An Interview with Anaïs Mitchell

anaismitchell Anaïs Mitchell talks about Creation, Mystery, and Literary Values in her Songcraft

Words by Anthony Parshall

1. I want to begin with the intersection of music and literature, as your songs often tell stories. Do you make a conscious attempt to bring literary values to your songs?

AM: I grew up in a literary household—my dad was an English teacher—and I was also into lyrics. We had a library full of books and also records, and they were both part of the same family—folk revival, psychedelic rock. My dad pointed out great lyrics, and songwriting and songs were part of a poetic world…I loved stories. Maybe there’s no conscious effort. But you can hit a wall; you say, then let’s go somewhere else, spin into something else

Songs were my literature; I don’t read all that much but I love songs.

2. Where does the literary spark in your music come from? Can you tell me something about your literary values and how they developed?

AM: I believe in beauty and poetry…I was raised, as a kid and at school—in academia—to be able to converse in a world of ideas that’s bloodless. But writing moves me because it’s about imagery and details—immediate things smelled, seen…in body, memory, emotions. Writing is a chance to not just describe the world but to see the world as it is—not to see the world as a videogame,[or] to see things in quotations

3. Would you liken your songs more closely to poetry or prose?

AM: Songs are a distilled version of writing; you can’t stretch out like with prose. What makes songs different—even if you’re telling stories—is that a song has repetition of melody…a circular nature, repetition...A doesn’t necessarily lead to B; certain things come around again..and they have to come out of your mouth, which is different from poetry. I like to write in bathrooms—the writing doesn’t get lost in the world; I like to watch myself sing in the mirror.

AP: Singing a song perhaps is an even more personal gesture than writing a poem or a story because you have to put your body into it.

AM: Yeah, yeah…

4. Your record Hadestown not only tells a story with each song but also tells a larger story across the album. Do you, in general, map out the story before you begin writing or does the story evolve out of the songwriting process?

AM: In Hadestown, there’s so much story, there’s so much I want to get across in terms of exposition and everything else. In operas, for example, there’s so much space given to exposition; and Hadestown was more abstract than some of my other stuff.

Hadestown was like following a maze—there was no grand plan for the opera—on the part of myself as well as my collaborators…we were trying to put one foot in front of the other. If I did it again, I’d like to make an outline—who are the characters, how to explain things more fully…There’s the mysterious part of songwriting, the fever dream part and then the crossword puzzle; neither one of them should have supremacy…I wouldn’t have the heart to put in the time if I didn’t feel there was still something mysterious to the process…

5. Who are some of your favorite writers and poets?

AM: Well I was named after Anais Nin, so I read her diaries. I liked Henry Miller…Lawrence Durell—the idea of telling a story from various different angles, different layers of a story from different angles. Poets—I like Yeats, Marge Piercy.

AP: How about more contemporary writers?

AM: I like Cormac McCarthy—I love reading the classics…I don’t have time to keep up with the contemporary scene…I like Dostoyevsky…there’s a brutal honesty in the Russians…some people might think it’s super-pretentious. I did read Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer—that’s a good book.

There’s something major that I read recently—a collection of British and Scottish folk ballads, compiled by Francis James Child, which became known as the “Child Ballads”…it’s 305 folk ballads collected from Scotland and England…he compiled all the different versions…the stories are folk tales, fairy tales a lot of them…these are the original literature which was sung…the syntax is different, kinds of words are different, lots of stock phrases—“coal-black seed” for example…you learn about how to get across what’s happening in a story…

AP: Do you ever lift turns of phrase like a musician might “cop licks”?

AM: I’ve been messing with syntax in a new way, turning words around, using more archaic words—the word “bonny,” for example…I use the phrase “lady say”.

In newer songs, you might find a turn of phrase, like the way the words are ordered…in Hadestown I could become dorkier, taking on the roles of the different characters…I could dork out on the structure of the song…

6. How does the community of musicians you work with contribute to the development of songs?

AM: With Hadestown, I couldn’t write it alone and in my room…the fact that we did shows kept the wind in one anothers’ sails…we tried not to lean on each other too much…the music wouldn’t have happened as it did without all the musicians who were willing to stand onstage and make it work…

In terms of the singers, a lot of them are my heroes…they legitimize the work…I’m grateful for their voices and personalities…they’re like ambassadors…

AP: It must be difficult to give songs you’ve written yourself to others…

AM: It’s almost always better to let people be who they are…[Hadestown] really was a lesson in collaboration.

7. Could you say something about local music? Is there something intrinsically more valuable or relevant about a song written or performed in Vermont to a local than, say, one produced on the West Coast?

AM: …what a great time to turn to the local scene to make it special—support the bard that comes to your house…there’s so much music out there—how to find what you like in a large ocean of stuff? There’s nothing quite like music…I moved to Montpelier four or five years ago; there’s always something happening at the Langdon Street Café, the Threepenny Taproom...I think of the muse as a shape-shifter—it appears in different ways in different people.

8. Are you ever entirely satisfied with a song?

AM: I do know when a song is done, but I feel like there’s always an element of dissatisfaction…a song is like a record of a moment in time…in terms of writing, when something clicks it becomes like a ritual that I’d like to come back to again.

I wrestle with my head a lot…my mind tries to step in and tie a ribbon too tight…the songwriters I admire have a looseness to what they do…it’s good to have something missing…

9. Finally, how does the compositional process work? What comes first for you—chords, melody, words? Do you have any model for how you write a song?

AM: It comes all ways—one change, a melodic change that may not have words will come—that may lead to a song…sometimes the lyrics [come first]…I’m driven by the detail world, not the image world.

Oftentimes, if you’re writing a song, it begins in the mysterious space of memory and then you write the song, and the song becomes [for example] about my father—then suddenly you put a bracket around it—then you go back into the sensual world—see if there’s another feeling back in there…