Anais Mitchell is no stranger to the outlines and innerworkings of a good story — the familiarity comes with parental influence of a professor and a novelist paired with her own growth and experience in song and storywriting as a solo musician honing her own tales starting in her late teens. Now, just shy of 32, Mitchell is becoming known for her penchant for lyrical and bookish substance. Her 2010 morphing of a classic, but time-transcendent tale, such as that of Orpheus and Eurydice, has given her a nice little bit of ground to build her newest musical project and album, The Child Ballads, from. Released in March, the album covers seven tales from an already-tapped source, but brings the light of discovery into play with thoughtfulness and care.
Diving into the ripe-for-the-picking Scottish and English tales of American adapter Francis James Child (penned in the late 1800’s) and melting and reshaping them a bit more lyrically than 50s and 60s folkies did (Simon & Garfunkel, Fairport Convention), gives the Child Ballads a modern feel, still paying homage to both the ballad’s original messages (not meant for children with its tales of mature pathos). Mitchell and Hamer seal them up loosely and lightly in honest, plainer wrappings (abandoning the “Olde” English and Scottish language) to deliver a small, interpreted collection that captures the youthful (although angst-driven) spirit of the ballads. Mitchell’s voice, alongside bluegrass musician Jefferson Hamer’s, hovers over the tales with a candid fluency, not meant to be an adornment already fantastic tales, but to simply tell them. Mitchell’s “spritely” vocals are a natural fit and Hamer’s softer tones accompany well alongside over sparse but capable instrumentation to settle the Ballads into a new pocket for a new audience. This Sunday, May 19th, Mitchell and Hamer bring their version of the Child Ballads to the Pabst Pub for an all-ages performance (7pm doors/8pm show). Before the two arrive in Milwaukee, Mitchell took some time to explain the work behind her latest project.
Your Hadestown album (based on the story of Orpheus and Eurydice) and now the Child Ballads suggest you are pretty well read — did you come across the Ballads through reading or from hearing them covered by other artists before you?
It’s funny, I wasn’t a mythology geek or anything before Hadestown, I remember reading the Orpheus story in a children’s illustrated book of mythology, and it stuck with me. The same was kind of true with the Child Ballads, I read the text for “Willie of Winsbury” and a few others in my parents’ copy of Rise Up Singing as a kid. Then a few years ago I started listening to a lot of ballad singers from across the pond– Andy Irvine & Paul Brady, Martin Carthy, Nic Jones, Anne Briggs– and just fell head over heels for the stories all over again. Then I found a paperback copy of the five-volume set of The English and Scottish Popular Ballads in a used bookstore, bought it on the spot, and started reading my way through the ballads. This was around the time I met Jefferson, who was already equally enthralled by the material.
Francis James Child put together a collection of over three hundred ballads from England and Scotland — how did you choose the seven for your album?
The seven ballads on the album are the seven that Jefferson and I really worked deeply and closely on together. We had some other ballads in our repertoire that were more my baby or Jefferson’s baby but these seven felt completely co-arranged. We chose some because there were existing versions and melodies that we loved, like Martin Carthy’s “Willie’s Lady” or Nic Jones’ “Clyde Waters”. Then we got a little braver and bolder about going straight to the text and having our way with the melody a bit more. Most of the songs we chose are love songs of some kind– lovers who have to overcome great hardships to be together– sometimes they’re successful, sometimes not, but the passion is there in all of them.
Which particular ballad spoke most to you, personally?
There are so many I love, but right now I love the emotion in “Clyde Waters”. It’s this tragic story of two star-crossed lovers and the cruel mothers who oppose their union for their own selfish reasons. The treachery of the mothers, the determined quality of Willie, and then ultimately the bravery of Margaret as she steps up “to her feet” and then “to her knee” and then “to her chin” into the raging river Clyde looking for her drowned lover… I just really enjoy getting into the voices of those characters.
How was the translation process both lyrically and musically?
With the first few songs we worked on, as I was saying above, we had already fallen in love with existing versions and melodies, so it was really just a matter of tweaking the language here and there so that it felt natural for us to sing it, as Americans, in this day and age. Then when we got deeper in, we went straight to the text, started making up a few melodies and really choosing which aspects of the stories we wanted to focus on and which we might want to let go of. We tried to be true to the source always, but also to create versions of the songs that really felt natural for us to sing.
What story(ies) have you got your musical sights set upon, next, if any?
I have a few ideas but… the main one is, I’m expecting a baby at the end of July (first one), so I think THAT story is gonna take over for a little while. :)