2. Anaïs Mitchell
Hometown: Montpelier, Vt.
For Fans Of: Bon Iver, Ani DiFranco, The Decemberists
Illustration by Zela Lobb
Twenty-nine-year-old singer/songwriter Anaïs Mitchell lives in a little house in western Vermont where she tends her fire, writes songs and occasionally gets a wild hair to do something like, say, mastermind a full-on stage musical, set in a post-apocalyptic company town, that re-imagines the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice.
That’s what she did in 2005, at least, with the help of a few old friends, local musician/composer Michael Chorney and director Ben T. Matchstick. The show was called Hadestown—named after the Greek god of the underworld, from whom the poet Orpheus must rescue his young bride Eurydice—and it premiered in late 2006 with a hometown cast working on just two weeks of rehearsal. After a few years of obsessive revisions, in 2009 Mitchell assembled a cast of new friends—including Ani DiFranco, Midwestern folkster Greg Brown, Ben Knox Miller from The Low Anthem and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon—to record a full-on album version of her “folk opera,” which will finally see light outside of Vermont in March.
Mitchell hopped around the country to record each art- ist’s individual vocal tracks, once doing a whirlwind 24-hours in Wisconsin with Vernon, driving 10 hours to record Brown in Iowa City, then shuttling to Minneapolis and flying back to her producer Todd Sickafoose’s studio in Brooklyn. She was too grateful for their contributions to really mind the travel, she says, though she admits “it’s kind of like a crazy wet dream to imagine all those singers in the same studio, kind of like ‘We are the World.’”
If everyone’s schedules agree, Mitchell says she’d “love nothing more” than to perform the album onstage with the full cast this spring. In the meantime, she’s working on her fourth proper solo album, which she expects will have a less direct narrative than Hadestown, but could play on some of the same ancient tensions and archetypes. “You don’t have to make something out of nothing,” she says. “There are echos of things, and they’re echoing and echoing back as long as we can remember.”—Rachael Maddux
Hometown: Rock Island, Ill.
Album: Catching a Tiger
For Fans Of: Emmylou Harris, Neko Case, Band of Horses
photo by Ewen Spencer
Lissie Maurus, the singer/songwriter who performs under her first name, owes much of her recent notoriety to her live covers of songs like Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance and Kid Cudi’s Pursuit of Happiness, which are as notable for their unexpectedly sublime execution as they are for being so removed from the folky milieu she seems to inhabit. She could easily get pegged as the big-voiced-white-girl-with-a-guitar-who-does-ironic-covers, but the songs are rendered with such obvious, kitsch-less affection that they complicate the whole idea of her.
Two years ago, Lissie moved from Rock Island, Ill., to Los Angeles, then escaped L.A. for nearby Ojai. She lives there with her Lhasa Apso, Byron, in a little bungalow where she writes songs and plays house. “I’ve been being super domestic and making pies and cooking a ton,” says the cornsilk-haired 27-year-old, who performs under her first name. When she saw signs for a recent chili cook-off in town, she thought, “You know, I might as well enter that,” and then spent weeks rigorously testing her recipe. “I would take chili to the grocery store and have the guys at the butcher shop taste it and tell me what was missing,” she says. “Like, ‘It needs more garlic. It needs more spice.’”
That’s pretty much how Lissie approaches music, too—headlong and with a little help from her friends. She started playing in Rock Island coffeehouses as a teenager and later gave college a try, but writing songs had her snared. Then, through an ex-boyfriend, she met Band of Horses bassist Bill Reynolds. At home in Ojai, in London with Ed Harcourt and with some of Reynolds’ bandmates in Asheville, N.C., the pair recorded her first EP, Why You Runnin’, released in November. The five tracks revel in pure, countrified sorrow, with Lissie’s glorious voice steeped in whiskey and reverb on raucous lead single “Little Lovin’” and plaintive hometown ballad “Oh Mississippi”—a haunting glimpse at what’s in store for her full-length debut, coming in 2010.
Her maiden chili-cook-off attempt fared less well (she didn’t even place, and suspects local nepotism) though she stuck with a tried-and-true formula. “You start with something kind of basic that’s an expression of yourself,” she says. “And it’s the little, tiny accents that make it really good.”—Rachael Maddux