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Anais Mitchell’s bright future

Plus: Tracy Grammer's new direction

By Alan Lewis | Special to the Vermont Guardian

Posted February 8, 2007

(Pictured above: Anais Mitchell)

Anais Mitchell has been busy. She finished her album, The Brightness, signed to Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe label, held several stagings of her new folk opera, Hadestown, and now she is making plans for CD-release shows.

The Brightness CD’s cover has a dusky, surrealistic look, in keeping with Mitchell’s thoughtful material and the album’s sympathetic arrangements and dream-time feel. This could only result from a grand, carefully-executed artistic plan. Right?

“Well it’s funny you should ask about the ‘broad view,’” said Mitchell, “because the making of The Brightness was mostly a process of putting one foot in front of the other if you know what I mean!”

Then again, maybe a grand artistic scheme would have merely gotten in her way.

“When I finally got clear about wanting to make the record at the Brist Mill with Michael Chorney, where I made Hymns, the initial plan was to make an EP, sort of a concept record of all these lovesick songs about one particular character,” she explained. “At the time we began the recording, I was living in the apartment above the Mill, so it was a very down-home scene. I could run to a recording session in my stocking feet.

“Once we rolled up our sleeves at the Mill, though, we realized we wanted to make a full-length, and we ended up cutting several of the songs we initially intended to include. And a couple of the songs on the record were written during the recording process. Even with the instrumental arrangements, there was plenty of stuff on the cutting room floor at the end of the day (mostly drums!). So you see ... one foot in front of the other.

“What we did know, above all else, is that we wanted to serve the songs, so they were the guiding force. Most are pretty dense, poetically, and we had to make way for that … find ways to put musical breath in that barrage of language.”

Mitchell’s singing voice is like no other, and The Brightness finds new beauty in it.

“I think part of the difference you’re hearing between the two recordings,” she said, “is just the couple years of touring between them: When I made Hymns I was still in school. But, we also held out for magic in the vocal takes, sometimes doing more takes of a song than I’d like to admit. We wanted the voice to be absolutely bursting with life.

“For me, the recurring theme of the record is a kind of sweet, frustrated nostalgia. On the one hand, it’s the feeling of arriving on a scene or in a town where there was a real moment of cultural brightness, a moment which is long gone: Greenwich Village in the sixties, say, or Paris in the thirties, or Alexandria between the wars. It’s the feeling of having been born too late, trying to make one’s way among the ghosts.

“It’s the feeling of reaching out across the abyss of space-time to light one’s metaphorical cigarette from the tip of the long-gone poet’s. And on the other hand, it’s that same feeling applied to a person’s heart, to a lover. The flame was there, you could have sworn it was, but man, it’s gone now — the exquisite frustration.”

Tracy Grammer: New directions

Frustration is noted in Tracy Grammer interviews quite differently. Dave Carter, her brilliant partner, died suddenly and unexpectedly, sending her life and career veering off in unforeseen directions. Her words often reflect a sense of loss mixed in uncommon ways with recovery and hope.

Folk song collector Frank Warner used to sing a Civil War piece from the Union Army but gathered in the mountains of the South. In it, a soldier alluded to hardships and to a total lack of order and direction from above. Then he ended with the line, “But I’ll go marching on.”

Grammer has likewise soldiered on, keeping the Dave and Tracy repertoire alive, bringing in new material, and — not without difficulty — trying her hand at songwriting.

“Those who loved Dave and Tracy also love the music Jim Henry and I are making,” she said, “even if only half the show — or less — is Dave Carter songs,” she said.

“Flower of Avalon and MySpace.com have brought in a trickle of younger people, but mainly, the core audience seems about the same,” Grammer adds.

Grammer’s experience, so far, as a recording artist is very different. “Flower of Avalon was the most played album on folk radio for 2005,” she reported. “It did very well across the board and ended up on a lot of best-of lists at the end of the year.

“I feel most creative in the studio. I get colors, textures, arrangement ideas in the studio that I just don’t get anywhere else. Maybe it’s the pressure; maybe it’s the sound of the instruments and the voices in the headphones. In that encapsulated environment, the focus is so intense, and creative choices are really just movements you make in sympathy with all other sounds and words.”

Dave and Tracy made marvelous records, as did Grammer with Flower of Avalon. But an appreciation of the albums has never come fast, a thing Grammer understands. “I just heard Tanglewood Tree for the first time in about three years,” she recalled. “I fell in love with Dave all over again. It was powerful. I never liked that album as much before. Now, it’s the one I’m recommending to those who are new to the music.”

Asked what is unique about a Grammer concert, she answered, “I am told that just my standing on stage has been inspirational to people. I went through a sad thing publicly — we all went through it together — and we came out the other side, most of us mostly intact. Folks are glad to see it, glad to see a sad girl happy again and moving on. You can’t celebrate that journey at anybody else’s show.”