by Harry C. Tuniese

I’m always amazed
by my sudden discovery of any entertainer who totally clicks me on.
Sometimes it’s hard to remember what impulse forced me to check them
out, because although it seems some talents have either been here forever—while
some slowly creep into your consciousness—it feels great to stay ahead
of the curve. Developing the focus and testament, it’s only quality
and integrity of the artist that will maintain the attention.

a few years ago, I was talking to Cindy Howes (then music-director of
WERS) about up and coming talents and the first name she mentioned was
Anais Mitchell, a young folk singer from Vermont with a bubbly personality
and contemplative compositions. Light and dark—just the way I like
it. Named after the bohemian feminist, Anais Nin, she studied literature
and political science in college and began attending music festivals
and playing local gigs. Inspired by the Lilith Fair crowd, she began
writing songs and her first big break came in 2003, when the Kerrville
Folk Festival honored her with its New Folk Award.

says, “Words have always been really important to me. And they say
if you want to be a poet nowadays, you better learn to play guitar,
because there’s not much work for you otherwise, Learning to write
songs was a way of being a writer and being able to be heard.”

Anais had released
two albums by the time I came on board—
Song They Sang… When Rome Fell

in 2002 and
Hymns of
the Exiled
in 2004. I’ve
still never heard her debut, but the follow-up sounds like the work
of a fluid and studied young singer, slowly shaping her own songwriting

that voice! A unique element of her attractiveness, it has a magical
quality that demands recognition—a chirpy, girlish innocence with
poignant and plaintive control that combines the earthiness of Shawn
Colvin, the boho-hipness of Rickie Lee Jones, the pop-spriteliness of
Cyndi Lauper, the child-like bite of Joanna Newsom, and the urban energy
of Ani DiFranco. It’s refreshing that it contains elements of varied
contradictory, musical styles and sensibilities, without ever succumbing
to self-consciousness. Yup, taken in from the start!

Though Hymns
made her budding talent obvious, Anais’s next step would prove to
be a challenging key to her subsequent development. Having been brought
up in a family of teachers, writers, social workers, travelers, and
hippies, she was lured into retelling the Greek myth of Orpheus and
Eurydice as a folk opera, and cast the show using her talented friends
in Vermont. She began to write the tunes for
Hadestown in 2005, aided by the vision of her theatrical
director, Ben Matchstick, and the incredible arrangements of her music
producer, Michael Chorney. The collaboration worked. And though those
early shows were flawed writing wise they were able to build a whole
vocabulary to start a buzz.

folk opera can meld divergent musical traditions and tales into a potent
formula of fluid storytelling, rooted artistry and emotional charge.
The folk opera is ultimately an extended version of what every folk
song is, just take the whole idea and make it longer. To watch the show
is to fall deep into the world of a song, see what happens, and follow
the characters along for the ride. Musical themes are looped, lyrics
enter again, feelings and subtexts are allowed to build and resonate.
The slow momentum of an extended piece provides more chance for a potent

Anais kept an extensive
journal of the play’s development and offered her overview: “The
feedback we got from those initial shows was pretty overwhelming. It
felt like we had struck some kind of nerve. Still, there was so much
missing from the story; people were saying things like, “Hey, I was
so moved by that … what was going on?” So when we decided to mount
a second draft of the show Ben and I really made an effort to flesh
out the story with the lyrics and staging—not just the metaphoric
emotional stuff, but the characters, the plot, the arc. I’d say writing-wise
the show took many steps forward and a couple steps back during that
second edition. I spent months writing very expositional lyrics that
eventually got cut. There was constant tension in my mind between getting
the story across and preserving the poetry of the songs: not just the
purdy language, but the metaphors.

“I think it’s
safe to say all three of us—Ben, Michael, and I—are pretty influenced
by the work of Bertold Brecht and Kurt Weill. Brecht seems to approach
the same tough theme in
and Mother
: morality ceasing to
exist in desperate conditions—‘First you must feed us, then we’ll
all behave.’ I didn’t get deep into it until 2006 when we started
working on the second production, but in any case, the Depression-era
stuff was part of the show long before the current US economy tanked.

“It really
dawned on me during this process that
Hadestown was never gonna be a Broadway-style show.
I was watching all kinds of Broadway stuff on video, classic musicals,
trying to get a feel for story arc and so on. Everything is so clear
and crude in those shows. But as much as I love a clear-cut story, this
show just didn’t want to go there, at least not all the way. It was
very dense and poetic and it was the battleground where I played out
the exposition-versus-poetry conflict for months as I edited it and
re-edited it. It’s where I learned firsthand this lesson I heard in
an address Stephen Sondheim gave where he said, ‘You have to understand
that an audience hears a song in real time. It doesn’t matter how
clever or beautiful your lyrics are, if they pass by too quickly for
the audience to comprehend, it’s not working.’ I was changing lyrics
right up till opening night—which I see now was unnecessary, not to
mention stressful.

“As for the
staging, the second time round we had more money and more time-—though
not by much! The cast was expanded; Ben had pulled together some crazy
awesome stuff with lights and this ‘utility chorus’ that moved sets
around on stage and populated the world he’d created. He really wrote
some crazy beautiful staging sequences for that second draft of the
show. As for Michael’s arrangements, he made all kinds of changes,
improvements, and additions to the score. There were a handful of new
songs, intros, bridges. His was a hard position to be in vis-a-vis the
collaboration because as the story was changing—and Ben and I were
rethinking plot points, lyrics, etc.—there was plenty of perfectly
gorgeous score that had to be modified or even scrapped to accommodate
the changes. It’s hard to edit lyrics and staging, but probably even
harder to edit a score for six instruments!

year we had a more ambitious tour schedule, which actually did travel
around Vermont and then down to Somerville Theatre in Boston. We were
loading the entire set, the sound and light equipment, onto this old
school bus and setting it up on different stages. We were crazy to try
and tour a theater show like that. It was full-on winter and there were
white-out blizzards a couple of nights. I lost a bunch of money on that
tour, because of a few very dead towns, but a lot of the shows were
really fantastic.”

