In the world of rock ’n’ roll year-end lists, Anaïs Mitchell will no doubt come away as 2010’s Most Ambitious. This spring, the Vermont-born singer/songwriter released her fifth and finest album to date with Hadestown, a folk-rock opera that Mitchell has been crafting and editing since 2005. With the help of composer Michael Chorney, Mitchell weaves a beautiful and drama-filled take on the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, complete with full orchestra and a handful of folk music’s most prolific voices (Ani DiFranco, Greg Brown, the Haden Triplets, and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon all play roles).
This Saturday, Sings Like Hell presents Mitchell along with Chorney, Sean Hayes, and Thao Nguyen, and a full stage of players at the Lobero Theatre. The stop is one of just four on Mitchell’s California Sings Hadestown Tour, and while unstaged, the production promises to be a show for the record books. Mitchell recently emailed in to discuss recording, touring, and collaborating with some of folk music’s finest.
How did you first get into music-making? I played violin as a little kid and picked up guitar as a teenager under the influence of gals like Ani DiFranco, Dar Williams, Tori Amos, and the whole Lilith thing. I think I always wanted to be a kind of writer or poet, and music was one way to do that.
There’s a huge theatrical element to Hadestown. Did you grow up around a lot of theater as a kid? I remember I was in The Sound of Music as a little kid; I played the part of Marta. She had one line: “I’m going to be seven on Tuesday, and I want a pink parasol.” Also, I was in this annual new-age pageant-type show, which incorporated dance and poetry and songs around a theme. But I got very stage-shy in high school, and I wouldn’t say I’ve got a lot of skill as an actor. My dad taught screenwriting for many years, and we watched a lot of movies, which made me love that kind of storytelling. He’d always say things like, “Okay, we’re coming into the third act here,” which I hated because I’d prefer to just get lost in a story. But I appreciate his appreciation for the craft now more than ever.
You got some really notable—and really distinct—voices involved. How did each of the album’s cast members come into the fold? Ani was the first to get on board, and I owe so much to her early faith in the project—she agreed to sing the role of Persephone before she’d even heard any of the song, if I remember right! It’s because of Ani that Greg Brown agreed to join us, and I’d fantasized about him singing that part for a long time; it was so great that those two happened to be friends. Justin Vernon was kind of a cosmic thing. I’d been hunting for an Orpheus and having trouble finding one. Bon Iver’s manager reached me out of the blue to see if I wanted to open a tour for the band in Europe. I was like, are you kidding? Yes! And the very first night I heard Justin sing “Re: Stacks” in Newcastle, my heart exploded; I knew it had to be him. I’m so lucky he agreed to do it, with his crazy busy schedule. Ben Knox Miller and the rest of The Low Anthem were friends of mine from New England; we’d done a few shows. And the Haden Triplets were the only singers I hadn’t met, but [producer] Todd [Sickafoose], and my manager at the time, Slim, were very gung-ho about them, and I just adore what they did on the record.
What was the recording process like with a group this large? I was at all but one of the sessions. I’d fly to New Orleans, Eau Claire, Iowa City, and then rush back to Todd’s place in Brooklyn to sort through the files! It was like a scavenger hunt. The choral parts are sung by the original Hadestown cast, in Vermont.
Can you tell me a bit about the current tour? How did Sean Hayes and Thao Nguyen get involved? I can tell you that it is gonna be crazy! I knew I wanted to do this [California Sings Hadestown], but I’m still bending my mind around what it’s going to be like to get in a van, let alone get on a tiny stage, with 14 people, instruments, and a Great Pyrenees puppy. (Okay, the dog doesn’t come on stage.) … I’m so grateful to all the band and singers for jumping on board, and especially to Sean and Thao, who are flying from San Fran to L.A. to join us. Those guys are kinda like California cult heroes as far as I can tell. I’m a great fan of both of them, and it’ll be an honor to sing with them. Sean just became a daddy for the first time, so we’re really lucky to have him at all.
Anaïs Mitchell brings California Sings Hadestown to the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.) on Saturday, December 11, at 8 p.m. Call 963-0761 or visit lobero.com for tickets.