THE BLURT BULLY PULPIT: Anaïs Mitchell

The acclaimed
singer-songwriter on Vermont,
living there, and the origins of her recent album
Hadestown.

 

BY ANAÏS
MITCHELL

 

I always thought I would move to a big urban center like New
York, but I now live in a 200-year-old farmhouse in rural Vermont (which is the
state I was born and raised in), not far from the Northeast Kingdom, where
Bread & Puppet Circus is. It’s a very radical part of the state: tons of
anarchists and puppeteers and stuff. There are a lot of fiercely independent
creative people in the area, including Ben Matchstick and Michael Chorney, my
collaborators on Hadestown.

 

Vermont
is a very special place, totally beautiful, but it’s easy to feel cut off from
the rest of the country up there, especially during the long cold winter. A lot
of us are trying to homestead in one way or another, and it takes a certain
kind of crazy mindset. We have a dozen chickens and two cats. Almost everyone
on our road has a big vegetable garden. We’re learning how to grow our own food
and put it by for the winter. We have to rely on friends and neighbors a lot-we
help each other out stacking wood, digging a garden, or whatever needs to be
done. Being so far out we also kinda have to make our own fun. We don’t have a
television. We have a wood stove-that’s the television of rural Vermont. We don’t live
in New York,
there aren’t a majillion things to do on any given night, so we have to come up
with stuff ourselves. I don’t know if a thing like Hadestown could have
gotten off the ground someplace else. I don’t know if people elsewhere would
have been as game, but in Vermont
it was pretty natural; it was like friends and neighbors coming together to
help each other out and make some fun: “Oh, there’s a pile of wood in your driveway?
I’ll help you stack it” leads to “Oh, you want to write an opera? Sure, I’ll be
Hades!”

 

on the first run…

 

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.

 

on the second run…

 

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 school bus 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.

 

on the guest singers…

 

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.”

 

 

on the record…

 

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.

 

themes of Hadestown

 

I think it’s safe to say all three of us-Ben, Michael, and
I-are pretty influenced by the work of Bertold Brecht and Kurt Weill. Brecht
seems to approach the same tough theme in Threepenny Opera and Mother
Courage
: morality ceasing to exist in desperate conditions. “First you
must feed us, then we’ll all behave…”
” When the Chips are Down” is really
kind of an homage to that idea. “You can have your principles / when you’ve
got a bellyful.”
To me this is also the whole theme of the Joker in The
Dark Knight
and maybe the other Batman movies I haven’t seen. The Joker
sets up horrific little test scenarios with human subjects to try and prove
that people who are scared and desperate will turn on their fellow man. It’s a
tough theme because we all recognize that capacity in ourselves-but that’s not all we have a capacity for, as the Joker finds out.

 

To me the essence of “Why We Build the Wall” is, it’s meant
to provoke the question. Take global warming to its terrifying logical
conclusion and imagine part of the world becomes uninhabitable and there are
masses of hungry poor people looking for higher ground. Then imagine you are
lucky enough to live in relative wealth and security, though maybe you’ve
sacrificed some freedoms to live that way. When the hordes are at the door, who
among us would not be behind a big fence? These conditions exist
already, but most of us don’t have to acknowledge them in a real way. I really
and truly had no specific place in mind when I wrote “Why We Build the Wall.”
People often say, “Oh, that’s just like Israel/Palestine, or that’s just like
the US/Mexico border,'” and maybe it is, but the song was written more
archetypally.

 

One funny thing is, the first song ideas came as long ago as
2004-5. I didn’t get deep into it till ’06 when we started working on the
production, but in any case, the Depression-era stuff was part of the show long
before the US
economy tanked. I remember Ben and I watching Matewan together to get
ideas about poverty, company towns, mining, etc. The whole show became
uncannily relevant in the past year or so, which I didn’t expect. When I play Hadestown songs in my own shows, I usually introduce the show as quick as I can saying,
“It’s based on the Orpheus myth, and set in a post-apocalyptic American
Depression era …” At some point in the past year I noticed people were laughing
pretty loud when I said that-it was so close to home!

 

The real moral of Hadestown to me is, yes, we’re
fucked, but we still have to try with all our might. We have to love hard and
make beauty in the face of futility. That’s the essence of what Persephone
sings at the end of the show: “Some birds sing when the sun shines bright /
my praise is not for them, but the one who sings in the dead of night / I raise
my cup to him.”
 

 

 

Mitchell’s new album Hadestown
is out now on Righteous Babe Records. She
is all over Austin
at SXSW this week, then she’s off on a lengthy North American tour. Info, song
samples and tour dates at her MySpace page.

 

[Photo Credit: Alicia J. Rose]

 

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