Young Woman in America: The Anais Mitchell Interview

Anaïs Mitchell
Young Man in America
Thirty Tigers

To say that Anais Mitchell has followed her brilliant opera album Hadestownwith another gem of a record is an understatement. Young Man in America explores what it is to be a man, whether through the eyes of her writer father or a mythological man obsessed with worldly pleasures.

The current recession really impacted Mitchell, compelling her to write such titles as the first track, “Wilderland.” From the first impact of mechanical beats and drums, the song churns in your stomach with indiscernible flute-like, grating, high pitches. The combination of sounds leads up to Mitchell’s first line, “Oh Mother Shelter/A mother is a shelterer . ” Calling Mitchell’s voice “child-like,” which is one’s initial tendency, ignores very subtle mature qualities to her sound. Her transitions between notes produce subtle yodels and switches in pitch that have clearly been honed. PopMatters recently asked Anais Mitchell a few questions about her current tour, the intrigue and allure of her father and his place in Young Man in America, and her post-tour routine.

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What do you hope that listeners take away or feel like from listening to Young Man in America?

I hope people feel it in their bodies, the drums, the singing. I hope they identify with the characters and the kind of hunger a lot of those characters express. For me making the record felt like an exorcism of certain demons that were in me and wanted a chance to speak, I hope it can be that for listeners too.

What is your songwriting process? Were these songs all written at the same time or long session?

These songs were written over a few years, some of them while I was working on Hadestown (my previous record – an opera). But a bunch of them came all in a row and seemed to be about the same stuff. I am a very slow writer. Usually some part of a song comes all at once and then I end up sitting around for hours, days, weeks, months, waiting for the right thing.

What are you listening to now?

The last records I got really obsessed with and wanted to hear nothing else were the Robyn Body Talk record and the Sam Amidon I See the Sign record.

Do you have a favorite performance from this current tour? If so, what made it stick out in your mind?

I loved playing at WXPN in Philly with the Young Man Band. We were able to set up all facing each other in the studio, which made it fun… also we all had headphones :). Ben the drummer does some crazy head moves when he plays, it was fun to watch

Do you do vocal exercises to warm up and/or keep your voice in “shape?”

Yeah, I love it if I have time to do that. Sometimes with the Young Man Band we will do some exercises together since we do a lot of three-part stuff with those songs. Everyone who sings has developed their own weird warm-ups so it’s funny trying to combine them.

When is the first time you remember writing songs? How old were you, and do you ever look back at them and get embarrassed?

I started writing songs in earnest at the age of 17. They were terrible and I’ve kind of repressed them all. I also have an early recording that I try to pretend doesn’t exist.

Do you ever write about people close to you?

Absolutely, no one is safe.

Where is your favorite venue to play on the East Coast?

Oh, there’s so many good ones, I hate to choose, but there’s a little old legendary folk club in Cambridge MA called Club Passim that has probably done more for my growth as an artist than any other venue. Matt, the proprietor, is the kindest man on earth. I guess I’d say I “cut my teeth” there.

What musician would you love to collaborate with, if possible?

There are so many… right now Randy Newman comes to mind!

How did you learn the guitar? Do you play any other instruments?

I did the Suzuki method for violin as a kid, and I’ve recently picked it up again as a fiddle, I’m really terrible, but I love it, anytime I have a drink of alcohol my fingers itch for the violin. I learned guitar from a fingerstyle jazz guy that used to rent a little house on my parents farm. He would walk up the driveway and give me lessons in exchange for reduced rent. He was into really avant, almost unlistenable jazz, and I was into Ani DiFranco.

What role does your father play in this album? Is that a picture of him on the cover? Do you have a favorite memory of your father?

Yeah, that’s my dad’s face on the cover. It’s a photo of him taken when he was about my age, a promotional photo for a book he’d just written. In the entirety of the photograph he’s holding a yearling lamb in his arms and they both look kind of wild and scared. One of the songs on the album, “Shepherd,” is a retelling of his novel The Souls of Lambs. He is a really important inspiration for some other songs too. Growing up, my dad was at his happiest at end of a day of hard work. He’d come in from mowing the field all sunburned and dirty, mix a G & T [gin and tonic], turn the music up and sing out loud. He has always been a great lover of music and songwriting though he doesn’t play an instrument.

What is the first thing you do when you get home from touring?

Usually I start cleaning something in the house; it’s some kind of nesting instinct. Right now we’re living in Brooklyn and I really miss the Park Slope YMCA, pretty excited to get back there and unfreeze my membership.