Anais Mitchell - On Hadestown and Opportunities for Artists in Vermont
Vermont is full of opportunities for musicians and artists of all kinds, from open mics to all the various restaurants that show art. The Burlington South End Art Hop, which takes place in September every year, features artists all over Burlington’s south end and often there are musicians playing at the various venues as well. Then there are restaurants and coffee shops throughout the state that host musicians and show art. We talked to Anais Mitchell, a young woman who grew up in Addison County on her parents’ farm, about what it was like for her as a musician in Vermont.
In March she released Hadestown, a rock opera that has been touring since 2006, in album form. Mitchell has a strong fan following, which is clear when viewing her facebook page. Now, when she isn’t touring, she lives near the Northeast Kingdom in a small community of artistic people. She said the inspiration for Hadestown came from living in rural Vermont and needing to make your own entertainment in the long winters. Hadestown has received numerous positive reviews, including one from the Burlington Free Press, "An album you can savor over and over again..."
**What inspired you to start playing music?**
I've always loved singing, just because it feels good and natural. I think I started writing my own songs because I wanted to be a writer, and writing songs was one way to really be heard... you know how they say if you want to be a poet nowadays, you better pick up the guitar... When I first started writing songs there were a lot of powerful female role models out there; Ani DiFranco, Dar Williams, Tori Amos, the Indigo Girls. I loved the expressiveness of these women, the raw emotion; I wanted to spill my guts like that.
**What was the first song you ever wrote?**
It was terrible, I have repressed it, but I think it had to do with being afraid of the dark!
**What made you think you might want to live somewhere more urban than Vermont?**
Well you can't help but be curious and lust after the world you don't know. I grew up in Vermont, among trees and sheep, so cities have always held a magical appeal for me. There's a manic energy when you get that many people in one tiny spot... which is both appealing and exhausting.
**Why did you decide to stay in rural Vermont?**
I had been kind of living out of my car for a little while when I finished school, trying to get gigs, going wherever I could get one. The guy who is now my husband had just started a music venue and cafe in Montpelier, VT, with a bunch of friends, the Langdon Street Cafe. There were all kinds of young people and artists in Montpelier all of a sudden, it was very exciting. The scene was very small but very edgy and alive. A lot of the friends I met at that time were the friends who helped mount the first versions of the Hadestown stage show. There's something so great and radical about young people committing to staying in one place. It's not easy, ‘cause in this day n age, there are one million paths you could take on a whim. Young people are always going off to India or whatever, which is a beautiful thing, but it has its drawbacks. To have found a community of creative, fun, interesting people who were all (fairly) committed to being in the same small town, felt like something special.
**What kinds of opportunities are available for musicians here?**
I think there is a lot of support for musicians at different stages of their careers in Vermont; there's open mics, a lot of community supported gigs, and a general appreciation of the arts. There are some wonderful arts organizations like the Vermont Community Foundation and the Vermont Arts Council, both of which supported Hadestown in various formats. It feels like among artists in Vermont there's also a lot of camaraderie, people trying to support each other, collaborate, help each other out, rather than a more dog-eat-dog scene you might find elsewhere.
**Can you give us a synopsis of Hadestown? How did it start? What is it based on? What has been your experience performing it?**
Hadestown is a folk opera based on the Orpheus myth and set in a post-apocalyptic American depression era. It started way back in 2004 or 5, a few song ideas came that were kinda weird and different and seemed to be about this particular story. At some point there were enough of them that I couldn't really ignore them, at which point I roped in my two collaborators, Michael Chorney (who wrote the orchestrations for his six piece band) and Ben Matchstick (who directed the show and wrote a lot of the visual/staging stuff). We got a bunch of our friends to sing the roles of the different characters, and pulled together the first version of the show in 2006. We knew right away we wanted to do it again and tune it up in various ways, and so we put up a second version of the show in 2007. I'm not an actress myself, so it was really challenging and nervous-making and actually really fun to be on stage with other people in a costume doing this opera. It was some of the most fun I've ever had. Everyone involved in the project was and is so inspiring and good company.
**You have traveled to a lot of places all over the world. Where have you gone? Can you tell us about an interesting traveling experience you had?**
I traveled a lot in high school and college, because my family always valued it. I think they enjoyed shipping me out to different parts of the world, and then I came to enjoy it myself; Japan, Costa Rica, Europe, the Middle East. As a musician I mostly tour the States, sometimes Canada, the UK, sometimes Europe. I love the way time slows down when you travel… I woke up this morning in a tent in rural Michigan, and I'll go to sleep in Berkeley, CA... and so the day feels long! When I was in college I studied abroad in Cairo (Egypt), and I actually did some touring with a band in the Middle East, an Iraqi-American band that was hired by the state department to tour the middle east as a sort of cultural exchange, playing 1950s rock’n roll and Arabic pop music. I just sang harmony and thumped a tambourine. We played a show in Kuwait and got to listen to these beautiful Bedouin guys playing music in a tent in the desert. They had some falcon birds with them that were wearing little tiny leather helmets. **How does it feel to come home to Vermont?** I love crossing the border from New York state and suddenly there are no billboards... you can tell right away it's Vermont. I feel calm in Vermont and I sleep better and I eat better in Vermont.
**What advice do you have for high school students?**
Oh, wow, that's a big question, hmm. Don't let anyone squash your spirit or belittle your desire, not the public school curriculum, or the weird social games people play.
**What is your favorite book?**
I guess I think you find certain books at certain times in your life that are especially magical. For me, when I read Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, it felt like the most cathartic book I’d ever read, and it made me love the world. There’s a line at the end of the book: "the world is a fine place, and worth fighting for." That I still think of sometimes... beautiful!