As funny as it may sound, Anaïs Mitchell has spent the past 15 years in some kind of hell. OK, not actual hell, but the multi-faceted world of Hadestown, a musical project she began in Vermont in 2006 that has grown into a Tony®- and Grammy®-award-winning Broadway phenomenon with touring editions now delighting audiences as far away as South Korea.
“I experienced so much joy working on Hadestown, but it just kept ramping up and up and requiring more and more attention,” Mitchell admits. “I had to become so single-minded and really put blinders on to my other creative life.” As it did for many artists, the COVID-19 pandemic unexpectedly offered Mitchell a blank slate to reconnect with her own music. The result is a new self-titled album made with close collaborators from Bon Iver, The National and her own band Bonny Light Horseman, Mitchell’s first collection of all-new material under her own name since 2012’s Young Man in America.
“I was nine months pregnant when the pandemic reached New York, so we made an 11th hour decision to leave and have the baby in Vermont,” Mitchell recalls. “We left the city and had the baby a week later, and then like everyone, we were in the midst of this unprecedented stillness. It felt like I could see behind me: oh, there’s New York City. There’s Hadestown. There’s my life with just one kid. A certain kind of stress and expectations. In Vermont, we moved onto my family farm and lived in my grandparents’ old house, with a new baby. I’d look at pictures on my phone from a few months earlier and wonder, whose life was that? This record, and the songs that are on it, came out of that time. I got into a flow again that I hadn’t felt in a really long time.”
Dubbed by NPR as “one of the greatest songwriters of her generation,” Mitchell is a master of the worlds of narrative folksong, poetry and balladry. Those talents are evident from the first moments of the new album, as Mitchell narrates what she calls “an unbearably romantic” trip over the Brooklyn Bridge colored by Bon Iver member Michael Lewis’ heartstring-tugging saxophone accompaniment. “Having left New York, I was able to write a love letter to it in a way I never could when I was living there,” she says. “It was like, fuck it. This is how I feel. There is nothing more beautiful than riding over one of the New York bridges at night next to someone who inspires you.”
Produced by Mitchell’s Bonny Light Horseman bandmate Josh Kaufman, the album proceeds to chronicle Mitchell’s reconnection with the Vermont roots that have been so formative in her life and music. “Bright Star” finds her making peace with the idea of being at peace in the familiar setting of her grandparents’ house, while “Revenant” was inspired by paging through a box of journals and letters belonging to herself and her grandmother — “a very pandemic activity,” she says. “That house is literally my happy place. I can picture myself as a kid, in this house, laying on the carpet with a sunbeam coming through the sliding glass door. There’s something about it that is really connected in my mind to my childhood and a very free, imaginative, creative time. “Revenant” has a lot to do with that house and reconnecting with my childhood self.”
Mitchell concedes that she tends “to be someone who thinks it has to be hard in order for it to be good or beautiful,” but that feeling has changed, partly thanks to her deep connection with musicians she’s met through the 37d03d collective established by The National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. During the pandemic, some of those artists participated in a “song a day” writing group — an idea Mitchell says is usually “totally opposite of how I roll. But it really helped me to gain access to some kind of trust and intuition and flow. I began a bunch of these songs while doing that.”
“It unlocked something that allowed me to finish a bunch of songs I’d been sitting on, and feeling a bit paralyzed about how to finish them,” she continues. “Because no one was touring, it’s not like I was playing them for anyone before we were in the studio. In other times, I’ve trotted things out in advance. Here, it was like, here’s all these brand new songs. Let’s discover what they can be. That was really exciting.”
That discovery process took flight at Dreamland Recording Studios outside Woodstock, N.Y., which Mitchell describes as “this weird, janky, beautiful church - it’s my favorite studio in the world.” Kaufman, Lewis and Big Red Machine drummer JT Bates formed a core band around Mitchell, while Aaron Dessner and Thomas Bartlett joined the sessions mid-week on guitar and piano, respectively.
After the appropriate COVID tests came back negative, “it was a pretty extraordinary feeling to hug, kiss and share the same space playing together,” Mitchell says. “We went into that world for a week and didn’t leave the studio for any reason. I felt very safe with all those guys. It was warm and joyful.”
Mitchell says this environment brought out unexpected details in the material, which was recorded almost entirely live together in the room. “Sometimes we tried separating things out, like vocals, but we always ended up back in the room together,” she says. Indeed, after spending the better part of a day recording overdubbed versions of “Little Big Girl” that nobody loved, the musicians gave up and tracked it again live. “We got so frustrated that we went in and I was like, I’m just going to sing this as hard as I fucking can. It felt like that’s what the song wanted to be,” Mitchell says. “It felt like all those songs wanted to be recorded as live as possible.” The exception to the rule was Nico Muhly's arrangements for strings and flute, which were added from New York City afterward.
Mitchell will debut the new material during various headline tours in the U.S. and Europe in 2022, at which she’ll be accompanied by players from the album. On stage, she can’t wait to further hone the sights, sounds and scenes that bring the songs to such vivid life. “I’ve spent a lot of time trying to write in the voice of other characters, especially with Hadestown. It’s fun for me, but these songs are not that,” she says. “Weirdly, they’re all me. The narrator is me. That’s why it felt right to self-title the album. It felt like after so many years of working on telling other stories, now here are some of mine.”