From Hadestown to Bonny Light Horseman, Anaïs Mitchell Turns Old Stories into New Art

Music Features Anais Mitchell
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From <i>Hadestown</i> to Bonny Light Horseman, Anaïs Mitchell Turns Old Stories into New Art

Back in 2010, one of my favorite albums was a folk-rock opera from a relative newcomer Anaïs Mitchell—an epic tale featuring Greek gods set in the post-Apocalyptic south, starring Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, Mitchell, Ani DiFranco, Greg Brown and Ben Knox Miller. But Hadestown was written as a musical and performed on stage years before it became an album—a journey that came full circle when it landed on Broadway last year, dominating the Tony Awards with eight wins and 14 nominations. The Broadway version hews pretty closely to the original vision with a cast that includes Reeve Carney as Opheus, Eva Noblezada as Eurydice, Amber Gray as Persephone and André De Shields, who steals the show as Hermes.

But while shepherding Hadestown’s 14-year journey, Mitchell remained active in the folk scene, releasing three follow-up solo albums and collaborating with other musicians like Sheryl Crow and Rosanne Cash. Her newest project, Bonny Light Horseman, is another collaboration—this time with Fruit Bats frontman Eric Johnson and Josh Kauffman, who’s played with a number of different artists including Josh Ritter and Bob Weir. The trio has reworked several centuries-old songs for an eponymous album, out Friday on 37d03d Records. We caught up with Mitchell via email on all her various projects.

Paste: Where did the original idea for Hadestown come from?

Anaïs Mitchell: I can’t say I had a grand plan at the beginning. I was driving in my car and some lyrics dropped out of the sky that seemed to be about the Orpheus & Eurydice story. But once I got deeper in, I was inspired by the idea of this young, pure-hearted artist who goes into the belly of the corporate-bureacratic beast and believes he can change the way the world is. As a songwriter, I was also excited to explore what was possible with longer-form storytelling.

Paste: I loved this album back when it came out back in 2010, but I have to admit to being very pleasantly surprised nearly a decade later when I heard it was headed to Broadway. Can you describe that long journey from theater to album to reworking the play to Broadway debut and becoming a Tony winner?

Mitchell: A lot of people don’t realize that Hadestown actually began as a stage show even before the studio album! It was a DIY project in the state of Vermont where I used to live, a bunch of friends coming together to make the show happen. It was a much more abstract version of the piece, with less material, but it was always meant to be a dramatic performance (not just a “song cycle”). After the album came out in 2010, I toured for a couple years with a concert-version of the piece, but I always wanted to develop it further for the theatrical stage. It took a while to find the right creative and producing partners to do that. I started working with the director Rachel Chavkin in 2013, and it was three full years before we got a production off-Broadway. We had subsequent productions in Edmonton and London before coming to Broadway in 2019. That’s how long it took to figure out how to take this out-of-the-box, very music-led piece, and make it dramatically satisfying on the big stage. There was a ton of rewriting, large and small, and re-thinking different production elements. A lot of times, on the writing front, it was a question of taking songs that felt “finished” from a musical standpoint and exploding them in various ways, adding intros, bridges and interludes, outros—so that they contained dramatic results, revelations, the sense that we’ve “arrived” someplace new at the end of the song/scene.

Paste: The play follows the original album pretty closely, but one big addition is with the expanded role of Hermes. André De Shields seems like he was born to play that role and was just so charismatic on stage. As a writer, what’s it like to see your characters come alive like that on stage?

Mitchell: Andre is a force of nature. A true showman, and also truly authentic. It’s easy to see him as a “god.” As a writer, it’s just fascinating to see how actors make material their own in ways you could never predict. I also love how Andre, and actors in general, can bring so much meaning and texture to the space between words, phrases. A pause can be as meaningful as a line.

It’s true of both songwriting and playwriting that the writer is building a house for others to inhabit. The house doesn’t exist unless others inhabit it.

Paste: One of the best examples I can think of the timeless qualities of your songs is “Why We Build the Wall,” which sounds like a response to Trump but was written a decade before he was elected. What inspired that song?

Mitchell: That was one of the quickest songs I’ve ever written, and anyone who knows me will tell you I’m a very slow writer. It almost wrote itself. But I do remember, at the time, I was thinking about the trends of the planet warming, climate crises, and the migration of people. Trends which obviously existed then (I wrote the song in 2006) and have only intensified since. My thought was, when there are thousands of desperate, displaced people seeking higher ground, knocking at the door of the places of relative wealth and security, who among the relatively wealthy/secure is not going to feel scared? Is not going to wish to be behind a wall of some kind? The conditions exist already, we just aren’t always face-to-face with them.

