WILLISTON – Anais Mitchell has been so busy in the past decade that she hasn’t had time to do the thing she spent the first decade of her music career doing — making solo albums featuring her latest songs.
Since “Young Man in America” came out in 2012, Mitchell has given birth to a daughter (Ramona, now 8), moved from her home state of Vermont to New York City, completed recording projects with singer-songwriter Jefferson Hamer and the folk trio Bonny Light Horseman and given birth to a second daughter (Rosetta, born in 2020).
Oh, yeah, and she also worked and worked and worked on “Hadestown,” the musical that began as an esoteric folk opera touring Vermont before becoming the Tony- and Grammy Award-winning toast of Broadway 13 years later, in 2019.
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Mitchell’s new self-titled album, out Jan. 28, folds all of those experiences into its songs — not necessarily directly, but by reflecting the growth and change in her life and the world as a whole. She’ll sing songs from the album Feb. 19 at the Flynn in Burlington.
The singer-songwriter is back in her home state, having relocated from New York with her daughters and husband, Noah Hahn, first to the farm she grew up on in Addison County and now to a house in Bristol. She spoke with the Burlington Free Press about her evolving life, the new songs influenced by living in New York and Vermont and whether she’ll ever create another Broadway show. (The conversation has been edited for conciseness and clarity.)
On leaving New York for Vermont as COVID began
Burlington Free Press: What was the start of the pandemic like for you?
Anais Mitchell: I was nine months pregnant, I was really heading for it and my friend in Seattle was like, “You should get out of (New York).” Everything was a couple weeks ahead (with COVID) in Seattle. She was just sort of looking at New York City and thinking like “How is this not gonna happen in New York?”
And then basically the day that Broadway shut down I was like, “Let’s go.” And we packed up the van and we drove to Vermont. The baby was born a week later, on the farm, on my parents’ farm. It was great, actually, because we had our first child in Vermont so we knew a midwife up here; it wasn’t a completely foreign place to be. Like everyone, we were just in this extraordinary stillness. I hadn’t stayed in one place, you know, in years. I couldn’t remember a time like that, let alone not having any work or social obligations of any kind. I think a lot of people had this experience — the irony of just this traumatic event on the flipside of it being very healing for a lot of people. It definitely felt that way for us. It was kind of a detox from a way of life that was pretty stressful in New York.
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And so, yeah, I started writing regular songwriter songs again (laughs). It had been a really long time. It felt like just a rediscovery.
Anais Mitchell on coming home to Vermont
BFP: Did you turn 40 (in 2021)?
AM: Yes, and I was desperate to make this record before I turned 40 (laughs) and I did, I did. We recorded it a few months before.
BFP: It’s not necessarily half of your life, but it sort of is. It’s a real cleaving there.
AM: Yeah, yeah, it’s a big moment. But it’s not only that because for me it was also leaving behind — because ultimately we decided not to go back to New York.
(The) watershed was like, “OK, there’s New York, there’s my life in New York, ‘Hadestown’ is behind me. Also, my life with just one kid, you know? Because then the second one, it does feel like a new equation.
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BFP: A rebirth, literally, figuratively.
AM: Totally. And then, like, what’s coming next? It’s undefined, but it feels like a new terrain, and so just that perspective and to be able to see it in the rearview and in the windshield, I think a lot of songs came out of that. And being back at home, on the farm I grew up on, in my grandparents’ house, even, which is a very special spot for me. It’s literally my happy place. I have a lot of memories of that house and just being a child and being very free, and a very creative time, also — you know, that feeling of being a kid. My grandma, she was always quilting and sort of crafting and roped me into that stuff, and gardening. A lot of those images turn up on the record.
BFP: When you think of all the things you’ve done since you left (Vermont), which are pretty remarkable, is that part of what you’re thinking of, is how much of a different person you are from the person who was hanging out with your grandparents in your happy place?
