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'Hadestown' creator Anaïs Mitchell's new solo album reaches forward in looking back

Jenny Anderson
Getty Images for Elsie Fest

Anaïs Mitchell spent more than a decade developing her hit musical Hadestown, a retelling of a Greek myth set in hell. Now, after eight Tony Awards and a Grammy, she has changed the scenery.

"We left New York in a rush," Mitchell tells All Things Considered's Ailsa Chang. "I was nine months pregnant when the pandemic really started to heat up ... and I just didn't want to give birth in the city. And so, we packed all of our things in a van and drove to Vermont and had the baby one week later."

Mitchell says she grew up in and out of that house, which was her grandparents', and that her time there began to reveal her own history back to her. "I felt like I had access to that again."

Mitchell began to spin those memories into songs, and now she's out with a new self-titled album, her first collection of solo music since 2012. She spoke to NPR from Vermont.

Ailsa Chang, All Things Considered: Did writing this album in your grandparents' old house, in the place where you grew up, help you understand your own childhood in a different way?

Anaïs Mitchell: There's a lot on this record about growing up. There's a song called "Backroads," which I started writing as a pure nostalgia piece about growing up in Vermont. ... [But] I was in the middle of writing that song, and it was purely this nostalgia song when George Floyd was killed, and the Black Lives Matter protests began to really surge in the summer of 2020 — and it just suddenly became so clear that I was writing a song of white privilege. It was just so clear that my experience of growing up with this freedom ... that that's just not the experience of a Black kid growing up in this country.

So there were a lot of ways where that wasn't the only song where I felt like, coming back to my hometown, you see how small it is.

I had read that writing this record was sort of like "an escape pod" from the years and years you'd spent writing the musical Hadestown. Can you tell me what you were escaping from, when you went back to Vermont?

I was living for many years like I was in the woods – as if I was just putting one foot in front of the other working on this musical. Which I loved and was obsessed with, but it was just my entire creative life. My every waking day was spent trying to perfect this thing so we could get to Broadway. And it was almost like, once it got to Broadway I didn't know what to do with myself.

Until I found myself in Vermont and this whole new milieu, out of context entirely. I found it was like a reconnection with what it is to write a song where you just are following the song wherever it wants to go.

It has been almost two years since the pandemic began and since you left New York City. I'm curious, does the city feel or seem different to you now, when you're looking at it from afar?

The first song on the record ["Brooklyn Bridge"] – I started writing when I was living in Brooklyn, and I somehow couldn't let myself write it. It felt like it was an over-romanticization of Brooklyn, or of New York...

... and no one's ever done that — over-romanticize New York City.

[Laughs] There was something about leaving the city and putting it behind me that I was able to give in to, get over these mythic feelings about New York. Which it is. I was living it so it was my home, but it's always been the city of dreams, the city of ambitions. I love the way in which one person, one artist or any person riding in the back seat of a cab across those bridges can have that epic feeling about their life. And at that same moment, there's like hundreds of other people having that experience.

Anaïs Mitchell's new, self-titled album is out now. To hear the broadcast version of this interview, you can use the audio player at the top of this page.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Sarah Handel
[Copyright 2024 NPR]