SPOTLIGHT: Anaïs Mitchell Comes Back to Her Own Story
Photo by Jay Sansone
EDITOR’S NOTE: Anaïs Mitchell is No Depression’s Spotlight artist for January 2022. Read more about her and her self-titled album, coming out Jan. 28, all month long.
If you’ve ever been in the backseat of a taxi driving over the Brooklyn Bridge, watching the lights of the Manhattan skyline sparkle, then you know.
You know the powerful grip New York City holds on our dreams and aspirations.
Anaïs Mitchell knows it well. She began writing a song about it when she still lived there, before a worldwide pandemic beckoned her back to her childhood home in rural Vermont, on the verge of giving birth to her second child and heartbroken by leaving what she calls the “mythic city.” The feeling was too raw, too clichéd, for her to finish the song, but once she had a little distance, “Brooklyn Bridge” came to be. In it, her soft, breathy voice sings like she’s sharing a secret, entrusting us with something sacred:
I want everything I want
I wanna be someone
Wanna be one in a million
“That song contains all this yearning for whatever it is that we’re after as artists,” Mitchell says. “And I think there’s something about me containing all those feelings and knowing that I’m not the only one. There’s a million people in New York who feel that way. There’s something sort of romantic about being in that space. But I couldn’t have written that song from New York, that’s for sure.”
Instead, she wrote it — and much of the new, deeply personal self-titled album that contains it — on the same land where she spent a dreamy childhood in and out of her grandparents’ house. “It’s my literal happy place,” she says of the house, recalling a hypno-birthing class she once took in which she was prompted to imagine an oasis. “I’d picture myself lying on the carpeted floor in a sunbeam coming in from the sliding glass door. And just the sounds, my grandma’s sewing machine, my grandad’s watching TV, something’s cooking in the kitchen. It’s a very sensual and absorbed and unselfconscious era when you’re a kid. You’re invisible. You’re like a part of the surroundings.”
She wrote a song, “Revenant,” about this place and the many memories within it. “I sort of felt a bit of a renaissance of that during the pandemic. I just felt invisible. And there’s a way in which these songs started to come, and I felt like, ‘Don’t think about it too hard, just let ’em come,’” she says. “And I felt the same about making this album that was like, ‘I gotta do it now.’” She is now renovating that house so she can live in it as an adult, which is just one of many full-circle moments she’s experienced since leaving New York City.
Another came in the form of a storied method she’d been avoiding her entire career: writing a song a day. “I had been told by people my whole life, ‘You should try this, this is a great practice,’” she says. “And I never had done it. And I had just had a baby. I didn’t even know how I was gonna do it, but I was like, I just have to say yes.”
Out of that practice came another song on the new record, “On Your Way (Felix Song),” an ode to Mitchell’s early “hustling days” and a tribute to longtime friend and fellow songwriter Felix McTeigue, who died in 2020. McTeigue wrote 50 songs in 50 days for his 2005 record The New Deal (under the stage name FDR), Mitchell’s favorite of his work.
“There’s something about these songs. He didn’t have time to overthink them. And this was sort of his ethos, just go for it, whatever it was. If you’re talking about writing a song, let’s do it right now,” she says. “There was something for me that was really powerful about connecting with that way of writing where, basically, you just have to say yes to whatever’s coming through and trust it. Get out of the way of it. A lot of the songs on [my] record come from that space.”
Mitchell could picture McTeigue laughing and encouraging her to keep going as she wrote it. That urgency and detachment from overthinking comes through in the song’s lyrics and pacing. You can feel Mitchell’s young, restless spirit as she sings about rushed basement sets, playing for tips to a handful of peers, and driving back to Vermont right after the gig because she couldn’t afford a hotel room:
No regrets and no mistakes
You get one take
You’re on your way
“[These] songs are kind of about grief, loss in a way. But also when I wrote them, I was in a pretty joyful space of reconnecting with songwriting, writing my own songs, which I hadn’t been able to do in a long time cause of this musical I was working on,” she says. “So the rediscovery of that was very joyful.”
