In 2005‚ Vermont-based singer-songwriter Anais Mitchell started writing songs about the Greek myth of Orpheus‚ the poet who descended into the underworld to save his bride from the grasp of Hades. She wasn't sure what the songs were going to be‚ but as they took shape over the next year she realized they were part of a folk opera.
Working with her collaborator and producer Michael Chorney‚ Mitchell brought Bread and Puppet Theatre veteran Ben T. Matchstick into the project to stage the new opera‚ now called Hadestown. They decided to do a short run of the show in Vermont in the fall of 2006. Reviews were enthusiastic and shows were sold out‚ and a year later the cast and crew teamed up with Alex Crothers of Burlington‚ Vermont venue and promotion company Higher Ground to tour the show throughout Vermont. Mitchell‚ Chorney‚ and Matchstick had revised the show‚ adding and adjusting songs and stage directions‚ filling out the plot with more exposition and trimming some of the show's thematic complexity.
In 2008‚ Mitchell and Chorney started working with producer and bassist Todd Sickafoose on a recorded version of the show. As the planning took shape‚ Mitchell convinced Ani DiFranco to sing the part of Persephone. DiFranco‚ in turn‚ brought in friend and folk legend Greg Brown to lend his subterranean bass to Hades. And on a tour through the U.K.‚ Mitchell asked Justin Vernon of Bon Iver to be Orpheus. He accepted. Over the next few months‚ Ben Knox Miller of 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.
After three years of hard work‚ Hadestown was released on March 9 on Righteous Babe Records. A masterpiece that lives in somewhere between the worlds of folk‚ jazz‚ and theatre‚ Hadestown is a triumph of one original voice working with more than a dozen talented singers and instrumentalists.
I sat down recently with Mitchell for a long conversation about writing lyrics‚ cutting songs‚ working with famous singers‚ and learning to let go.
Have you been writing much recently?
No. [laughs]
How do you feel about that?
It's such an old feeling. I always feel like I'm not writing enough‚ even if it's going pretty well.
You're coming into the home stretch. Hadestown is just about to come out. How does it feel?
How does it feel? [laughter]
How does it feel that people finally get to listen to it? You've been listening to it for years‚ but most people have never heard it recorded.
It's kind of amazing to begin to get some feedback. I did a couple of interviews on this last tour in the UK and in Italy‚ and people were asking about the record. They were asking me about specific songs‚ and it was such a cool feeling because it's been‚ like you said‚ it's been such a long time. We've been kind of sitting on it. But in a way it doesn't really feel like my record. So many people have put their hands on it. That's great‚ and I love that. I'm excited to see what happens to it‚ but I don't feel as vulnerable‚ maybe‚ as I would.
How much did the songs change from when you wrote them‚ to when you toured through Vermont with them‚ to when you brought them to the studio and recorded them? Will that change the way you perform them once the record is out?
Well‚ definitely all the singers brought so much of their own character and inflection‚ even their melodic sensibility to the stuff. And pretty much every session‚ like in Eau Claire [with Justin Vernon of Bon Iver]‚ Iowa City [with Greg Brown]‚ and New Orleans [with Ani DiFranco]‚ there was a moment where I was like‚ "Oh my god‚ that's not the melody that I wrote‚" and then a few minutes later‚ or like a few listens later‚ I'm like‚ "Oh yeah‚ this is better."
It feels like them really expressing themselves. It's kind of funny to hear the record and then sing them the way that I wrote them. I have this voice in my head that's got the Ani DiFranco thing and the way she sings. It's hard to know which way to go. I guess the songs change. Since the last the time we put on the show‚ there are several new songs‚ and there are also a lot of revisions.
Which songs are new from when you did the show?
"Wedding Song" is new‚ "Flowers" is new‚ "Wait for Me" is quite different. Same with "I Raise My Cup to Him." That used to be called "Cloud Machine" and has a completely different set of lyrics. Also‚ "Nothing Changes‚" with the Fates singing. That's new.