A-list: Anaïs Mitchell brings a deep history to the Iowa Arts Festival

Tomorrow’s folk singer Anaïs Mitchell. — photo courtesy of the artist

Anais Mitchell

Iowa Arts Festival Main Stage — Saturday, June 3 at 7 p.m.

Among the exciting national acts brought in for the Iowa Arts Festival this year is Vermont-born, Brooklyn, New York-based songwriter Anaïs Mitchell. Deeply rooted in American folk traditions, Mitchell manages a sound that is contemporary without being retro or revival — an extension of the sound, rather than a tribute to it. She is tomorrow’s folk singer.

Mitchell’s 2010 recording of her folk opera Hadestown featured an array of key voices in the genre, from Ani DiFranco to Iowa’s own Greg Brown. Mitchell continues to work on its transformation into a full stage musical; the 2016 off-Broadway production has been nominated for several awards, including the April Drama Desk Awards announcement of its nomination in the Outstanding Musical category. Her most recent record, 2014’s xoa, was the third released on her own label, Wilderland Records. Mitchell took some time just before hitting the road to answer some questions over email for Little Village.

OK, I have to get this out of the way first: When will amateur rights come available for Hadestown?

Ah! It just kills me to not be able to let other people put it on, but I’m still working hard and deep with the creative team and some awesome producers on the expanded stage show in New York. We had an off-Broadway run last year, next we’re going to Edmonton, Canada and then, well — we’re hopeful about next steps for a commercial version of the piece. I’m still working on the show — quite a bit in fact — and I’m pretty confident that what will come out at the end of all this work will be a much stronger show, which I will be thrilled to see other people put on! Long way of saying, it might be a couple years yet!

How did you come to collaborate with New York Theatre Workshop (NYTW) on Hadestown? What was that collaboration like for you, as an expansion of your work as a musician previous?

I adore NYTW — when I first met Jim Nicola (artistic director) and the rest of the folks there I had the feeling I was with family. They’re a very nurturing organization and they support a whole community of theater artists, way beyond the folks whose shows they end up producing at their theater. They also support a lot of out-of-the-box work.

The collaboration on Hadestown has been with NYTW, but also, deeply and for the past several years, with the brilliant director Rachel Chavkin, with a dramaturg named Ken Cerniglia and with Dale Franzen and Mara Isaacs, the lead producers on the show. And it’s unlike anything I’ve ever done as a songwriter — there are deadlines, and there is literally a team of people feeding back on my writing choices, in global and specific ways. I’d say it is 10 percent pain in the ass and 90 percent delightful to be so accountable to these other folks. All of them, I trust deeply, and that makes a difference.

Collaboration as a part of community is one of the cornerstones of folk music. How do you choose your collaborators? Is there anyone you haven’t worked with who’s on your radar for the future?

I work with people who inspire me! It’s as simple as that, and when artists get a mutual inspiration thing going, is when work happens that is greater than the sum of the parts. Oh my, there are many artists I would love to collaborate with. One is the theater artist Taylor Mac. Another is Randy Newman!

The beautiful record Child Ballads (2013, with Jefferson Hamer) is a deep dive into the roots of folk music, and your entire catalog is threaded with that connection to history, musically and lyrically. Are you a conscientious student of folk history? How do you place yourself in the arc of that history?

I wouldn’t say I am conscientious! I just got on a jag, really, where I started listening to a ton of 1970s overseas folksingers like Martin Carthy, Nic Jones and Paul Brady, and fell deep in love. Then I met Jefferson, who was also into these old ballads, and we put the wind in each other’s sails to make that collection. I love singing songs that are hundreds of years old. It feels ancestral.

The age-old songwriter question: Which comes first for you, a story you need to tell or a tune that you can’t shake loose?

For me it’s usually like, I think my heart contains the stories and ideas, but I almost don’t even know they’re there until a melody (or even just a chord change) comes around to give them voice. But also, sometimes it’s just an image — not a whole story, just you know, a picture of your mother looking out the kitchen window with a wine glass in her hand.

Your storytelling is steeped in the show-don’t-tell branch of the folk tradition, but politics is always dancing around the edges. Is it eerie for you listening to a song like “Why We Build the Wall” in 2017? Do you find more weight in the album Young Man in America (2012)? What’s your relationship to folk music’s political path?

I’ve always loved political music and protest music, and when I first started writing, I was up on a much more deliberate soapbox. At some point I found I couldn’t write those songs anymore, and what felt truer for me was to tell stories — leave the op-eds to the newspapers. Music is, by its very DNA, emotional — not analytical.

Where do you see U.S. folk music going in the next 10 years? What’s next for your personal musical journey?

I’m going to work on Hadestown until it goes as far as it can possibly go, then hopefully find a home for some regular songwriter songs I’ve been working on. And down the line, for sure, when I catch my breath, another musical. As for U.S. folk music? It will always be there; it will always come around. I have a 3.5 year old and I can’t wait to see what her generation starts to create when they come of age.

Iowa Arts Festival Mainstage Schedule

The Iowa Arts Festival kicks off on June 2 with an amazing lineup of musicians from a wide variety of disciplines, all at the top of their respective games (see below). This yearly tradition has been welcoming summer to Iowa City for over three decades — part street fair, part roving art gallery and, at the center, a music festival that showcases the best area talent alongside concerts from key national acts. All shows are free to the public and presented by the Iowa City nonprofit Summer of the Arts, the organization also responsible for the Friday Night Concert Series and the Free Movie Series, as well as Jazz Fest (June 30-July 2) and Soul Fest (Aug. 4-5).

Friday, June 2

7 p.m. Dave Moore
9 p.m. Son Volt

Saturday, June 3

10 a.m. Iowa City Community Band
11:30 a.m. Ace Jones
1 p.m. The Family Folk Machine w/ the Awful Purdies
2:30 p.m. The Feralings
5 p.m. The Jeremy Kittel Trio
7 p.m. Anaïs Mitchell
9 p.m. Elephant Revival

Sunday, June 4

10 a.m. Wheel Hoss
11:30 a.m. Annie Savage and Savage Hearts
1 p.m. The Evergreen Grass Band
2:45 p.m. The Jeremy Kittel Trio

Genevieve Trainor harbors not-so-secret delusions of getting to play Persephone one day. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 221.

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