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Encore: 'Hadestown' creator Anaïs Mitchell's solo album looks back to reach forward

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

You might know Anais Mitchell from her musical that's set in hell.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CHANT")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (As characters, singing) Low, keep your head, keep your head low.

CHANG: It's called "Hadestown." It won her eight Tony Awards and a Grammy. And now she's got another Grammy nomination for a song called "Bright Star" from her self-titled album. Around this time last year, I spoke with Anais Mitchell about making that very album.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ANAIS MITCHELL: We left New York in a rush. I was nine months pregnant when the pandemic really started to heat up in New York City, and I just didn't want to give birth in the city. And so we packed all of our things in a van. We drove to Vermont and had the baby one week later.

CHANG: They moved to the sheep farm where Mitchell had grown up and into the house where her grandparents used to live.

MITCHELL: I had a lot of childhood memories 'cause I grew up in and out of that house. I'd picture, like, the sound of my grandma's sewing machine and my grandpa's, like, watching football on TV and there's something cooking in the kitchen. And I felt like I had access to that again in a weird way.

CHANG: Mitchell began to spin those memories into songs. And now she's out with a new, self-titled album, her first collection of solo music since 2012.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BRIGHT STAR")

MITCHELL: (Singing) Bright star, I'm home now from my roaming. I'm alone now in the gloaming with the ships out in the yard.

When I first moved into my grandma's house, I found this box. And it had my old journals from high school and college.

CHANG: (Laughter) Oh, my God.

MITCHELL: And I read them, and I actually burned some of them because they were so (laughter) embarrassing.

CHANG: No way.

MITCHELL: Yeah.

CHANG: You set fire to your own words?

MITCHELL: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It's OK.

CHANG: (Laughter).

MITCHELL: This - the world is fine without them. But I did run into a lot of objects, like all of these correspondences I had with my grandma when my grandma would write me letters. And I wrote this one song on the record called "Revenant" that really feels like it's about my grandma. It's also about myself as a child and a kind of return to that space.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REVENANT")

MITCHELL: (Singing) Read your letters all again - coffee rings and a ballpoint pen - tear stains every now and then - I remember what they meant - revenant.

CHANG: Can I ask, what did you learn when you were reading your grandmother's old letters? Did you learn anything new about her?

MITCHELL: The thing about my grandma, she was an incredible correspondent. She would write letters every morning, and I was just one of many people that she wrote letters to. And she was just someone who was very tuned in to the details. If she'd been to a party, she would describe the hors d'oeuvres, you know, and then she'd say so-and-so was wearing, you know, a persimmon-colored blouse with a (laughter) - you know?

CHANG: Wow.

MITCHELL: She was very...

CHANG: She was quite the writerly spirit.

MITCHELL: She was. And she wasn't a writer by profession. It was - you know, she was really a homemaker and a sort of community member. But she brought so much creativity to that role.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "REVENANT")

MITCHELL: (Singing) Come and let me hold you in my arms. Come and get my shoulder wet and warm. Come and show me what it is you want.

CHANG: Did writing this album - I mean, because there is such a sense of place infused throughout this album - did writing it in your grandparents' old house, in the place where you grew up, did it help you understand your own childhood in a different way?

MITCHELL: Yeah. There's a lot on this record kind of about growing up. There's a song on the record called "Backroads"...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BACKROADS")

MITCHELL: (Singing) I recall small town stars, the radio tower in the reservoir.

...Which I started writing as really, like, a just pure nostalgia piece about growing up in Vermont. It's about young love. It was about my first boyfriend. And it's about going to a party in the woods, like, drinking some beers, you know, and a tailgate in the woods and the police come and you just throw your cans of beer (laughter) into the woods and run.

And I was in the middle of writing that song, and it was a - you know, purely this nostalgia song when George Floyd was killed and the Black Lives Matter protests began to really surge in the summer of 2020. And it just suddenly became so clear that I was writing a song of white privilege. It was just so clear, you know, that, like, that my experience of growing up with this freedom and this sense that I was a rebel of some kind or that I was living on some kind of edge when, in fact, I was completely encircled by caring adults, you know, that...

CHANG: Yeah.

MITCHELL: ...Were there to keep me safe, you know?

CHANG: Who would forgive you and cut you some slack if you did get in trouble...

MITCHELL: Exactly.

CHANG: ...Maybe even with the law.

MITCHELL: Yeah - and just the reality that that's not the experience of a Black kid growing up in this country. So there were a lot of ways in which that wasn't the only song where I felt like coming back to my hometown, I see how small it is, you know? It's when you're growing up in that town, it's the whole world, and you think this is how life is; this is how the country is; this is how the world is. And then, having the perspective on it, I take less for granted about the...

CHANG: Yeah.

MITCHELL: ...Way that I was raised.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BACKROADS")

MITCHELL: (Singing) Different cop on the same night stopped a kid about a taillight. Somebody thought it didn't look right - might as well have said he didn't look white...

CHANG: Well, I love how so much of this album reminisces about your earlier self, and I had read that writing it was sort of like an escape pod - that's your words - from the years and years you had spent working on the musical "Hadestown." Can you tell me, what were you escaping from when you went to Vermont back in March 2020, back to where you were from?

MITCHELL: For me, I was living for many years like I was in the woods, you know, as if I was just putting one foot in front of the other working on this musical, which I loved and was obsessed with. But it was just my entire creative life. My, like...

CHANG: Yeah.

MITCHELL: ...Every waking day was just spent trying to perfect this thing so we could get it to Broadway. And it was almost like once it got to Broadway, I didn't know what to do with myself until I found myself in Vermont with this just whole new milieu and just out of context entirely. So I found it was really like a reconnection with what it is to write a song where you just are following the song wherever it wants to go.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANAIS MITCHELL SONG, "BROOKLYN BRIDGE")

CHANG: Well, it has been almost two years since the pandemic began and since you left New York City. I'm curious, does the city feel or seem different to you now when you're looking at it from afar?

MITCHELL: You know, there's one song on this album called "Brooklyn Bridge," and it's the first song on the record. And I started writing that song when I was living in Brooklyn, and I somehow - like, I couldn't let myself write it. It felt like it was an over-romanticization (laughter) of Brooklyn or of New York. And I was living there, and...

CHANG: And no one's ever done that - over-romanticized New York City.

(LAUGHTER)

MITCHELL: Exactly. There was something about leaving the city and putting it behind me that I felt I was able to give in to, kind of give over to these just mythic feelings about New York, which it is. You know, you...

CHANG: Yes.

MITCHELL: I was living in it, so it was my home. But it also has always been - it's a city of dreams, you know, a city of ambitions. And I love, like, the way in which one person, you know, one artist, any person riding in the backseat of a cab across those bridges can have that, like, epic feeling (laughter) about their life and that at that same moment, there's, like, hundreds of other people having that experience, you know?

CHANG: Yeah, totally.

MITCHELL: There's a line in the song that's like, I want to be someone. I want to be one in a million. And it's like, in New York City, there's a million people who feel that way.

CHANG: (Laughter) You're never alone and yet sometimes so alone.

MITCHELL: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BROOKLYN BRIDGE")

MITCHELL: (Singing) I want to be once in a lifetime.

CHANG: That was singer and songwriter Anais Mitchell. Her self-titled album came out a year ago. Her song "Bright Star" is up for a Grammy Award for best American roots song on Sunday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ailsa Chang
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Noah Caldwell
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Sarah Handel
[Copyright 2024 NPR]