Reading and hearing
about this effort only made me yearn for a chance to have seen this
project in its infant stages, witnessing this relaxed, seemingly amateur
gathering of singers suddenly blossom into a complex fabric of interpersonal
and musical eloquence. Much like our local musical theatre troupe, Boston
Rock Opera (and their ten years of productions), or even older mega-famous
rock notions like the Who’s
Tommy, the Kinks’ Preservation
Acts 1 & 2
, and Andrew
Lloyd Webber’s
Christ Superstar
or even the
current Green Day’s
or the Decemberist’s The Hazards of Love, the task of bridging different mediums forces
composers to think past their individuality to create a storyline unified
by common themes, multiple parts, and songs with a coherent narrative.

the midst of all this activity, Anais continued to tour nationally,
often showcasing a few of the play’s tunes in her solo shows. Her
second album landed in the hands of one of her heroes, Ani DiFranco,
who promptly signed her to her label, Righteous Babe Records, and released
The Brightness
in 2007. Here she zeroed in on her strengths to produce an earnest record
of astounding new tunes. The reviews were ecstatic, “recognizing a
songwriter of startling clarity and depth,” offering “vivid snapshots
of sweetly ordinary moments” and composing “stories that weave an
effortless and skilled tapestry.” I was simply knocked out by its
intense originality and clever simplicity, enhanced by the superb eclectic
production of her long-time collaborator, Michael Chorney. It works
on every level—songwriting, performance, and diversity—a folk music
with deep meaning and rich texture.

2008‚ Mitchell and Chorney returned to the play, working with DiFranco
bassist and producer Todd Sickafoose on a finished recorded version
of the show. As the planning took shape‚ Anais convinced Ani to sing
the part of Persephone. She‚ in turn‚ brought in friend and folk
legend Greg Brown to lend his subterranean bass voice to the role of
Hades. And on a tour through the U.K.‚ Anais asked Justin Vernon [Bon
Iver] to be Orpheus. He accepted. Over the next few months‚ Ben Knox
Miller [The Low Anthem] signed on to be Hermes‚ the Messenger‚ and
the Haden Triplets [Petra‚ Tanya‚ and Rachel‚ the daughters of
Charlie Haden] became the voices of the Fates. Anais reprised her role
as Eurydice.

During the next two
years, sessions came and went with many musical innovations. Anais reworked
many of the tunes, dropped some, and added others. Michael constantly
changed the score to suit the recording process. Todd brought in unique
instrumentation to augment the sound he heard for the album: vintage
futurism. As the interest grew, the core team felt humbled by the experience.

Anais’s journal: “I feel‚ probably first and foremost‚ more
than anything‚ honored and lucky. It’s a cool feeling to be a writer‚
and to have my songs brought into the world by other people‚ but to
know they came from an intention I understand. I guess I feel a little
dwarfed by the cast‚ because I admire them all so much‚ and they’re
all famous people. So I think‚ ‘How am I going to tour this thing?
What if people hear this record and they have this larger-than-life
expectation about what it would be like to hear me sing the songs?’
More than that‚ I feel really high on the lessons that I was talking
about earlier; how this was a collaboration‚ a collaborative thing
that I struggled with it at different times. How it was hard‚ dealing
with people and letting go.

the moral of the story is that there’s nothing better‚ or more inspiring
than this kind of collaboration. We do these things for each other.
You know what I mean? Maybe sometimes in our bedroom we’re like‚
I’m this great thing‚ or whatever, I’m going to do this great
thing for the world. But we do them for each other‚ and to be able
to do them with each other feels right and good. It’s worth it‚
and I just want to do it more and more. It’s just exciting to expand
the scene. For me and Michael, we’ve worked together a bunch‚ and
now there’s Todd‚ and all these singers‚ and the world’s a little

three years of hard work‚ fast-forward to the present. In March 2010,
third go-round—was released on Righteous Babe Records. Like wow—my
head is still spinning because the entire product is pitch perfect,
from the gorgeous artwork and libretto, the top-notch performances,
the total sound and production unto the very last note of the album.
I can’t get enough of that Orpheus and Eurydice stuff. I believe it’s
an exquisite masterpiece that lives in somewhere between the worlds
of folk‚ gospel, jazz‚ swing, avant garde, and theatre—a triumph
of one original voice working with more than a dozen talented singers
and instrumentalists—and it rarely left my CD player for over a month.

In the meantime,
the folk opera took to the road once again, coming to visit at Club
Passim. At last—my first chance to see this enacted on stage—and
it was a slice of heaven! Three sold-out shows! Anais Mitchell’s mythic
dream, set up beautifully like a modern radio drama with a front round
table featuring two mics and a guest cast of local talent—Tim Gearan
(Hades), Dinty Child (Hermes), Kris Delmhorst (Persephone), and Peter
Mulvey (Orpheus)—fronting Michael Chorney’s six-piece orchestra,
with the Three Fates (Rose Polenzani, Anne Heaton, and Melissa Myers)
off to the side. At the show I saw, a five-minute standing ovation left
the cast awestruck. So many people are all thirsting for pure art and
our cups were filled and drained. This vast experience of creativity,
energy, finance, and personal discovery has taken the long road from
there to here… and every step has earned Anais her current accolades.
What’s next?!

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