AM: You don’t have to go to New York to seek your fortune for this to be true, that there is such a strange thing about returning to your home as a grown-up. It’s like, everyone knows you as a kid and you’ve gotta kind of re-meet people as a grown-up and meet them where they are at, including my parents, you know, and my brother who lives on that same property, my brother’s family. I have a lot of old and deep friends in Vermont also, and, yeah, there is that feeling of, “Oh, wow, I’m not the person that I was.” And yet, you know, fundamentally the heart kind of stays the same.
Explaining the inspiration behind the songs on 'Anais Mitchell'
AM: (“Brooklyn Bridge” is) really like a love letter to New York City (laughs), and it takes place on the Brooklyn Bridge. I wrote this line in New York and I was like, “I can’t write this, like it’s too much of a romanticization of New York or Brooklyn,” and I tried for a long time to change the line so it was like, (singing) “Driving on the bridge” or some other version and just nothing sounded that good. And then it wasn’t until I left New York City that I was like, “(Expletive) it, this is what I feel! I love New York and I feel romantically about it and this is the song that has to be written.”
There’s another song on the record called “On Your Way” — it’s also “The Felix Song” — and it’s about this friend of mine (musician Felix McTeigue) who died in the summer of 2020.… (We) had the same manager when we were young, and that’s why I know him. So this manager had encouraged him to do a thing where he wrote 50 songs in 50 days. He wrote them and he recorded them and he played all the instruments and he made this record. And there’s something about these songs that they’re completely heart-on-the-sleeve because he didn’t have time to second-guess them.
I just was fascinated by that because I tend to take so long to write things. Finally this year I did a thing that I learned about from Felix but also people had been telling me to do for years, which was like, “You should join a group where you write a song a day.”
So I did it and it was so freeing, really healing for me to just have to say yes to whatever idea happened to pass through my heart, and just follow it where it wanted to go, and just trust it. You don’t have the time to second-guess it. And a bunch of the songs on this record came out of that time. There’s only one of them that is fully formed from that, like I wrote it in an hour or something. But the other ones I started and then I took my time, you know, tinkering with them and finishing them.
One of them is this song about Felix. And there’s these lines in it that are like — which is his sort of philosophy — there’s no mistakes, you don’t have any regrets; you get one take, you record it in one take. I was thinking about his life and it was like, you know, he didn’t have time. He didn’t know it, but he didn’t have time to second-guess this stuff. There’s something beautiful about that idea, especially for a chronic, like, overthinker (laughs).
On the influence of Vermont on 'Anais Mitchell'
BFP: Are there songs that are infused more by your being back in Vermont?
AM: Definitely. There’s a song called “Revenant” which is really all about my grandma’s house and my grandma and myself as a child. That’s probably the most abstract one on the record, but it felt mysteriously right.
There’s a song called “Backroads.” A lot of times a phrase passes through my mind and I kind of file it away. “Backroads” is one of those, like whenever I’m driving around in Vermont on the dirt roads I think about it. So I was writing this song and really it was kind of a pure nostalgia for my childhood. It was about coming of age and going to a party on a dirt road, you know, a tailgate thing, and the cops come and everyone throws the beer cans in the woods and runs. And also for young love — I was remembering my first boyfriend and just what that feels like.
I was writing that song right when the Black Lives Matter protests started in the summer of 2020 and I realized what a cliché I was writing, do you know what I mean? The white privilege was just all over this song.
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BFP: Calling yourself on your white privilege?
AM: Yeah. It’s calling out the white privilege but also I don’t think it’s a negation of what it was — the magic of growing up in the middle of nowhere as a white person. And I think really the realization — this is a lot of me coming home as a grown-up and seeing what the world is as a grown-up — is how protected we were by the adults in our sphere, you know? We were allowed to feel that we were rebels of some kind but we were actually completely protected by the adults in our sphere, and the cops were there to protect us and keep us safe. And that’s just not the experience of a Black person growing up in this country.
