Folk music is a difficult thing to define. Acoustic guitars and harmonicas may spring to many people’s minds, or else some line-up of highwaymen, widowed sailors’ wives and other assorted trope characters. But there’s something more to these enduring genre. “It has less to do with whether there’s a guy with a banjo or a synthesizer”, says Anaïs Mitchell, “for me, folk music has always been about storytelling”.
The Vermont-based singer-songwriter, whose first album appeared in 2002, has in the past decade become one of the leading figures in the American contemporary folk scene. Her 2010 record, Hadestown saw her teaming up with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and Ben Knox Miller of The Low Anthem in a ‘folk-opera’ reimagining of the Orpheus-Eurydice myth, while her most recent offering, Child Ballads, comprises seven traditional English folk songs recorded with fellow musician Jefferson Hamer.
It is not too hard to locate the roots of Mitchell’s penchant for storytelling, lyricism and emotional intensity. “My first influences were the artists my parents had in their record collection: Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Rickie Lee Jones, Marc Knopfler, Lou Reed, and so on. They were all great poets in their time, and that sets them apart in my mind from other artists of the era who were less lyric-oriented.”
She was also deeply influenced in her teens by Ani Difranco, Dar Williams, and Tori Amos, to her, members of “a very powerful emotional female songwriter wave that came along. The reverence for poetry and a kind of heart-on-sleeve emotionalism I definitely glommed onto as a young songwriter.”
As a female songwriter herself, she says that she feels no particular advantage or disadvantage in relation to male performers. “There’s of course some inequality when it comes to how women are expected to market their youth and sexuality […] but I don’t feel I’ve been too beleaguered by that.”
She says that “what I’m curious about is something a little harder to name. As a writer, can I write from a woman’s perspective and can it be received as a human story, an archetypal story, not just a woman’s story? Can I write about being a wife and mother, and can that be as and powerful and real as writing about being a single girl setting her sights on so-and-so?”
Her songs certainly pull on a deeply personal narrative, something particularly evident in her 2012 album Young Man in America, a record partly inspired by her own father. “My dad had just lost his own dad and I wrote a few of those songs for him, about that. There’s the experience of suddenly seeing your dad not as your dad but as another man’s son, as something of an orphan even at such and such an age. Also this character of the Young Man was someone I recognized in people around me and also in myself – this wild restless hunger, this longing for family.”
Images of the father, the shepherd, the daughter and the eponymous ‘young man’ recur throughout the album. But unlike Hadestown, she claims “I didn’t set out to write a concept record with Young Man. It wasn’t until I was in the studio listening back that I went “Hmm… pretty thematic”. But I think that happens in writing; you get on a jag. It’s not necessarily a conscious thing.”
To her, the record also explored the feeling of not “being a mother yet, and [yet] not being parented”. Following the birth of her first child last year, she feels her relationship to the album has shifted. “It’s funny when I sing some of those songs now. It used to be that I was singing, “look upon your children”, and I was one of the children. Now I sing it and it’s my own child I’m singing about and now it’s my job to look out for her.” But to her this shift is no bad thing. “I believe that you never really find your voice as a writer” she says, “you have to keep finding it again and again as the world changes and you change.”
Last year also saw the release of Child Ballads, which was recently nominated for a BBC folk award. The history of the record is to her one of discovery and learning. “I think it was touring in England, Scotland and Ireland that I first became exposed to the incredible old ballad culture you guys got going over there. Then I met Jefferson Hamer, who was equally enamoured of these old songs, and we vowed to make a record together. That said, she found “it was a long slow process trying to interpret the songs so they felt natural coming out of our (American) mouths. We worked on them together, line by line. Some we barely changed […] but others we took a pretty free hand with, making up melodies, heavily editing the text, and so on. It was a real education.”
From the sprawling grandiosity of Hadestown, and the personal intimacy of Young Man, to the lilting enchantment of Child Ballads, the centrality of the story shines through all of Mitchell’s work. She says “I think at its best folk music helps us feel that our own little stories have something in common with the old stories echoing across time and space. This is our time, but we’re not alone out here… the ancestors and the future generations sing with us.”
Anais Mitchell will be playing at the Jericho Tavern on the 7th of March.