Non-linear poetry: Folk darling Anais Mitchell brings her opera to town

For rising star Anais Mitchell, everything just clicked. From her rose-colored upbringing–- the daughter of an English professor and writer, given every opportunity to explore her creative passions–- to her artistic growth under the mentorship of folk rock icon Ani DiFranco, Mitchell's work has been given every opportunity to succeed.

And succeed it has, with her 2010 release of Hadestown, a folk opera rendition of the classic Orpheus myth garnering extraordinarily high praise (nine stars out of ten from the influential NME).

Yet Mitchell remains far from a diva. Her success on Hadestown was shared with a nearly 22-person cast, and the subsequent tour features artists from each town she visits. For this 30-year-old Vermonter, the emphasis remains on the stories she tells through her work, the friendships she makes along the way, and the poetry of her music.

"It's never as rosy on the inside as it appears," she laughs. "I feel really lucky to be able to be do what I love for money. In this day and age, that's huge."

The Hook: Tell us about Hadestown. What's it like?
Anais Mitchell: Hadestown is a Depression-era company time, a place of exploitation. The clunky iron, the train, the hobos, the dirt, mining– all of those images made their way into the show.

The Hook: How did you– a very feminine, poetic writer– pull off that grimy, dirty tale?
AM: I was really into The Threepenny Opera, that kind of street-scene opera. The idea of the underworld as a bureaucracy had a big impression on me.

The Hook: You often describe yourself as a writer before a singer– was that fully realized in writing an entire opera?
AM: This was my chance to write songs that I wouldn't have to sing myself, so it was pretty exciting. And when the guest singers were added in, in was like holy sh*t, Ani DiFranco's going to sing this song; gotta make it good for her.

The Hook: So are you a storyteller?
AM: There was a time when I was trying to write a lot of political songs in college, on my 2004 record. I was a political science major, into early Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, and just feeling so alienated by what was going on politically then. Then I realized I could tell a story rather than get up on some soap box.

The Hook: Victorian writer Thomas Carlyle said that thoughts are poetry of the mind. Does that resonate?
AM: Songs are not linear in the way many poems are; they come back around, they have a chorus, come again and again to the same thought– that's how my brain works. I love that with music you can get away with some nonsensical stuff.

The Hook: Is that how your writing process works?
AM: I don't go into the writing of the song, or even the writing of Hadestown, with a grand plan. The line comes and then you follow it into the darkness and see where it goes. It's kind of a painstaking process, but I'm feeling my way, and I will knock on the wrong door for so long until I realize it's never going to open and move on from there. I've also thought that there's a fever dream aspect to writing. You first wake up and are like, what does that mean? But you know it means something, and without that mystery, you wouldn't have the heart to be writing at all.
Anais Mitchell, joined by Devon Sproule, Paul Curreri, Carleigh Nesbit, and more, performs Hadestown Thursday, February 17, at The Southern. Doors open at 8pm, and tickets are $12 in advance, $15 at the door.

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