There’s another song called “Watershed,” and this was interestingly very connected to “Backroads,” because there’s a place in “Backroads” which is a real place, it’s near Bristol, it’s like a protected hiking zone with a reservoir, and I used to go there in high school with my boyfriend, this guy who’s sort of the star of that song. It’s called The Watershed (Center).
That phrase “watershed,” I had found it so beautiful. That was another sort of phrase that lodged in my mind. I like enjambed words like “backroads” and “watershed.”
BFP: There’s the double meaning of (watershed), the physical place but also the turning point in a life.
AM: Exactly. No, that’s what it’s about for me. And just how rare those moments are when you get the view behind you and ahead of you. I actually got to address the commencement speech at Middlebury (College) to the Class of 2020. I sang that song and I spoke about the watershed because I think you’re at a watershed at that age also, you know? I felt that I was 40 years old looking at these 22-year-olds like I was on a different mountaintop looking at them on their mountaintop.
That song just kind of poured out, I don’t know. It felt like… what can I say about it?
BFP: Like water…
AM: Like water, thank you! (laughs) Thank you!
BFP: It was like liquid…
AM: Right. It was also about the shedding of tears. I think there’s a lot of tears on this album. I think I cried writing every single song on this album, which is actually usually how I roll, but this album in particular. Also that comes up in “Watershed,” so it’s the idea of like, “You keep climbing step by step/ By the grace of god and by your own sweat/ And a river of tears that you won’t forget/ But you will forgive if you haven’t yet/ Because it carved the path that you had to tread/ And it will do it again for the path ahead/ And the heaven you seek is not separate/ From the heart that speaks when your cheeks are wet.”
BFP: You didn’t need to write a commencement address. That song is kind of…
AM: It felt like a commencement address when I wrote it, that’s exactly what it felt like! (laughs)
On returning to Broadway with 'Hadestown' and beyond
BFP: I’m sure a lot of people expect you to do more Broadway, which doesn’t mean you will or want to. So where do you stand with your relationship with Broadway?
AM: I’m having so much fun making records right now (laughs)… I feel there’s a flow there and so I would love to just keep it going.
However, I will say when I went down to New York to see “Hadestown” reopen on Broadway (last summer), it was such an incredible event because it was like this meta thing. It was the reopening of our show but it was also like the reopening of Broadway, and it felt like people were celebrating New York City and the theater.
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I spent the whole first act brainstorming (laughs) other ideas for musicals, because I just was like, “Wow!” I haven’t seen it in a long time. It was like just what is possible on a stage with actors and choreography, sets, costumes, orchestrations, direction, and actors that are just incredible humans.
So it did sort of feel to me like, “I can’t not do it again, I gotta do it again, and I want to do it again.” Also it was such a learning curve working on that thing. It feels like I went to grad school, you know? If I didn’t make another one it’s like I went to grad school and didn’t…
BFP: “I’m not using my degree!”
AM: Yeah, to go into medical school and I went into poetry (laughs).
BFP: Do you have people, producers or whomever who are saying, “What’s next for you on Broadway?” You must.
AM: Yeah. It just would have to be the right thing because the amount of time and effort and inspiration that it takes, you’ve gotta just be obsessed.
BFP: Which is the only thing that got you where you got.
AM: I was obsessed with “Hadestown.” Yeah, that’s true. I kind of had to be to keep it going that long (laughs).
BFP: But it became something that reached many more people, too.
AM: Yeah. I’m so grateful for that. I am so grateful for it. And I’m grateful to be able to say that the door is closed for now (laughs).
If you go
WHAT: Anais Mitchell with Bonny Light Horseman
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 19
WHERE: The Flynn, Burlington
INFORMATION: $15-$52. www.flynnvt.org
WHAT: Bon Iver with Bonny Light Horseman
WHEN: 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 8
WHERE: Champlain Valley Exposition midway lawn, Essex Junction
INFORMATION: $65. www.highergroundmusic.com
This article originally appeared on Burlington Free Press: 'Hadestown' creator Anais Mitchell is releasing a new solo album