Every now and then, artists will get one of those ideas — the kinds of ideas we like to refer to as “concepts.” When these floating, surreal concepts are integrated into the music world, they often intersect the line that separates genius and madness.
Enter Anais Mitchell to challenge everything you thought you knew about the infamous concept by tackling the vaguely familiar and giving it new breath. The result is Hadestown, a folk-opera that tells the Greek romance and tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice. Of course, there are unexpected twists, surprising guest appearances, and the entire thing takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, but even that broad description undermines the effort as a whole.
Rising from the harsh climate of rural Vermont, Anais reaffirms that folk music still has solid roots and a porous skin through which to absorb its world. Straight from humble beginnings: her parents were intellectually inclined and consciously cut off from the fast-paced modernization of the world; Anais was brought up in the folk spirit. Even today, she continues to live the “simple” life in an antique Vermont farmhouse. When asked about this unique experience, she gave the gritty details of how the environment shaped her and her raw style of artistry: “It’s not like living in a metaphor or a video game, and I’m prone to that; prone to getting in my head too much…but in Vermont it’s real. It’s really freezing cold, it really is chicken shit on your boots, and your neighbor comes over and really does need you to jump their truck or whatever. It pulls me out of my head.”
Whatever it does, it’s working.
Anais not only digs the farm life for her inspiration, but pulls her influences from an expanse of greats and classics held dear to the hearts of folkies, the likes of which few good record collections are complete without: Dylan, Joni, Cohen, and Randy Newman. Anais adds, “I came of age, musically, with a lot of powerful female role models like Ani DiFranco, Dar Williams, Tori Amos, and the Lilith Fair thing. Those women were so expressive, they really stirred me up. I wanted to spill my guts like that.”
The end result is precisely that: guttural and stirring.
Filtering through the back pages of the music scene, Anais Mitchell’s first major record, Hymns for the Exiled, was released in 2004, followed in 2007 by The Brightness. Both are excellent albums; however, it’s her latest effort, Hadestown, which captivates the imagination in the way only an artist can.
Hadestown takes the stage as a folk opera that sings the age-old and timeless story of Orpheus like you’ve never heard it before. Taking place in a post-apocalyptic world, Hadestown embodies the Grecian tragedy with a modernized twist. The songs were written during the era of Bush Jr. and contain a faint echo of those uncertain eight years. Anais says, “There’s a dark political streak in Hadestown…the underworld as this place of wealth, security, but also numbness, loss of freedom, lifelessness.”
The album is a work of extensive, fantastic freshness that is very welcome in today’s often stagnant music scene. It’s entertaining as well as idealistic, which needs to be heard to have its other worldliness understood — the production just lives and breathes. Perhaps this special sound can be blamed upon the album evolving from the whole crew trying to “impress and inspire each other.” That’s right — the whole crew. Hadestown provides all-star cast to perform their respective parts in this particular epic.
Accompanying Anais are such renowned artists as Ani DiFranco, Greg Brown, Justin Vernon, Ben Knox Miller, and the Haden Triplets, with orchestral direction by Michael Chorney. It’s a melting pot of talent from all corners of the country.
“There were so many moments of totally unexpected awesomeness,” says Anais about the recording process. “Justin’s harmonies, and the Hadens [Triplets’], Greg speaking the lines of, ‘Wall,’ Ani [Difranco] changing the melody of ‘How Long’ to make it sit right in her voice and to make it really sound like an intimate bedroom conversation with Greg, Ben’s whispered Hermes….there was a moment in every session where I secretly panicked like, ‘Oh my god, they’re not singing it like I wrote it!’ and then a few listens later I went, ‘Oh my god, it’s better…’”
Anais has come a significant distance from her first foray into the business, and proves her crowing brilliance with Hadestown, perhaps now marking a point-of-no-return for her career and for the better, which is perhaps a concept we can all get on board with.