Collaborations and Courage
That musical she’s referring to is Hadestown, which swept the Tony Awards in 2019, its first year on Broadway. It was Mitchell’s baby long before she had any actual babies, and creating it consumed her life for more than a decade before its whirlwind success. “I felt like I was cheating on Hadestown any time I tried to write something else,” she laughs. But it also brought needed structure to her life at just the right moment, as she was becoming a mother for the first time. Once her role in writing and composing the show was winding down, she had time to spare. “I had said for years that I was desperate to get back to my own songs and then when I tried, I found I was a bit paralyzed about it.”
Bonny Light Horseman, the band she formed in 2019 with Eric D. Johnson (Fruit Bats) and Josh Kaufman, proved to be a significant first step. “It was very healing for me to work on this thing,” she says. “That collaboration felt very easy in this way that I almost didn’t trust that it could be good or beautiful because I like things to be hard, I expect it to be hard, I expect it to take years.” The band’s second album is forthcoming, and Mitchell has built a kind of chosen family with its members, including drummer JT Bates and multi-instrumentalist Michael Lewis, who also play on Anaïs Mitchell with Kaufman playing guitars and at the producing helm (and additional support from musicians Aaron Dessner and Thomas Bartlett).
“I knew I wanted them for their musicianship, but I also wanted them for their hearts and who they are in the room, as witnesses and as friends,” she says. “It’s definitely been a revelation working with these players.”
Still, Mitchell knew it was finally time to tell her own stories after writing through the lens of characters for so long. “It’s really fascinating that this record doesn’t have any of that. It’s all just me. It’s rare for me,” she says. “When you’re 22 you fall in love, you have a breakup, and it feels like that’s the whole world. … That’s not my experience right now. So it’s funny that at this moment I felt like, oh my god, I have something to say, I have things to say.”
Those things are inspired by feelings of nostalgia and time gone by. “There’s a lot about growing up on this album, both in terms of looking backward at my childhood and my hustling days, my youth,” she says. “And also growing up in terms of ‘mothering up,’ as my witchy friend calls it. Letting go of the maiden shit that it’s easy to get so identified with.”
Songs like “Now You Know,” with its dreamy harmonies, and the wistful standout “Little Big Girl” seem to be wrestling with this idea of imposter syndrome, something Mitchell has experienced in these last few surreal years of her career. In the latter she sings about growing up through the male gaze and the abruptness of aging:
No one ever told you
It would be like this
That you keep on getting older
But you feel just like a kid
“It’s the kind of song where it had to feel 100% true. And it was hard to write because at different moments it started to feel like it was a feminist anthem. I didn’t want it to be, like, me on a soap box having everything figured out because that’s not the space it comes from,” she says. “It comes from this space of not having everything figured out, and frustration with society, yeah, but more frustration with myself. It’s about my mom, it’s about me, it’s for my daughters. You acquire all these tools as a young woman that then don’t serve you when you get to a certain age, and it’s hard to set those tools down and pick up a new set of them.”
The Next Step
Mitchell has, indeed, left much of the maiden shit behind. All over this record she stands before us without shame sharing her truths and telling us what she wants, allowing herself to be vulnerable and dancing with that freedom. This loose unself-consciousness especially reveals itself on the album’s most intimate track, “Real World,” an honest longing for things to be like they once were:
I wanna dance in your real grip
Feel your real hands on my hips
And taste real whiskey on your lips
When we kiss in the real world
Mitchell is overcoming the fear and is on to the next chapter. “The process of really creating, where you’re dancing with the mystery and opening yourself to where this could go, wherever it wants to go … that feeling doesn’t mesh well with, ‘What are people gonna think about this?’ Or ‘What is my next statement?’ It’s not even ego, but more like a kind of two-dimensional version of who people think you are,” she says. “And who really cares? I keep waiting for the moment when I’m gonna just not give any more fucks. When is that coming? I’m 40 now, it’s gotta be coming soon. But I still care, I do still care. It’s incremental. I think I give fewer fucks than I used to for sure.”
Mitchell’s newfound ability to be present will be an asset as she works through this new album and more collaborative projects on the horizon. Plans for a tour that includes material old and new, plus a few for the Hadestown fans that may be new to her solo music, have her buzzing with excitement, particularly the idea that these living, breathing songs she’s written may change from night to night, morphing depending on the mood and the atmosphere.
“The way I think about it is like, they can catch the wind,” she says. “It feels like maybe a portal to the next step.”