Music

Young Woman in America: The Anais Mitchell Interview

Sarah Moore

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.


Anaïs Mitchell

Young Man in America

Label: Thirty Tigers
US Release Date: 2012-02-28
UK Release Date: 2012-02-13
Artist Website
Amazon
iTunes

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.

* * *

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.

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"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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