Anaïs Mitchell Emerges from the Stillness

The singer-songwriter discusses touring again, including a stop at Memorial Hall, and following up her Broadway musical ”Hadestown.”

Anaïs Mitchell, who performs at Memorial Hall on February 8 as part of the Longworth Anderson concert series, released a new self-titled solo album at the end of January. She also plays in an acclaimed folk ballad trio, Bonny Light Horseman, which shares the Memorial Hall bill with her solo appearance. And she wrote the Tony Award–winning Broadway musical Hadestown, coming to town as part of the 2022–2023 Broadway in Cincinnati season. We discuss her busy schedule and her diverse interests.

Photograph by Jay Sansone

When I first heard your name, that was the first time I’d heard it since Anaïs Nin. Your father named you after her?

Yeah, she’s my namesake. I read all her stuff when I was so young. I thought I was supposed to read great books, novels that were very poetic. I think the poetry really spoke to me, but I wouldn’t necessarily have the life experience to be into the story or the characters.

Your new album is inspired by leaving Brooklyn while nine months pregnant and the pandemic just starting in 2020 to go back to the family sheep farm in Vermont where you were raised. What do you feel you learned from that?

I just didn’t want to give birth in the city. So we hastily packed up a van and drove through Vermont to where my parents have a house and my brother’s family have a house and where my grandparents, when alive, also had a little house. I had the baby a week later, our second child, and we moved to my grandparents’ house; like everyone, we were in this incredible moment of stillness. To be in nature, to be in my family, to be in one place for so long hadn’t happened since I started touring as a songwriter. It was just a real inward-turning kind of discovery. I thought I was in a watershed in my life. I think a lot of these songs come out of that time.

Bonny Light Horseman will also be on this bill with you in Cincinnati, and you’re obviously part of them. Can there really be a willingness from a contemporary audience to be transfixed by traditional songs that seem so outside the purview of modern culture? (The song “Bonny Light Horseman” is set during the Napoleonic Wars.)

The first record we made really is based in the traditional. But we just made a new record—it’s not out for a while—that’s the opposite. It’s all original but draws from the well of that traditional imagery. A lot of bands have done it and sound very inspiring. I think of the Grateful Dead and Gillian Welch.

Will that new Bonny Light Horseman album contain the song you performed here in September at the MusicNOW festival?

“Comrade Sweetheart.” Yeah, that will be on the album. Oh man, what a thrill to play MusicNOW with the Cincinnati Symphony and with Bryce Dessner’s arrangements. That was a real surprise; none of us had ever done anything like that. Bryce’s arrangements were really breathtaking, and the way they were conducted and played made it very moving to have that kind of sound at our backs on stage [at Music Hall].

Are you thinking of a future musical show?

I’m having a lot of fun just making records now; I had pushed that part of me aside while working on that show. But when I went to Broadway for the reopening of Hadestown after the pandemic shutdown, it was really thrilling. And as I watched the first act, I was brainstorming that I need to write another musical.

I got so inspired by seeing the amazing color that happens when you’re putting a fully musicalized story on stage with actors, props, costumes, sets, choreographer, orchestration. The whole thing is just an extraordinary art form. I would love to do another, but it would have to be something I can obsess about, because in hindsight it takes a lot of focus and a lot of years.

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