Spotlight: Anaïs Mitchell

Ryan Reed on July 26, 2022
Spotlight: Anaïs Mitchell

photo credit: Jay Sansone


“I’d been carrying  that phrase ‘I wanna live in the real world’ around for a long time,” Anaïs Mitchell says. “It seemed to take on a new meaning because of the pandemic.”

She’s reflecting on “Real World,” the most intimate song on her self-titled eighth LP— it’s a warmly fingerpicked folk tune that yearns for tangible connection (“real birds singing,” “real grass,” “real clouds rolling past the pastures,” “real feelings”), in the face of whatever obstacles seem to be preventing it. In this case, the challenges were obvious—as was the solution.

When the pandemic hit New York in March 2020, the singer-songwriter was nine months pregnant “in a city where suddenly it felt unsafe to even walk into a grocery store.” Not wanting to give birth in such an anxiety-inducing space “or go through some sort of hermetically sealed postpartum period,” she took a bold leap, moving to her family farm in Vermont and embracing an entirely new life.

In recent years, the big city had changed everything: Hadestown, her original musical adaptation the ancient Greek legend of Orpheus and Eurydice, moved from Off-Broadway to Broadway itself, even winning Best Musical and Best Original Score at the 2019 Tony Awards.

Suddenly, after fleeing New York, Mitchell found herself in a drastically different world, complete with a new baby, a new (yet old) setting and a cleared schedule due to postponed dates. She was inspired by her new surroundings: “It did open up a world for our kids. To see our older kid just running across the fields, to be surrounded by family—we decided to stay.” Plus, there was time for new music.

Two months before leaving New York, Mitchell had released her first album as part of the folk trio Bonny Light Horseman, also featuring producer[1]songwriter Josh Kaufman and Fruit Bats mastermind Eric D. Johnson. But she hadn’t released a solo LP since 2014’s Xoa, a blend of new and rerecorded tunes. Embracing her situation, she joined a “song-a-day” writing club featuring some members affiliated with 37d03d, a collective formed by Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and The National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner—and she was inspired by the sense of “creative accountability.”

“I found it radically healing, as someone who tends to overthink things a ton,” she says. “It’s funny that a ‘deadline’ could feel so freeing because you just don’t have time to second[1]guess whatever passes through your heart and hands on that day. It’s the ultimate ‘yes and’ experiment.” (That process led her to write “Real World” “in an hour or two”—which, she adds, “is not how I roll.”)

After refining enough song ideas, she ventured to Dreamland Recording Studios near Woodstock, N.Y., recruiting an all-star cast that included Kaufman as her producer and multi-instrumentalist, Bon Iver’s Michael Lewis on bass and saxophone, JT Bates on drums, Aaron Dessner on electric guitar and Thomas Bartlett on keyboards. The positivity flowing through Dreamland, a former church, led to most of the material being recorded live as a unit. And her versatile bandmate Kaufman—who’s worked with everyone from Bob Weir to Interpol’s Paul Banks and Taylor Swift—was crucial in fostering that spirit.

“Josh creates such a warm and loving room,” Mitchell says. “Really, I feel he creates the conditions under which everyone can bring their fullest musical selves. I know part of his approach for this record was wanting to make sure the storytelling remained front and center, so there’s a kind of melodic restraint in the arrangements. But their sum total is, I find, super lush. The [Nico Muhly string and flute arrangements] are the only thing that happened after the fact— that is, everything else was the organic result of everyone in the room’s ideas and Josh’s spirit guidance.”

Despite the abundance of elite players at her disposal, Mitchell managed to keep the arrangements tight, always highlighting—and never clouding—the words. A perfect example is “Brooklyn Bridge,” on which suspended strings and Lewis’ breathy sax add an ethereal glow to her tale of space-specific longing.

“I started writing that song when I still lived in New York and kind of abandoned it because it felt overly sentimental or something,” she says. “But as soon as I left the city, I was like, ‘Fuck it; this is how I feel.’ New York is a mythical city for me—a place full of dreams, ambition and camaraderie. It’s a distillation of a lot of cab rides. In particular, I remember riding over that bridge with the director of Hadestown, Rachel Chavkin, after long days and nights of rehearsing. You know what that feels like—to want everything at once in the back of a cab.”

After a long delay due to the pandemic, Mitchell also found time to regroup with her Bonny Light bandmates. In the spring of 2021, the three musicians and their growing families reconvened in Upstate New York to begin working on their sophomore release. They continued to chip away on some new, collaborative ideas during subsequent sessions at Aaron Dessner’s Long Pond studio and Dreamland and, eventually, hit the road for a mix of dates, including shows with Mitchell’s solo group. The resulting collection of all-original material, Rolling Golden Holy is slated for release in October.

And, now, roughly four months after issuing Anaïs Mitchell, the singer has actually been able to bring her project full circle—performing songs that wouldn’t have existed, at least not now, without the winding road that led her here.

“Let’s just say it feels like a miracle to be playing in front of people at all after so much time away, both because of the pandemic and because I kinda pumped everything into Hadestown for a few years,” she says. “It’s an extraordinary gift to be able to do this for a living—to share music, to share poetry, to share your feelings. It is a gift to be able to be vulnerable in front of people and for people to be able to gather in a room together for that express purpose. [I’m] so grateful.”