Singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell's career began in Vermont, but has led on a long and windy path around the world. Most recently, it’s landed her on Broadway, where her folk opera Hadestown won eight Tony Awards this year. As Mitchell prepares to go out on a solo tour (including sold-out performances in Vermont on Oct. 11 and 12), she told Vermont Edition about her musical journey.
While Mitchell was working on her second folk album in the early 2000s, called The Brightness, a separate idea started to take shape in her head: a retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. That germ of an idea became her folk opera, Hadestown.
In 2006, it debuted as a live performance at the old Labor Hall in Barre, Vermont. The following year it went on tour around the state and then around the country. Before long it became a fully staged performance, appearing off-Broadway, in Canada and London, and then finally opening on Broadway.
“It’s been such a long road with this show. And I feel like it was always kind of just one foot in front of the next,” Mitchell said. “Certainly when we did that first version of the show at Barre Labor Hall, I couldn’t have in my wildest dreams imagined that we would land on Broadway 13 years later.”
Below are some excerpts from the conversation. Listen to the interview above.
“I’m not the first musician, obviously, to tackle this story, and I think it’s appealing — it’s been told so many times by way of music — because there’s this hero of the Orpheus character and this artist who believes that if he can make music beautiful enough, he can change the rules of the world,” Mitchell said.
“That was very compelling to me at 25 or whatever when I started working on it, and it turned out that the myth — not just the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, but … the Persephone and Hades relationship and story — just kept kind of giving and unfolding in different ways over the years.”
“I got excited about the idea of telling a longer-form story with music,” Mitchell said. “I kind of come to songwriting as a writer. Words have always been important to me and in my upbringing growing up — my dad is a writer, a lot of books in the house — and I wanted to be a writer of some kind. And it turned out that songs was my way of doing that.
“And so I got excited about what would happen if I put a bunch of songs in a row and tried to tell a longer form story with them. ... Obviously I didn’t know how long it would take or what the thing would turn into.”
Although Hadestown was written more than a decade ago, the story touches on issues at the forefront of political and cultural debate today: nods to immigration, climate change, who’s in and who’s out.
“There was a moment where it was like, ‘Well should we be tailoring this show — you know, with this uncanny resemblance — should we be tailoring this show more toward the current political moment?” Mitchell said. “And I really felt — and I mean, I think so did Rachel [Chavkin, the director] and so did all of us feel like — ‘no, that’s not our job.’
“What we’re working on here is a myth, and it’s an ancient story that will be perennially relevant and it’s deeper to work with the archetypes than to try to speak to the moment. Like, it’s deeper than the guy who’s in power and has the microphone now. This is something that it’s longer and older and deeper than this moment.”
“It does really feel like the piece is way bigger than me,” Mitchell said, “and bigger than any of us who have worked on it over the years. … I started to feel that watching the show on Broadway and then seeing the crowd that would come at the end of the show to stand at the stage door and meet the actors. And some of them were like, dressed up as characters from our show.
“And I will never understand — you know, what the relationship is of that young person to this show is not for me to say. It’s like the show is its own animal and it has its own momentum and so it’s pretty remarkable to get to stand back and see it just doing its thing.”
“I guess I sort of have leaned in this direction as I’ve kind of gotten older as a songwriter, but I love the intersection of what feels really real and true emotionally for me and also what feels like it’s part of something bigger, older, more epic,” Mitchell said. “If it can be both things, that’s my happy place.”
And that seems to be the direction Mitchell is headed with her new group project Bonny Light Horseman. Mitchell has teamed up with Josh Kaufman, of The National, and Eric D. Johnson, from Fruit Bats. They performed at the 2019 Newport Folk Festival, and Mitchell said they plan to release an album early next year.
“We all kind of, in different ways, have come to traditional music — loving it and wanting to work in it and feeling inspired by it,” Mitchell said. “And this has been a very intuitive project. We wanted to work on old songs, but not in like a research project type of way, you know? I didn’t want to get too geeky about it, and just really go for the feelings and the wide openness of how some of that music can feel.”
"Ani DiFranco was one of the first songwriters that I fell in love with, I came to on my own — you know, not by way of my parents or my friends," Mitchell said. "And I fell in love with her music. … I would drive to Burlington, kind of a long drive, to get the new album when it came out and then listen to it and wish that I had written every song and, you know, be totally obsessed with it. And so, I might not have picked up the guitar if it weren’t for her. Like, some of the first few songs I learned how to play on the guitar were Ani DiFranco songs."
(DiFranco was one of the stars of the original album for Hadestown that came out in 2010, and Mitchell produced albums on DiFranco’s Righteous Babe Records label.)
Broadcast live on Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2019 at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.