There is a rhythmic force that lives deep inside of Anaïs Mitchell. On stage she can’t help but pop and bob, as if punctuating the sing-songy undulations of her acoustic songs with a drum only she can hear. All the while, she swirls her guitar in little circles as the songs pour out, as if the two of them are sculpting the air into music, pulling vespers of folk out of the ether.
It isn’t just her stage presence demanding attention, but also her voice — it’s deceptively soft and sweet, resonating with a deep inner bellow like thunder dipped in honey. If you follow the saccharine trail of her voice, her songs won’t just move you but bring you with them, into the shadows of the Vermont woods where Mitchell grew up. And there she’ll tell you archetypal stories of kings, of lone hunters, of what it’s like to go to hell and back.
“I like the idea that there is nothing new under the sun, that we all are experiencing these themes like heartbreak and war,” Mitchell says. “We think it’s our private experience, but these things have been written about again and again. Working with them feels like the most intimate and honest thing I can do. In trying to figure out what is true for me within them, I am able to figure out what is true for everyone.”
Her most recent project is a theatrical embodiment of her lyrical art, transforming her 2010 concept album Hadestown into a folk opera adapted for the stage. A storytelling master of the contemporary folk tradition, Mitchell is adept at creating worlds out of her songs, and theater only serves to breathe new life into her imaginary landscapes.
This time she tells the story of Orpheus, son of Apollo, a mortal man both graced and cursed with the gift of musical genius. Speaking through his character, she lures audiences from the plains where “love and music aren’t enough to survive the winter,” bringing them down to a hellish underworld, “an industrialized land of mindless labor” ruled by the devil himself.
Since writing the songs 10 years ago, the world has come around to give them an uncanny context. One particularly penetrating song, “Why We Build the Wall,” is a call and response work song performed to a steady beat that both paces and assuages the back-breaking work of brick laying while also indoctrinating the workers to the purpose of their menial labor.
“Who do we call the enemy?/The enemy is poverty/And the wall keeps out the enemy/And we build the wall to keep us free/That’s why we build the wall/We build the wall to keep us free.”
Now, in between productions, Mitchell is still grappling with the songs in her Brooklyn apartment, “tinkering with lines and little moments,” in preparation for the opera’s second opening in November in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. In the way she talks about her work, it’s clear this isn’t a vain effort easily satisfied. Mitchell is searching for something noble in her art, crafting music strong enough to somehow lift the lonely burdens of suffering.
“I guess I believe, and am sort of holding out hope, that if the words are all put together in the right way that some sort of alchemical thing happens with the song, that it will sort of give it life, or wings,” she says. “It’s taken awhile, I know, but it’s almost like I hadn’t yet lived through the experiences I needed in order to finish it.”
It was theater that first brought Mitchell to the muse that both she and Hadestown had patiently awaited — it taught her how to work and how to let other people help. She relishes in what she describes as the “communion of collaboration” and the mysterious generosity of spirit that she saw come to life on stage, but that was familiar to her as a musician.
“Whether as a songwriter or writer of theater, you aren’t just creating something that’s going to come out of your mouth, it’s something that will live or die by the voice of other people,” she says. “It’s all about the space that you leave, to give the song a chance to catch the light. It’s the same thing I find inspirational about folk music — those songs have lived in so many voices and in that way they are immortal.”
At age 36, and now mother to a 3-year-old daughter, Mitchell has become viscerally aware of her own mortality. Watching her child grow makes her realize she’s not (quite so) young anymore, and gives her the feeling that she’s crossed an invisible threshold into the next generation.
“And so passes a lifetime,” she says.
“I was raised Quaker and there is this idea in the Quaker faith of a calling, that the spirit moves you to do something and moving with that is the way to live right. I always knew singing was what I was meant to do, but I’ll never know where it will lead.” She pauses to search for a lyric. “My friend wrote this and this pretty much sums it up: ‘Take it all easy and sweet and slow/When you get where you’re going/There will be some place else to go.’”
On the Bill: Anaïs Mitchell. 7 p.m. Friday, April 28, 500 W. Main St., Lyons, 303-823-0848