Paste: I can’t imagine the time that you’ve devoted to Hadestown over the course of the last 14 years, but you’ve got a brand-new project now—Bonny Light Horseman. How did you and Eric [Johnson] and Josh [Kaufman] all come together?

Mitchell: It felt like Bonny Light Horseman was the one thing I could devote creative energy to, over the last couple years when I was really in the trenches of Hadestown for London and Broadway. It’s been a very intuitive project, and restorative somehow, to be working with this traditional material that is hundreds of years old. I had been a quiet fan of Josh’s playing and producing for a few years so I jumped at the chance to make a one-off track with him and Kate Stables of This Is The Kit (the indie label Brassland put us together, and we had a great time covering the Ghanaian band Osibisa’s “Woyaya” together). Josh and I found we both shared a passion for British Isles trad music, and started messing around with some songs. Josh and Eric have been friends for years, and I had recently discovered and fallen in love with Fruit Bats when Josh suggested we see if Eric wanted to play w/ this music as well. So that’s how it started!

Paste: Justin Vernon was Orpheus on the album, and his 37do3d community with Aaron Dessner were early champions of your new band—both of them play on the new album. Both you and Vernon seem passionate about the concept of collaboration in music. What has that meant to you?

Mitchell: You know, Justin and Aaron had heard we were working on this collaboration and invited us to play a set at the Eaux Claires fest in 2018 before we even had a band name or any music. It was a leap of faith on their part and was really important to us to have an occasion to rise to like that! Soon after that we got to take part in their 37d03d residency in Berlin, which is where we recorded half of our album. They’re up to something super interesting and necessary with the 37d03d stuff. As far as I can tell it really has to do with fostering a community that is helping each other get back to the sort of, childlike, beginner’s mind of what it is to make music and art, separate from whatever “identity” one has forged for oneself in the context of “selling” that music/art. Does that make sense? So new directions, new collaborations are really supported, as well as the idea of making art for its own sake, honoring the process rather than obsessing about the product. There’s a real beauty in letting go of notions of the self, the margins the self, and merging with others musically. Like everyone standing in the same river, or acting together as separate lightning rods for the same current.

Paste: Like Hadestown, Bonny Light Horseman draws on history and themes that remain universal and timeless. What is it that attracts you to old songs?

Mitchell: I often find old songs, stories and imagery wildly compelling. I love the sense that, whatever it is we’re going through, individually or as a society, we aren’t alone, it’s been experienced before, and there’s a song about it. The truth is that everything, every song, every story, stands on the back of what came before it. The veil between “creating” and “interpreting” is very thin.

Paste: Where did you look for the source material of these songs? Who was doing all the research for these tracks?

Mitchell: All three of us love trad music and come at it from different angles. I’d say Josh and Eric may have more exposure than I do to the kind of bigger, improvisational bands that have taken inspiration from trad music, like the Dead, the Byrds, Zeppelin, etc. I tend to have come to the songs either orally, like having heard someone sing them live in my weird hippie childhood in Vermont, or via the very spare, one-voice-one-guitar folksingers like Martin Carthy and Nic Jones. And the process of working on these songs for BLH has been very sort of, heart-led, we’ve wanted to find songs we felt we could crawl all the way inside of emotionally, like one thing Josh said early on was that he didn’t want BLH to feel like a “research project.” So we’ve tended towards love and love-loss stories, though there are other themes on the record. We’ve also been pretty un-precious, unconcerned about whether we were simply coming up with an arrangement of an existing trad song (like “Jane Jane”), or setting trad text to new music (Like “Magpie’s Nest”), or reimagining a trad theme to the extent that it begins to become “original” (like “Mountain Rain”). Like I said—the veil is thin!

Paste: Finally, what does 2020 look like for you? I know you’ve got your own personal big news as well as with the band?

Mitchell: It’s true, when this release and touring is done, we’re expecting a baby at the end of March! Our six-year-old has been asking for a sibling ever since she figured out there was such a thing as a sibling :). I’m so glad and grateful and humbled to be doing it again… words can’t really express it. Other than that, I’m excited to be making regular old music again after that long chapter in the theater!

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