How in the world had I not so much as heard of Anaïs Mitchell until this weekend past?! I've been somewhat obsessively listening to her folk opera modeled around the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, "Hadestown" since.
It's simply breaktaking - one album I cannot believe I hadn't stumbled across before.
Hadestown is rich, rewarding, moving, and beautiful, a wonderful record - make sure you've listened to it, if like me you've had you head in the sand!
Here's a song off the album to give you an idea of what 'Folk Opera' means:
Anais Mitchell - Way Down Hadestown by morrisday
Anais has a London show (amongst others) on October 15th at The King's Head - another wonderful "The Local" gig; It will be based on her more traditional singer-songwriter material rather than a "Hadestown" show (Can we have that on Leicester Sq soon please) tickets - http://www.wegottickets.com/event/91241
Rather than me stumble together a review, I'll copy (half of) a blog from Anais's myspace where she explains the whole recording process (it's quite long!):
"Hi guys i had to write a little narrative about hadestown for RBR and this new website we're working on, and i thought i would share it here. it actually was even longer-winded than this but the label edited it (lucky for you). enjoy! i am so grateful and proud that this thing is finally coming out march 9th. hooray!
Read the opening paragraphs: HERE
ON THE GUEST SINGERS
After the second run, there were again a lot of changes I wanted to make. I wanted to go a step further toward fully-realized characters, and a step backward toward the simplicity of the story in the very first show we did. I wanted to let go of some stuff that had never really sat right with me as a lyricist. We talked briefly about trying to mount another run the following year but the consensus seemed to be that to finish the songs, the song-cycle, should be the priority before staging again, and what better motivation to do that than booking studio time to commit the stuff to tape forever and ever? I worked real hard in advance of the recording but it was not as easy as I’d thought it might be to get things to a finished place. It felt a little like doing a crossword puzzle where there’s just a few squares missing, and it can only be one very specific thing. That is, we’d created a world, and now I had to be consistent within it, lyric-wise, music-wise. “Wedding Song,” “Flowers (Eurydice’s Song),” “Nothing Changes,” and “I Raise my Cup” were all new additions. “Wait,” “If It’s True,” and the two “Epics” also underwent major changes. I cut a song that had had a gorgeous score, and one that people were sorry to see let go. It was pretty tough!
But there was a crazy motivating factor, and that was, one by one these guest singers were getting on board. Ani DiFranco was the first, and I owe much of the momentum of the recording to her faith and belief in the project. I don’t think she’d even heard the Persephone songs when she said she’d sing them. That’s brave! Then there was Greg Brown: I’d imagined him singing the Hades part for a long time but still whenever I hear his voice coming in on “Hey, Little Songbird” I laugh for joy. His voice is subterranean, it has strange overtones, I feel it in my belly almost before my ears. He and Ani were both early songwriting heroes of mine. … Then there’s Justin Vernon: That was kind of a cosmic casting situation. Justin and his manager reached out of the blue and asked if I wanted to open the Bon Iver tour of Europe. They’d never met me; they had just heard my record once and liked it, and they thought, Let’s have her open the tour! It’s unthinkable, really. The very first night of the tour, when I heard Justin sing “Stacks” in Newcastle in the UK, my heart exploded; I thought, “He HAS to be Orpheus.” I wrote my manager Slim [Moon] and Todd [Sickafoose] the producer: “He is the Orpheus of the century!” I loved the idea that Orpheus, as a supernatural figure, could sing with many voices at the same time. But I had to have a stern little talk with myself that night; I was like, “This guy doesn’t even know you, and he’s already doing you a huge favor having you on the tour; you can’t ask him right away, you might weird him out, wait till the end of the tour and then see if it’s the right thing to ask him…” But the second night of the tour we were on a ferryboat from Scotland to Norway and I’d had a couple glasses of wine and I couldn’t bear it any longer—I just blurted it all out in a rush: the opera, the record, will you please please please be Orpheus? and Justin just said, “yes.”
ON THE RECORD
The first thing we recorded was Michael’s orchestral arrangements, and it was a powerful thing to hear them in the clarity of the studio rather than the rush of the stage. They positively soared. We recorded them with some incredible musicians mostly from Todd’s Brooklyn scene: Jim Black on drums, Michael of course on guitar and Todd on bass, Josh Roseman on trombone, Marika Hughes on cello, Tanya Kolmanovitch on viola, and at some point Rob Burger popped in and laid down some mind-boggling accordion and piano. We were in a beautiful and expensive studio so we had to act fast to record all twenty tracks or whatever it was. Todd is a great producer, able to hear everything at once, able to know if a take was “there” or not, able to encourage everyone to feel the same things, breathe together, breathe magic into things, even in studio world. He was marvelous in that stressful situation. Then he laid down all sorts of other instruments, sometimes following the notes of Michael’s score but in another “voice” or register, sometimes supporting the score from beneath with a lushness and weirdness. He recorded some very weird stuff: a glass orchestra, a trumpet player who mostly played percussively, and at one point he said something about how he was hunting for “vintage futurism” sounds. “Vintage futurism” is how I had once described the Hadestown story. Together we sorted through the vocals—from New Orleans, Iowa City, Eau Claire, Los Angeles, Vermont—at Todd’s home studio in Carroll Gardens. Todd is patient, totally discerning, and totally open at the same time.
THEMES OF HADESTOWN
I think it’s safe to say all three of us—Ben, Michael, and I—are pretty influenced by the work of Bertold Brecht and Kurt Weill. Brecht seems to approach the same tough theme in Threepenny Opera and Mother Courage: morality ceasing to exist in desperate conditions. “First you must feed us, then we’ll all behave…” “ When the Chips are Down” is really kind of an homage to that idea. “You can have your principles / when you’ve got a bellyful.” To me this is also the whole theme of the Joker in The Dark Knight and maybe the other Batman movies I haven’t seen. The Joker sets up horrific little test scenarios with human subjects to try and prove that people who are scared and desperate will turn on their fellow man. It’s a tough theme because we all recognize that capacity in ourselves—but that’s not all we have a capacity for, as the Joker finds out.
To me the essence of “Why We Build the Wall” is, it’s meant to provoke the question. Take global warming to its terrifying logical conclusion and imagine part of the world becomes uninhabitable and there are masses of hungry poor people looking for higher ground. then imagine you are lucky enough to live in relative wealth and security, though maybe you’ve sacrificed some freedoms to live that way. When the hordes are at the door, who among us would not be behind a big fence? These conditions exist already, but most of us don’t have to acknowledge them in a real way. I really and truly had no specific place in mind when I wrote “Why We Build the Wall.” People often say, “Oh, that’s just like Israel/Palestine, or that’s just like the US/Mexico border,’” and maybe it is, but the song was written more archetypally.
One funny thing is, the first song ideas came as long ago as 2004-5. I didn’t get deep into it till ’06 when we started working on the production, but in any case, the Depression-era stuff was part of the show long before the US economy tanked. I remember Ben and I watching Matewan together to get ideas about poverty, company towns, mining, etc. The whole show became uncannily relevant in the past year or so, which I didn’t expect. When I play Hadestown songs in my own shows, I usually introduce the show as quick as I can saying, “It’s based on the Orpheus myth, and set in a post-apocalyptic American Depression era …” At some point in the past year I noticed people were laughing pretty loud when I said that—it was so close to home!
The real moral of Hadestown to me is, yes, we’re fucked, but we still have to try with all our might. We have to love hard and make beauty in the face of futility. That’s the essence of what Persephone sings at the end of the show: “Some birds sing when the sun shines bright / my praise is not for them, but the one who sings in the dead of night / I raise my cup to him.”