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'Stories through songs': Anaïs Mitchell on the pandemic, 'Hadestown' and Bonny Light Horseman

Musician Anaïs Mitchell is the rare singer-songwriter, maybe the only one, to compose a folk opera that went on to become a Tony award-winning Broadway show. "Hadestown" opened in 2019. Since then, Mitchell moved from Brooklyn back to her hometown in Vermont. She won a Grammy in 2021 for best American Roots performance.

Now, Mitchell is part of the band Bonny Light Horseman, performing this weekend at the Arcadia Folk Festival in Easthampton, Massachusetts.

From her home in Addison County, Vermont, Mitchell said she grew up in a house with a lot of books — and a lot of records.

Anäis Mitchell: I think, first and foremost, I wanted to be a writer. And it turned out that the way that I could do that was to write songs. And so I fell in love with what a solo performer could do with just an acoustic guitar and the human voice and the poetry of their songs.

I started going to open mics, and then when I was through with high school, I moved to Boston briefly so that I could be close to Cambridge, close to the Club Passim.

You know, I played in the T. I just played for anyone I could. Then I went back to school, I went to college. I sort of took my time getting through it and would play every chance I got. You know, it was happening! It was me, driving around in a Subaru many, many miles to play for tips or whatever.

Certainly, when I was in high school, I came under the influence of a lot of really powerful female songwriters like Ani DiFranco and Dar Williams and Tori Amos and the Lilith Fair thing happened. That was really like — it was a lot like slam poetry. It was like, "Here's me, here's who I am standing in my shoes and here's what I see in the world around me."

Jill Kaufman, NEPM: Can you point to any songs in particular on the self-titled album you released in the past year? You had a new child when you just got to Vermont, right in the beginning of the pandemic. You know, things happened in the pandemic. What are those songs that you could point to?

Well, the whole record, I mean, that's the funny thing is that, that self-titled record, I really felt like I allowed myself to do that 1990s thing that I maybe had been running from for years — you know, writing a musical and working with folk music and telling other people's stories. Suddenly I was like, "I want to tell my own stories. I have some things to say right now." And most of those things had to do with returning home, being a mom, suddenly having two kids, re-encountering my parents. Like that song "Little Big Girl," it's really like, here's me at this age standing here and seeing what I see.

So being part of Bonny Light Horseman, the first album that you did as a group was a sort of intersection of the traditional folk to the contemporary folk. This new album is about your stories, yours and your bandmates. Is there a thread that brings the songs of "Rolling Golden Holy" together?

I think there is a theme that landed on this record, whether we meant it to or not, that has to do with kind of uprooting your family and moving to a new place. All three of us did leave our cities we were living in, in the pandemic.

I think there's there is a way in which the pandemic and our lives did find their way into the stories and the songs. But I don't know that we set out to do that.

As a new folk musician — "new" meaning this era — is the style of lyric writing different? I mean, certainly with "Hadestown" you did something very different. But when you look at those traditional songs that you've learned from, how has the lyric writing changed — the storytelling?

I will say, for me, I've always been really interested in very narrative, kind-of story songs. I love balladry for that reason. I love the British Isles ballads, and I love the kind of Texas songwriter tradition — Townes Van Zandt, like those guys — really they are writing short stories and they happen to be sung.

And certainly, "Hadestown," which obviously is a musical, is the ultimate kind of storytelling through song. You know, it's a different type of song because they need to be dramatic and work on a stage. But it's all really approaching the same idea, telling these stories through songs.

I would say that Bonny Light Horseman is a bit of a departure for me as a lyricist because it's really important for that music, for that band, for things to remain sort of impressionistic. Also, it's exciting to get to play in the context of a band now where I'm not the sole lead singer. It's not me carrying the show. There's a lot more leaning on each other and getting to sort of be carried by the music, instead of the other way around.

Jill has been a reporter and host at NEPM since 2005. Before that she spent 10 years at WBUR in Boston, producing The Connection with Christopher Lydon, Morning Edition, reporting and hosting. In the months leading up to the 2000 presidential primary in New Hampshire, Jill hosted NHPR’s daily talk show The Exchange. Right before coming to NEPM, Jill was an editor at PRX's The World.
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