American Original: More From This Week's Q&A With Anaïs Mitchell
So many words, such tiny word counts.
The interview with Anaïs Mitchell that appears in this week's Seven Days ("American Original") was but a snippet of a longer conversation we recently had with the local songwriter about her new record, Young Man in America. What follows is more from that chat, in which we cover reconnecting with Todd Sickafoose — her producer on Hadestown — how you make something sound both tribal and British, and working with Chris Thile from the Punch Brothers — who are playing the Higher Ground Ballroom this Saturday, BTW. We also asked about her departure from Rightous Babe Records and her new label, Wilderland Records. (One thing we should have asked: Does this mean we have to stop referring to Mitchell as "Vermont's favorite Righteous Babe"? We sincerely hope not.)
ANAIS MITCHELL: It was quite different, because with Hadestown we had Michael Chorney's arrangements already. We came to Todd with a lot of stuff fleshed out, but then he really brought his own sonic stamp to that record, in a major way. He had more of a free hand, I think. Todd is a pretty wild guy. He's very gentle and quiet, but he's very tenacious about his ideas. He gets on a sonic jag and sometimes you don't understand what he's doing. But then you ultimately realize it.
I remember going into the recording and the only thing I was really lobbying for was that I wanted drums. I had shied away from that with the previous records I had made with Michael [Chorney]. And it's always been tricky for me because I have a lot of words in my songs and sometimes they make their own rhythm and it's hard to get in there. So I wanted a percussive feeling to reflect that "Young Man" energy.
Also, I had this idea about this harmonic chorus. I saw Levon Helm's band at a bunch of festivals this summer. Have you seen them lately? He tours with these women, I think one is his daughter, and then the other is from Ollabelle. It's so gorgeous. They sing this call-and-response stuff and it sounds really Appalachian, or like work songs, field chants. And there is something about that that felt kind of ritualistic or tribal. And I wanted that. Also, a lot of the songs were influenced by these British ballads I had been listening to. So I said, "Todd, I want it to sound tribal and British."
Then different phases of the record came. Once he told me he was going to do a session with a flute player. I wasn't at the session, so I was like, "Really? Are you sure?" But ultimately that flute sound became really essential to the songs that it's on. Todd works in mysterious ways.
SD: Did he recruit Chris Thile [Punch Brothers]?
AM: I actually reached out to Chris. I think he had heard Hadestown, so that made him a little more amenable. He was great. He was actually one of the last sessions we did. I initally approached him because I wanted a second male harmony part. Then I remembered that Todd, after we had made Hadestown, had text messaged me from some festival where he had just seen Chris Thile play, and he said, "If we ever make another record, we should get Chris Thile involved." It was funny, because I wasn't super familiar with his band before the Punch Brothers. And I wouldn't have thought to put mandolin on this record; it just wouldn't have occurred to me. But once we had him in the studio it was like, "I'm not gonna ask Chris Thile to sing harmonies and not bring an instrument. Then when he started playing, it was like, "God, I want mandolin on every track." He's such a world-class player.
AM: This is the first record. So I guess it's not Wilderland Records, it's Wilderland Record, since there is only one right now. It just seemed like the right time to try that out. I was with Righteous Babe for two and a half records. So I had finished what we'd agreed to do. I just started looking at the scene, and it's so hard for people in the record industry. Nobody knows if you're going to make any money back. But it still costs so much to make an album and promote it. So it seemed like the right time to get our hands on that stuff.
SD: Are you looking to release other artists at some point as well?
AM: Definitely not yet. [Laughs] Ask me in a year from now. It's so funny, because a label is such a nebulous idea. Really, it's like a series of relationships and then a fair amount of paper pushing and logistical stuff. And then a stamp. That's what it is.
I got really excited. We made this logo and then I went to the copy shop and had them make me a rubber stamp. And love the rubber stamp! I stamp the shit out of everything that crosses my path!
Anaïs Mitchell plays the Higher Ground Showcase Lounge with Rachel Ries this Friday, February 24, at 7:30 p.m. $15/17. AA