by Whit Hill
Anaïs Mitchell was raised on a sheep farm in Vermont, and her songs have the freshness of deep, unsullied nature. I don't think I've ever heard songs quite like this: twisty and melodic and somehow effortlessly literate, steeped in traditional folk but eager to comment on the shiny, scary problems of this modern age.
At twenty-five, Mitchell has had a quarter century to ponder her life as a musician, if, indeed, she started at birth, which seems entirely possible. She says, "I used to tell people I wanted to be a journalist. There is a lonely egotism and self-composure to journalists. Not unlike artists, they're always traveling, always writing, loving their loneliness, feeling somehow that they have their finger on the pulse worshipping the truth and trying to render it legible."
Fox News journalists notwithstanding, it was a lofty goal. One wonders, listening to songs off Mitchell's two records, The Brightness (2007) and Hymns for the Exiled (2004), whether what she's doing these days touring the country playing venues big and small, writing about what she sees and feels, crafting berblogs about life and books and politics and self and other isn't far off.
Mitchell started writing at seventeen. Her college years, during which she studied languages and world politics and traveled to the Middle East, Europe, and Latin America, proved the springboard for a fine nosegay of songs. She recorded her first record, The Song They Sang . . . When Rome Fell (now out of print), in Austin in 2002 in a single afternoon. Then came a win at the Kerrville Folk Festival's prestigious New Folk competition in 2003, and then presto! a call from Ani DiFranco with an invite to join her label, Righteous Babe Records. Nice.
Some of Mitchell's songs sound as though they first lived as poems, maybe scratched in a notebook with a Bic pen that skipped, or with crayons, each word a different color.
This is not to say that the music feels pasted on; it doesn't. But there's a wonderful airiness to the way Mitchell's language, melody, and guitar interrelate. When she asks her challenging, rhetorical little questions in the superb "Cosmic American," she answers them at the same time, and in all kinds of ways. Her voice is at once gentle and piercing, simple and tripping as she sings:
| I'm a live wire, I'm a shortwave radio, do you copy? |
I'm a flash of light from the radar tower to the runway
If I leave you I'm gonna do it semi-automatically
Do you blame me? Do you blame me?
Anaïs Mitchell plays the Ark on Tuesday, October 16.
[Review published October 2007]