Anais Mitchell is the kind of folk singer-songwriter who is more likely to write tunes about mythic figures and distant wars than the love who did her wrong. The pixie-like performer opened the night with a six-minute Scottish ballad from the 1700s and ended the set with a song from her album Hadestown, a folk-opera based on the Orpheus myth and set in a post-apocalyptic American depression. One song in between featured lyrics written in Iraqi by a Syrian hotel clerk. Another was based on a short story by Mitchell’s novelist-turned-professor father. She does all this without an ounce of pretension. Even her most complex themes come across as more heartfelt — and sometimes chilling — as opposed to some kind of cerebral, intellectual experiment.
All this is not to say that she doesn’t write songs about love and love lost — she certainly does, and she does it well. At one point in the show, Mitchell shared how she had at one time envisioned writing a political song about the oil industry. This later became her well-loved tune, “Tailor,” off her 2012 Young Man in America album. This song has exactly nothing to do with oil, and is instead a song about a woman who has always defined herself through the eyes of the man who left her.
Those familiar with Mitchell’s work know her as a brilliant writer and have perhaps already fallen in love with her uniquely high-pitched (some might say quirky) vocals. But seeing her perform live is a completely different thing. The small-framed mother of an infant girl (who was sleeping backstage during the performance) had no trouble filling the stage and leaving the audience spellbound with just her vocals and deft guitar-playing. At certain points in the set (mostly on the Hadestown tunes) she put on her director’s cap and instructed the audience on how to whistle and sing choruses to represent the howling wind she envisioned for the stage performance. (Mitchell mentioned that she’s working on bringing an extended version of Hadestown to the theater, complete with sets, costumes and props.)
After the performance, Mitchell checked on her baby before returning to sign albums and chat with fans. She is currently on a North American tour on the heels of releasing her latest album, xoa, and will head to Ireland and the UK in November. The 15-track solo album features both old and new songs and is definitely worth a listen for existing and future fans.