Anaïs Mitchell is an American folk treasure. Since signing to Ani Difranco's Righteous Babe Records in 2004, the 32-year-old Vermont artist has released a string of critically acclaimed albums that have shaken the folk world by its very earthbound roots.
Mitchell's most recent efforts, 2012's delicate and heartbreaking Young Man in America
and 2013's Child Ballads
, a collection of old English ballads with longtime friend and guitarist Jefferson Hamer, were released on her own label, Wilderland Records.
Mitchell is opening for Patty Griffin at a sold-out show this Saturday at the Bottleneck in Lawrence. We spoke with Mitchell by phone from Dallas.
The Pitch: Let's talk about
Child Ballads for a moment, your album with Jefferson Hamer. You're from Vermont. Where did your interest with 17th- and 18th-century Scottish and English folk songs come from?
: It kind of came from when I started touring in England and Scotland, and I always loved to play over there, there's something about it. The kinds of songs I write, wordy and story-focused - there's something about that culture, they really dig lyrics, you know? And I would meet people... there was a few friends over there that sort of turned me on to some stuff.
I remember this really late night in Ireland, and it was the end of the night, and we'd had this epic show at the pub, and everyone did this lock-in thing at the pub where you were there playing tunes all night, and then this guy pulled out his iPhone and he pulled up this video of Paul Brady singing "Arthur McBride." And it's a really amazing live version of that song, and I was like, "Holy shit! I have to find out who he is." And there were all these amazing folk singers from the 1970s in this part of the world, and the next person I found was Martin Carthy, and then Nick Jones, this incredible guitar player and folk singer.
So people started to tell me about the music, and it was sort of cosmic timing because then I met Jefferson [Hamer], who was also into these things, and he was playing with me and we discovered we liked singing together. I like to think I would have made the record had I not met him, but it was just kind of a meeting of two similar minds at the right time.
You've said you were inspired by artists like Ani Difranco and Tori Amos when you were young. Later you were signed to Righteous Babe Records with Ani, which must have been amazing. I'm just wondering - so many years later, you've got your own label, you've worked with her so closely - how has that relationship influenced your music?
I don't know that I'd even be playing music if it weren't for Ani Difranco and those albums when I was young. The first songs I learned to play on the guitar were Ani Difranco songs. She was really the first artist that I got obsessed with. I would buy the album the day it came out, and I listened to it obsessively, and I loved it and I hated it because I wanted to be that good. I wanted to be doing that.
When I signed with Righteous Babe, I was like 23 years old or something, and I was just getting going. I had made one record and I was touring around, sleeping in my car, playing wherever I could get a gig, I was just doing it. And I was playing a gig in Buffalo, and this guy who was her guitar teacher when she was a child, he organized a show for me when I was in Buffalo and, unbeknownst to me, he invited her to come out. And I remember I played the first half of the show, and then somebody told me that she was in the audience, and my mind was totally blown. The second half of the set, I was in another universe. And it was pretty immediate - her and her manager were there and they were like, "Hey, we wanna sign you to the label." And I remember driving away from Buffalo - I just couldn't believe it. A mythological figure had just stepped into my life. I had dreamed about her. She was so dear to me in this way that she could never know.
And that was, actually, I'd say that's what carried through with my relationship with her. She became just Ani, and we toured, and she's on a record, and it became sort of normal, but I just always carried the kind of weight of how dear she was to me that I could never tell her because I would probably freak her out. Like, she's probably been freaked out by plenty of stuff before, but... you know what I mean.