SPOTLIGHT: Anaïs Mitchell on What Was Lost and Found in the ‘Real World’
Photo by Jay Sansone
EDITOR’S NOTE: Anaïs Mitchell is No Depression‘s Spotlight artist for January 2022. Read our interview with her, and stay tuned for more from Mitchell and her new, self-titled album, out Jan. 28, all month long.
I carried the phrase “real world” around in my back pocket for years before it fell out in a song in the summer of 2020. Because of the time it was written, the “real world” seemed to be the world pre-pandemic, but for me the phrase had always meant something different. It was the world pre- the advent of certain technologies, mostly the pocket devices that keep us in constant contact and reduce the huge, sensual, three-dimensional world to a small, flat, virtual one for hours at a time.
I was born in 1981, part of the micro-generation called “Xennial,” defined by the experience of an analog childhood and a digital young adulthood (I learned this from a quiz in The New York Times). I didn’t have a flip phone till my 20s, or a smartphone till late that same decade. I can’t point to the end of the “real world,” but the line was crossed sometime in my early years as an aspiring traveling songwriter. My mind returns to the middle aughts and the Kerrville Folk Festival in Texas, where I volunteered and camped and played songs a few years in a row, as if that were the end of the era. I was young and impressionable and ambitious and these memories are drenched in nostalgia for that age and therefore probably not to be trusted. But I wanted to write them down.
I was 17 years old in the real world when I discovered and fell in love with the Michelle Shocked Texas Campfire Tapes, which were recorded live in the Kerrville campground at the Quiet Valley Ranch a couple hours west of Austin. The album was given to me (on cassette or CD, can’t remember) by my high school boyfriend, and I treasured the songs as well as the idea of the festival, where I thought I might “get heard.” I was just then beginning to write songs and was desperate to play them for anyone who would listen. Kerrville is unlike any other festival in the country in that it lasts for 18 days, so if you’ve ever been to a three-day festival, take a moment to bend your head around that. It’s a Brigadoon, a world unto itself, more of a “season” than an “event.” It’s got a regular mainstage concert series, but it’s also got an epic campground culture in which songwriters of every level of skill and professionalism stay up all night together for weeks on end swapping songs.
The first time I attempted to go to Kerrville I took a Greyhound bus from New England to Texas and arrived days later only to find I’d misunderstood the dates and missed the festival entirely. Hard to do with a three-week festival, but this sort of thing sometimes happened in the real world. The only option on the bus was to read, journal, or stare out the window. There was intense boredom in the real world, even (especially?) while traveling. I see myself trudging lost for hours through the nondescript residential neighborhoods of otherwise exciting foreign cities. In the States, weak, hazelnut-flavored coffees in vaguely evangelical coffeeshops in rural towns everywhere. When I first started touring I’d print out MapQuest directions to a gig and if I missed a turn I’d have to call my brother and ask him to get online and talk me back to the route. In the real world, you got lost.
But in the real world, you got lost. Inconvenience and randomness ruled the day, but the other side of the coin was something mystical and hard to come by. It was the difference between happening upon something beautiful by the side of the road, not being able to share it with anyone, but allowing it to do something secret in your heart … versus buying a museum ticket, finding the beautiful thing you expect to find, telling the whole world you’ve seen it, and erasing it from your heart in the same instant, as if checking it off a list.
In the real world, when you made a discovery like the Campfire Tapes, it felt cosmic and hard-won and there was an unnatural devotion to it. When I finally made it to the Kerrville Folk Festival (on time, this time) I was completely committed to whatever the hell experience it was going to be. I arrived with almost no money in my pocket, certainly not enough to buy a ticket to the fest, so I was grateful to get a spot on the volunteer crew (“krew”). In those days, in exchange for a few hours of work, a volunteer got free camping, free concerts, two free meals, and eight free beers a day. I’m laughing out loud as I type this. The beer was Shiner Bock. In my memory it tasted cheap, strong and golden. I drank it with the other volunteers in the cool of the evening at the back of the audience while professional touring songwriters (the dream!) took the main stage one after another. Their songs ran together with the beer and the evening air and the scents from the merchant stalls of fried food, essential oil, pot smoke, and leather.
The end of the main stage show was the beginning of the night. The audience went home and the campers migrated all at once like a flock of birds from the concert area to the campground. You’d wander with your acoustic guitar from camp to camp, each of which had its own name, customs, and elders. You’d edge your way in, which sometimes took hours, standing in the shadows until you were invited to take a folding chair, all the while listening to songcraft great and terrible until the circle came round to you and you’d sing whatever was then your best song to an audience that hung on everyone’s every word in a sacred ritual. Then you’d wait for a tactful moment to slip away into the night. You had friends at the festival, but by some unspoken rule you all traveled from camp to camp alone. You were alone under the stars, making your own destiny in a microcosm of the world. You’d duck into the women’s room and touch up your eyes and whisper something to yourself in the mirror.
In the real world, no one knew where you were, so when you arrived somewhere, or when someone arrived where you were, there was a feeling of surprise and serendipity. If something more fun or interesting were happening elsewhere, you’d never know. You’d have to discover it by instinct. At Kerrville sometimes the younger folk who hadn’t yet established camps of their own would hold court under the streetlight until the sun came up. Sometimes the night got wild. In the real world sometimes you danced naked, and no one took a picture.