If you think that libraries are boring and stuffy places where silence is the order of the day then think again! The reading room at Westminster was given over to a solo acoustic show by Anaïs Mitchell during which she was interviewed by the journalist and author Nick Coleman and previewed songs from her new album.
Mitchell’s YOUNG MAN IN AMERICA had its UK release just two days before this show; advance copies sent out have been garnering rave reviews and even at this early stage in the year it’s clear that many will be including it as a favourite when it comes to compiling ‘best of year’ lists for 2012.
The follow up to her critically acclaimed folk opera HADESTOWN has seen Mitchell return to a more traditional solo album. Relying on trusted friends including producer Todd Sickafoose and HADESTOWN arranger Michael Chorney, Mitchell has delivered another intelligent and thoughtful piece of art. Drawing upon folk traditions she weaves narratives that bring into sharp relief, characters whose lives are not quite what they seem to be at first glance – Shepherd tells the story of a wife who dies in childbirth, Tailor captures very eloquently a woman trying so hard to be what is expected by a lover only to find herself left alone……
Mitchell explained that whilst the songs are not autobiographical (she is telling other people’s stories) they are nevertheless personal. During the first hour or so Coleman explored diverse topics with her – her methods and process, her upbringing, her dreams and in answer to the question what did she want people to take from her music Mitchell spoke passionately about wanting people to feel her stories in a visceral way. Throwing the floor open to the audience, Mitchell answered questions and in response to one about the inspiration for Dyin Day (the biblical story of Abraham offering up his son Isaac as a sacrifice to God) she reached for her guitar and played it – for many in the audience it would have been the first time hearing the song and gave a wonderful sense of what was to follow in the second half of the evening.
As promised, after a short interval break, Mitchell returned and commenced the preview starting off with He Did and followed with six more – if there is a theme to the new album it is one of family, of community, of relationships set against a backdrop of individual challenge in an America struggling both economically and spiritually. Although the focus was on the new songs, Mitchell asked if anyone had a request and those who shouted loudest got their wish - one for Orion in which she sings about the death of a young friend and one for Old Fashioned Hat which is her story and a ‘true Valentine’ to her husband Noah, finally closing with Tailor.
At age 30 Mitchell can be proud of her developing body of work; her lyrics invite repeated listening and the juxtaposition between the childlike voice and the mature narrative thrust of her writing is so effective and affecting. She will be returning for a tour in a few months time; catch her if you can for it won’t be long before she outgrows these smaller intimate venues.
The evening was an out and out success; if she felt any vulnerability in laying herself open to a paying audience rather than just previewing it for the music press, then it didn’t show. She speaks as she writes with thought, substance and clarity. I came away thinking that my belief, when first seeing her some six years ago, that a true original had entered the folk scene, was not too far wide of the mark. Yes, she may be an acquired taste but one that many seem happy to acquire. Jela Webb
(This review will appear in a forthcoming issue of Maverick - www.maverick-country.com)