The first thing that grabs you about Anais Mitchell is her voice. Girlishly sprite and brimming with innocence, her singing brings to mind the hippie-throwback charm of Victoria Williams, though she says people more commonly note a resemblance to ’80s pop star Cyndi Lauper.
“I never thought of my voice as quirky or unique,” Mitchell says, “but when my last record, Hymns Of The Exiled, came out, it seemed some people had to get past something to start to like my voice. That was a surprise.”
That near-childlike sense of wonder in Mitchell’s vocals, coupled with literature-inspired wisdom, helps power Mitchell’s songwriting as well. The Brightness, her new album (and first with Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe label), features intimate songs that feel spindly on the outside but sturdy at the core. Recorded in a converted grain mill and nearly devoid of percussion, it features arrangements built mostly on fingerpicked acoustic guitar, with a smattering of organ, piano, banjo and viola.
“I lived above the studio,” Mitchell says, “so I was able to just stumble down and record in my pajamas. The sound of the room was great. And being surrounded by these convex, honeycomb-shaped grain bins was a wonderful feeling.”
Making the album in a grain mill was fitting, given that Mitchell, 25, grew up on a sheep farm in Bristol, Vermont, that was run by her parents and shared with her grandparents and other tenants. The rural environment and communal lifestyle proved perfect for nurturing Mitchell’s artistic temperament.
“It was pretty idyllic,” she says. “We were secluded enough that I didn’t feel like we had neighbors. It was a very imaginative childhood, with lots of running around in the woods.”
Among the tenants were members of a jazz band, and when Mitchell was 13, a deal was struck whereby the band’s guitarist gave her lessons in exchange for reduced rent. Four years later, inspired by the Lilith Fair crowd, she began writing songs.
“I knew from the start that’s what I wanted to do, but I was too shy to talk about it,” she says. “You get this sort of pitying look from people when you say you’re going to be a singer-songwriter. They figure, ‘Oh, you mean you’re going to be a waitress.’”
Mitchell studied political science in college and began attending music festivals and playing local gigs. Her first big break came in 2003, when the Kerrville Folk Festival honored her with its New Folk Award. Events unfurled quickly after that, starting with 2004′s Hymns For The Exiled on Waterbug Records. A promoter friend of DiFranco invited the indie-label pioneer to one of Mitchell’s shows. Eventually, DiFranco and her manager offered Mitchell a record deal.
“Actually they said, ‘You should make the album you want to make, and if we like it then we’ll put it out,’” Mitchell explains. “They’re pretty non-interventionist in that way.”
High points on The Brightness include “Song Of The Magi”, a guitar-and-viola ballad inspired by a friend’s holiday trip to Bethlehem; “Shenandoah”, which brings to mind the recent work of Sam Phillips (if Phillips’ voice were an octave higher); and “Hobo’s Lullaby”, which features John Cale-style viola set against a Appalachian backdrop.
Themes of unrequited love haunt the disc, but Mitchell’s main inspiration was The Alexandria Quartet — a series of novels from the late 1950s by British author Lawrence Durrell.
“It’s a sort of tenuous connection,” she concedes, “but the heart of the record does come from that. The novels are about arriving onto a scene whose moment of cultural brightness has passed, and wanting to will that era back into existence. That same feeling can apply in the case of a former lover. There’s that feeling of trying to recapture a flame that you could have sworn was there.”