Anaïs Mitchell and Bonny Light Horseman kick off tour in Iowa City

Anaïs Mitchell with Bonny Light Horseman

Friday, Feb. 4 at 7:30 pm, Englert Theatre, Iowa City, $20-45

Anaïs Mitchell, photo courtesy of the artist

After performing in the Iowa Arts Festival in 2017, singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell is back in Iowa City, kicking off her tour with Bonny Light Horseman at the Englert Theatre. Her recently released self-titled album, the first after a decade of work on the Tony Award-winning musical Hadestown, is a quiet, intimate return to a familiar indie folk sound. But instead of folk tales or sprawling mythologies, Mitchell turns inward, reflecting on her time in Brooklyn and New York City and growing up in Vermont.

Along with Eric Johnson and Josh Kaufman, Mitchell formed the impromptu trio Bonny Light Horseman. Their debut album, released shortly before the pandemic began, reworks folk music from the British isles and Appalachia, touching on the Napoleonic Wars to John Henry to traditional Black spirituals.

Before the official start of their tour, Mitchell answered questions via email for Little Village.

How was Bonny Light Horseman formed, and how has the group evolved over the years?

Josh Kaufman and I started messing around with some traditional music together a few years ago when we were both living in Brooklyn. I had just discovered Eric’s band Fruit Bats, and so when Josh suggested that we ask Eric to join our project it felt very kismet. We all have a deep love for traditional music, British Isles music, folk rock, though we come at it from different angles. We had basically just formed as a band (didn’t even have a band name) when Justin Vernon and Aaron Dessner said, “Hey, we heard you’re working on new project, do you want to play a set at our festival and then come to this artist residency?” We said yes, and then it all became very real because we had to come up with a name and a set’s worth of songs.

How will BLH’s upcoming album differ from the debut album?

Our first self-titled LP is all based on or inspired by traditional songs. Some songs are straight interpretation, and some we added a lot of our own ideas to. But especially in terms of text, it was very trad. Our forthcoming album (fall of this year) is original songs we co-wrote, but they’re meant to be in conversation with the trad stuff. We’re after songs that are kind of — “unstuck in time” to quote Vonnegut.

Why did you all choose traditional British folk, in addition to American folk, for the first album?

I think we all just have a genuine passion for that overseas music, the slightly exotic, modal, epic language of it. … We also love American folk, and I think our new record leans a little more toward that American sound.

How did you get involved with Big Red Machine, and what was it like collaborating on How Long Do You Think It’s Gonna Last?

I’ve been a friend of Justin Vernon’s for many years, though I only met Aaron Dessner in the last few. Those guys (and Bryce Dessner too) have been very magical presences in my life in terms of opening doors in my creativity and my sense of what is possible. I loved working on the Big Red Machine record which was like a tapestry that each of us only knew one small corner of, until the thing was done and we could all hear it as a whole. I’m just wildly inspired by Aaron and Justin’s lightning rod style inspiration and commitment to exploration and collaboration.

How has it felt returning to folk music after working for years on Broadway? Do you feel that you have a new perspective on the genre?

It’s been a pure joy writing regular “songwriter songs” again after many years of the intense rewriting of Hadestown. It’s fascinating to just be open to following a song wherever it wants to go and trying to stay out of the way of it.

How is writing a solo album different from writing for stage? Are you planning to write another musical in the future?

Writing for the stage, and writing character songs and stories in general, you get to dress up in the clothing of other characters, take on other voices. You gain access to these larger than life feelings, larger than life images. There’s freedom in that, but also, every single line of text in a piece of drama has to serve the drama, move the plot along, develop the characters … So that’s quite a net to play with. Writing this particular solo album was a real exercise in honesty for me. These songs are all in my own voice, and the stories are my own stories. So it was all about how to say something that was true for me, that lives in that vulnerable place in my body that makes me wanna cry, but hopefully also, that feels like it might intersect with other people’s experience, and in that sense be kind of mythic or universal.

“Writing this particular solo album was a real exercise in honesty for me.”

Were you conscious of the environmental subtext while you were first writing the concept album version of Hadestown, or did that come in later while you were adapting it for stage?

The themes of climate change go way back to the earliest versions of the show. There’s something that felt so intuitive about the pairs of opposites in the show, the underworld which is sheltered and sort of suffocating, and the above-ground world which is under the open sky, so there’s freedom there, but you’re also at the mercy of the elements, the unpredictable weather and seasons. We also have Hades who represents death and wealth, especially the riches that we mine from under the ground, and Persephone who represents nature and the balance of the seasons. These pairs of opposites were always there, but I think I/we leaned further and further into them as the show developed. There’s that line in “Chant” that goes “his black gold flows in the world down below / and her dark clouds roll in the one up above.” It summed up the way in which the troubled marriage of the gods spelled trouble for the whole world.

How has the pandemic changed live music for you, both as a performer and audience member?

Oh, I almost don’t even know how to talk about how profoundly difficult it’s been for live performance of any kind. And I think we all made sense of the first year of the pandemic, like made it make sense of some kind in our lives, made a narrative about it, and the fact that we’re entering the third year of this thing and it’s STILL hard … it’s messy, it’s hard to make sense of. And this is true for audiences as well as performers. The other side of the coin, I guess, is that we sure don’t take the magic of gathering and singing for granted anymore. It’s a precious ritual.

What are you most excited for on the tour?

I can’t wait to play with these incredibly deep friends and players. It truly feels like a miracle for which I’m very grateful!

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