In case you haven’t met her, Anaïs Mitchell is not a man. She’s a woman, quick to laugh and to cry, a fan of Jane Austen and miniskirts. She came of age reading the diaries of Anaïs Nin and blasting early Ani Difranco records. So it may catch a few listeners off-guard when Mitchell cries out, in the opening sequence of her latest album, “I’m a young man!” And it may come as a surprise when, over the course of eleven songs, she seems to be channeling spirits from the Old Testament to modern America—but mostly, well, from the Y chromosome.
Who is the Young Man in America? The hero of the title track, who Mitchell says “shows up in a few songs,” is a restless character on a feverish hunt for pleasure and success. Alcohol, fame, money, sex—nothing satisfies him.”I think of him as mythological, a Coyote figure,” says Mitchell, “but there’s a lot of men I know in him. He’s very desirous and very sad.” The America he inhabits is an every-man-for-himself frontier country, a place Mitchell caught a glimpse of during the recent recession: “I was watching the news, a family getting evicted from their home, all their furniture out in the street. And this word came into my head: ‘Wilderland’. This is a wild place. There’s not a lot of trust that you will be taken care of.”
But there are other voices on the album. “My dad is one of them,” says Mitchell. “From him I get my earliest understanding of what it means to be a man. Also my love of language, and my anxiety.” Her father is a writer, and her song ‘Shepherd’ is based on the first chapter of a novel he published in the late seventies, The Souls of Lambs. It’s the story of a modern-day farmer whose wife dies in childbirth as an indirect result of his preoccupation with his work. “He was a young man, about the age I am now, when he wrote it,” she says. “Some of what he was wrestling with in that story—work, family, the feeling of racing the clock, the question of what’s really important—I wrestle with myself now.” What’s it like to pick up on a theme her father introduced three decades ago? “Like having a conversation with my dad,” she says, “except that we’re both thirty years old.”
Taking on voices other than her own is not exactly new for Mitchell. In 2010 Righteous Babe Records released the recorded version of her folk opera Hadestown, a modern retelling of the Orpheus myth, featuring guest singers Justin Vernon (Bon Iver), Ani Difranco and Greg Brown. The album became something of a critical phenomenon in the UK, making “Best of 2010″ lists in The Guardian, Sunday Times and Observer, thanks in part to the skillful production of Todd Sickafoose, who also produced and arranged Young Man. There’s a vast, lush quality to Sickafoose’s imagination that seems to capture the spirit of the underworld and the lonesome valley. “As a producer, he’s a storyteller in his own right,” says Mitchell. “He’s very operatic.”
Young Man is not an opera, but it is a story: a sprawling tale with multiple protagonists. And while Mitchell delivers the lead vocals herself this time around, she’s joined by a tribe of musicians that make the album feel like a collective ritual. Sickafoose assembled some of Brooklyn’s most sought-after rock and experimental jazz players: guitarist Adam Levy and violinist Jenny Scheinman, to name a couple. Chris Thile shows up on mandolin as well as alongside songwriters Jefferson Hamer and Rachel Ries in a harmonic chorus. Michael Chorney, the man behind Hadestown’s remarkable score and the producer of Mitchell’s two previous albums (2007′s The Brightness and 2004′s Hymns for the Exiled) makes a guest appearance on guitar. And in a departure from those early recordings, Young Man features not one but two stick-wielding drummer/percussionists—Andrew Borger and Kenny Wollesen—that give the album some of its swagger.
If there’s a common thread in Mitchell’s work—from her earliest ballads, to the opera, to this new chapter—it’s that she’s as interested in the world around her as the one inside her. She has a way of tackling big themes with the same emotional intimacy most artists use to describe their inner lives. “That’s why,” as one journalist put it, “there’s a sexual ambiguity about her work and why, even in her most intimate moments, she never sounds like a confessional songwriter.” It doesn’t matter whether the stories she tells are her own or someone else’s. “The emotions are my own,” says Mitchell. “As for the Young Man, he’s in me too, I feel his restlessness a lot. He’s a part of me like my dad’s old book or like something an old lover said one time. Those parts of ourselves that haunt us, sometimes we have to appease them with an offering of food and wine so they’ll quit haunting us for a while. This album is that kind of offering.”