Anais Mitchell is a folk singer, tried and true. The Vermont native's disarming voice and young age (23) belie the fact that her songs hit deep, using literary flair to read between the sensationalist surface lines. Whether discussing the state of the union on "1984" or that of herself and her place on "I Wear Your Dress," both on last year's "Hymns for the Exiled" (Waterbug), she cuts to the core, yet maintains melody to balance the song and message.
But when Mitchell visits Nietzsche's on Saturday, splitting a bill with local friends Greg Klyma and Tom Stahl, she'll do so as an artist looking to transcend the folk genre. Already in town to record with Klyma, she took some time out to break it down.
Your songs manage to inform and inspire without sticking a finger in anyone's face - is it your goal to stray from prose that preaches?
In the last year I got really into writing political songs, but I've always been wary of dogmatic-sounding political writing. I always thought political songs could be a form of journalism, that could humanize a story, whereas in the news it's more clinical. But it's a fine line. I took a lot of inspiration from Bob Dylan's early ballads, like "The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll" and "Who Killed Davy Moore" that explore many sides of an event, as opposed to beating over the head with one aspect.
Those songs of Dylan's put such life into stories he took from newspapers. Is that what inspired your song "Quecreek Flood?"
Definitely, it's about the Pennsylvania mining disaster of a few years ago. I look at the angles of the miners, their boss, the press and the president's ridiculous victory speech when they made it out alive.
They'd tied themselves together so that they either all came out alive or drowned together, and the president said that this was the American spirit of unity.
The truth is that the union had been busted and the mining conditions were really dangerous, and they wouldn't have been in that situation had the union been united. But the media wasn't that interested in that part of the story. It's a vicious cycle - like do people really like cheesy pop music, or do they just listen to it because it's what's served to them?
You've had great success within the folk scene - do you have any desire to hit the mainstream and upgrade pop music a little?
I'm hoping to make another album late this summer, and it will have a lot of love songs that have, in a sense, more accessibility. But it wasn't deliberate, it's just what's coming through the heart.
Do you grow tired of you and every other young woman with an acoustic guitar and left-leaning mentality being compared to Ani DiFranco?
To an extent, but listening to Ani is what got me started writing songs. I was about 13 or 14 when "Not a Pretty Girl" came out - it was so raw and so powerful.
I remember going to a show and hearing her talk about Woody Guthrie and coming to the music of Utah Phillips through Righteous Babe. She sort of placed herself along the continuum of political folk singers, and because of loving her, I went back to listening to more of the older stuff. It's important to us younger righteous babes to know that we can look, sound and smell different and still be folk singers.
- Seamus Gallivan, Special to The News