Vermont’s own Anais Mitchell is often described as the “Queen of Modern Folk.” Her consistently superb discography and intimate live performances have been met with nothing but praise and have earned her a spot as one of the great folk-artists of our time. Her story-telling ability is her greatest strength, pulling at the heart-strings of her listeners with lyrics that are equal parts poignant and uplifting. Independent On Sunday calls her “the most engaging, and in some ways, most original artist currently working in the field of new American ‘folk’ music.” Mitchell’s latest album, Xoa, was released October of last year on Wilderland Records.
Mitchell was kind enough to let us in on some of the music that inspires her for the 6th installment of our Recipes series. Her mixtape will guide you along a touching and deeply emotive path that is as capable of inducing introspection as it is an outward sense of empathy and connection through selections from Nic Jones, Joan As Police Woman, Sam Amidon, and more. She will be performing at Signal Kitchen on December 2nd with tickets available online or at the door.
What motivates you to make music? I love how deep and simple music can be. It feels good to sing, it feels good to suspend time for a bit—swim around in the moment. But I think what motivates me during the hard part of writing, especially lyrics, is the idea that I might write something that is of use to the world, a classic thing, a thing that could live on in the world without me.
Growing up, was it folk music that influenced you most heavily? I did grow up with a lot of folk music—not traditional music per se—but like the “rise up singing” songbook, all the great earnest 60s and 70s stuff in my parents’ collection. Then in high school I got really into this wave of female songwriters that was happening in the 90s. Tori Amos, Ani DiFranco, Dar Williams. That was also very influential—the expressiveness, the emotionalism, the storytelling.
Is there a certain artist or album that most drastically changed the course of your musical identity? The first obvious one for me is Ani DiFranco—I might not have started writing songs if not for her early records, and then I recorded on her label for several years, which was very significant for me. But I’d also say: Gillian Welch (and David Rawlings)—specifically the Time (The Revelator) album. I discovered that one in college and it was a real turning point for me because suddenly I saw how modern music could embrace this very old imagery and sound, and the effect was not hokey or throwback, but just…so deep. Deep, weird, archetypal, abstract, simple.
Do you ever feel creatively competitive with other contemporary folk artists? You know…I do sometimes feel competitive in petty ways having to do with the kind of attention my music, or other people’s music, is getting or not getting. But I think what you’re asking is something different—whether I feel creatively competitive. Like when someone makes an album, or gives a show, that is SO badass, do I then hold my own music up to that, and wish I’d done it first, or something. And I haven’t had those feelings for a long time. I’d say these days when I hear great music in any form, I go, “wow, fuck yeah” and hopefully get inspired by it because writing songs and making albums is such hard and deeply personal work. I feel so deep into my own path that there’s not really anything for me to do but push further. And the same is true of artists I admire…they’re on their path, I’m on mine.
With your music, would you rather emotionally move your typical listener or a fellow artist? I think when I was younger, I liked the idea of being a “songwriter’s songwriter”. At some level I probably was writing for the fellow artists that might be sitting around swapping songs at a festival. But now I feel differently…and it’s not that I think the typical listener’s taste is so very different from an artist’s taste…but what I feel now is that the purpose of a song is for it to be of use—for it not to be merely an expression of my own idiosyncrasies, a showcase of my own voice, my own mind and feelings, but to be a workhorse, a ritual that other folks might want to enact…to sound and feel right coming out of many different mouths and giving voice to feelings and ideas that are broader than my own.
Photo Credit: Jay Sansone
Check out one of our favorite performances by Anais Mitchell including “Shepherd,” “Young Man In America,” and “Tailor”: