Hell-raising: A how-to guide with Anaïs Mitchell

After the cult success of 'Hadestown', the folk singer heads for even darker shores, says Holly Williams

'My mother gave a mighty shout, opened her legs and let me out." So begins the title track of Anaïs Mitchell's latest album, Young Man in America. Her name's pronounced An-AY-is, and, well spotted: she may be American but she's not a young man.

Mitchell made her name with her last album, Hadestown. It's a folk opera resetting the Greek Orpheus myth in the Great Depression – on paper, no easy sell. It began as a live stage show, and went through various casts, one of which – featuring Bon Iver's Justin Vernon and Ani DiFranco – was turned into a record that had critics swooning. Her solo follow-up earlier this year was widely approached with "never-gonna-match-it" wariness, which happily proved unfounded. Young Man features more traditional folk songs, but they have a quality that keeps the listener returning, and, while the live shows coming up this summer will be more girl-and-band straightforward than Hadestown, Mitchell is a compelling performer, even when not channelling Eurydice. Her sweet, squeaky voice may not be to everyone's taste – it both yowls and purrs, as if a cat has taken to the microphone – but it never smacks of affectation.

Neither, thankfully, do the many characters she gives voice to. For while Young Man isn't a concept record, it is full of people who are decidedly not Anaïs. "Oftentimes the story would be someone else's story," she explains, before smilingly acknowledging "and maybe it's an elaborate evasion of telling my own ... [but] it's more interesting in a way to be able to step into someone else's shoes. Hadestown was really a grand experiment in that. I guess what I mean is it's never an academic exercise – they all come from an emotionally true place."

Even so, Mitchell rarely heads into singer-songwriter confessional mode, despite an acknowledged debt to artists such as DiFranco, Dar Williams and Tori Amos. "There were a lot of great female artists when I was coming of musical age, in high school ... I liked the unbridled emotion of those women – I felt like 'How do I do that?'" She did that by picking up an acoustic guitar, playing open-mic nights, taking a long time to get through college (politics at Middlebury, Vermont) because she kept taking time off for her music. On graduating, she pondered "should I get a job, or should I move into my car?"

She moved into her car. "I was inspired by this vast invisible diaspora of songwriters who [just] make enough money to keep playing," Mitchell says, despite the fact that big names are now keen to work with her (Vernon's patronage – he recently covered her song "Coming Down" – still gives her a boost; she toured Hadestown with Martin Carthy and Thea Gilmore in the UK).

In 2004, her professional debut, Hymns for the Exiled, raged against Bush-era America in the way a good politics student with a fondness for Bob Dylan's protest songs was surely required to. The Brightness followed in 2007, and saw her turn from polemic towards storytelling. Both albums exhibit her ear for melody though: she's adept at that Joni Mitchell thing of taking a satisfying melodic line to an unlikely place.

Young Man is also full of stories: alongside yearning love songs, there are goddesses and myths – from personal tales to the grand narratives we tell about our origins. Hence starting with the birth of that young man. "He's almost a Native American character, or half man, half beast, half god," says Mitchell. "He was like the flesh-and-blood avatar of the spirit of some of the other songs. For me, he embodies this feeling of restlessness, and recklessness, and hunger, and loneliness." Partly inspired by men she knows, he's both archetypal "man", and a specimen of modern masculinity.

He is born on track two, his dramatic arrival so vividly described and "hungry as a prairie dog"; track one, "Wilderland", sets the scene – a country that is both wild "frontier land" America, and the America of today, ravaged by recession. "It's the one moment on the record where I can really say, 'Oh yeah, I was watching this footage during the housing crisis of these families getting put out of their homes.' It's like anything goes: if you have the money you can buy medicine and if you don't, you die." Mitchell, a warm, intimate presence often on the verge of infectious laughter, chuckles at her own drama before adding: "It sounds extreme but it's pretty realistic." This may be folk music operating in the realm of myth, but her inner politics student is still angry at the real world.

Dressed in a short denim skirt, with a mop of blond hair, saucer-sized blue eyes and speech peppered with "totally" and "y'know", Mitchell could almost still pass for an undergraduate. But that bush-baby cuteness belongs to a woman who just hit 30. "Turning 30 was a milestone. Not everything is possible any more. You have to choose what's important, and focus. I started calling my parents. I started running too!"

There are no songs about gym membership on the album, but mothers and fathers come up repeatedly. On the cover is a photo of her dad. The ballad "Shepherd", about a man who loses his wife and child because he's too busy on the farm, is based on a story Mitchell's father wrote when he was her age. It's no wonder agricultural themes emerge: she grew up on, and her family still live on, a sheep farm in Vermont.

Such traditional songs evoke a rather English style of folk, and she asked her producer, Todd Sickafoose, if the album could have a "British" sound. Mitchell is also recording the Child ballads (English and Scottish ballads collected in the 19th century by another enthusiastic American, Francis J Child). She describes, keenly, the difference between the American ballad tradition – "very stark stuff that's more repetitive, and very moralistic" – and the British – "the supernatural stuff, the magic and fairies and spells – I love all of that!".

Her enthusiasm makes for some archaic lyrics, however – thees and 'tweres that may annoy listeners. "I've no idea what people will make of that," Mitchell confesses. "I was on tour and having breakfast, and that line from 'Tailor' came to me: 'Now that he's gone away/ There isn't anyone to say/If I'm a lady gay or a crazy woman ....'" She giggles: "I was like, 'Can I say "lady gay"? Is that allowed?' But then it just felt like the right thing."

She points to another line, from "Young Man in America" – "Raven in a field of rye/With a black and roving eye" – and says, "I love that. We know what that means, and they knew it too." Actually, traditionally a "dark and roving eye" belongs to a dangerous woman – but we get the picture. And such phrasing does, as Mitchell intends, spring on the listener "a feeling of kinship between what you might experience, and the archetypal experience. I'm not alone in this feeling; someone came up with a metaphor for this hundreds of years ago."

Wherever she gets it from, Mitchell should take full credit, for she has spun her myths into an album of uncommon resonance.

Anaïs Mitchell is on tour in the UK from Tuesday (anaismitchell.com)

Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
Arts and Entertainment
The Wu-Tang Clan will sell only one copy of their album Once Upon A Time In Shaolin
musicWu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own only copies of their latest albums
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper, Alessandro Nivola and Patricia Clarkson on stage

film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
News
art

‘Remember the attackers are a cold-blooded, crazy minority’, says Blek le Rat

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project