the flight, the image of this young woman yearning to fly to the land where her beloved lies was enough that we didn’t need all that heavy artillery in the song.

…On Anais Mitchell’s Campfire

I was excited just to rope in a bunch of friends that have music that speaks to each other alchemically so Sam Amidon is coming, Kris Drever, your hometown hero there, and Rozi Plain. I think there will be two sets, the first one mini-sets, presentations of two, three songs of each of the artists and then we’re going to do a set which is more collaborative where we work up music together and that’s what I’m most excited about.

…On the development of Hadestown

Hadestown didn’t begin as a concept album, it actually started out as a theatre show. I used to live in the state of Vermont and it was a DIY community theatre project, a ragtag band of friends coming together to put on this show. It was a more abstract version of the theatre show than anything that has happened since but then I made the album and then the whole piece moved into the concert world.

Anais Mitchell in a black shirt

Photograph by Shervin Lainez

I always wanted to see it on the stage again and see it in the hands of actors but it was hard to figure out how to do that and who to partner with for it. But then I met both the lead producers and the director, Rachel Chavkin, who helped to develop the show over the course of six or seven years. I could never have predicted that we would end up on Broadway, let alone winning any awards but I always felt like it wasn’t finished when the next step came over the horizon. It was like climbing a mountain and you think it’s the peak and you get there and there’s somewhere else to go.

I’m not trained in dramaturgy or theatre. My strong suite was as a songwriter and so there was a big learning curve. What works for a concert audience is not going to cut it for a theatre audience. A song in the context of a theatre show has to have results and revelations, it has to lead you from A to B in a much more pointed way and so it was often a question of finding a way to take what was working about the song as a structural piece of music and without breaking that try to expand it and recontextualise it so it could work harder on behalf of the storytelling – so that’s a concise way of saying something that took seven years to do!

…On life after winning a Tony Award

I did at one point have another idea for something and I put in some time working on it. I don’t want to say I have abandoned it because who knows what will come back around but what I do know is that after all of those years of intense development of Hadestown I’m so thrilled to be just making music again right now. It’s really life-giving to be back in that world of just making music with other people.

…On combining the ancient and the modern in her music

I remember when I was about twenty years old and I first discovered Gillian Welch’s Time, the Revelator album and I was so moved and blown away by it because it had this touchstone of these old songs and old images. The one that really spoke to me was Ruination Day: “when the iceberg hit, oh they must have known, God moves on the water like Casey Jones, so I walked downtown on my telephone” Somehow that bringing together of the old and the new felt so compelling and healing, that anything we are going through, individually or as a society, has already been experienced and there’s a folk song about that or there’s a fairytale about that.

As a writer you can get very uptight about some idea that the creative act is you’re making this stuff up from scratch somehow, like you have to dredge it up as if you’re not standing on the backs of the ancestors, which we are. The truth is there’s only so many notes in the scale, only so many words in the language that are singable and there’s only so many stories and the challenge is to retell them in a way that feels totally alive.

 

Anais Mitchell and Bonny Light Horseman, Old Fruitmarket, 29 Jan; Anais Mitchell’s Campfire, St Luke’s, 30 Jan