BRISTOL, Vt. — Eight years ago, shortly before the birth of her first child, the musician Anaïs Mitchell was instructed in a hypnobirthing class to envision her “happy place,” and was flooded with a sense memory from her rural Vermont childhood.
She was in her grandparents’ house, which her father helped build, “laying on the carpeted floor in a sunbeam coming through the sliding glass door,” she recalled. Something fragrant was cooking on the stove. Her grandmother quilted while young Anaïs stenciled, crafted, or, later, scribbled lines that would become the basis of her earliest songs.
In early January, a now 40-year-old Mitchell stood in that same living room, taking in the house’s rich history. Her wide blue eyes smudged with dark liner, she wore a flannel button-down and a Brooklyn Nets beanie, not an expression of fandom so much as a sartorial homage to the city she used to call home.
In the decades since that childhood memory, she’s become an accomplished singer-songwriter and a force behind one of the most successful and celebrated Broadway musicals of the past few years, the eight-time Tony-winning hit “Hadestown.” By this time next year, Mitchell hopes to be living in this house with her husband and children, bringing up her two daughters on the very same family farm on which she was raised.
“It’s intense to go home,” she said. “I know everyone; it’s a small town.” When she runs into people she has known her whole life, she admitted, it can be easy to revert to her childhood self. “I was a little scared to move back for that reason,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean it’s not the thing you should do.”
In some sense, leaving Brooklyn for Vermont was a practical choice: Mitchell was nine months pregnant with her second child when Covid-19 hit New York. “One day I pulled our older kid out of school and the next day we bought a car,” she said. “And then the next day Broadway closed and I was like, we’re leaving. We drove to Vermont and the baby was born a week later at my parents’ farm.”
It’s in many ways an ordinary story — how many city-dwellers fled to the country? — but her telling has the narrative beats of an epic myth. In that way, it feels like an Anaïs Mitchell song.
“There’s something in the way her ideas connect and always come back around,” said Josh Kaufman, the musician and producer who plays with Mitchell in the folk trio Bonny Light Horseman. “She has a very lived-in knowledge of traditional music and folk songs. But as a human she’s also incredibly in-the-moment, which allows her to anchor everything in the present.”
Once a prolific solo artist, it’s been nearly a decade since Mitchell released music under her own name. But on Jan. 28, she’s returning with a self-titled album, produced by Kaufman — a collection of the most personal songs she has ever released. She sometimes attempted to write her own music during those long, busy years of working on “Hadestown,” but she ultimately “felt like I was cheating on it if I did anything else.”
“I’m so proud of what we made and there was so much joy in the making of it,” she added, “but it was also an unsustainable way of living, that level of stress.”
Adapted from a humble, low-budget community theater project she debuted in Montpelier in 2006, “Hadestown” brought the ancient myth of Orpheus and Eurydice into conversation with such modern phenomena as capitalism, climate change and New Orleans-style jazz.
In 2010, Mitchell released a concept album called “Hadestown,” featuring songs from the initial Vermont theater production sung by some of her folk peers: Justin Vernon of Bon Iver voiced Orpheus, Ani DiFranco was Persephone. But Mitchell still dreamed of adapting a more ambitious stage production.
“Anaïs is the most specific writer I’ve ever encountered,” the “Hadestown” director Rachel Chavkin said in a phone interview. “So often the process of creating can seem really abstract,” she added. “What is very beautiful about Anaïs is that she lives very openly in the process of turning over words and images, feeling them around in her mouth and on her guitar.”
When “Hadestown” opened at the Walter Kerr Theater in April 2019 (taking over for “Springsteen on Broadway”), Mitchell became just the fourth woman to compose the music, lyrics and book of a Broadway musical. The moment was a turning point in her journey with a project she’d been living with for 13 long years. But there comes a time in a show’s life when even the most involved writer must find a new space.
“There was a funny moment that happened as soon as the show opened on Broadway, where suddenly I didn’t have a home in the theater anymore,” Mitchell said when we first met up in Manhattan in the courtyard of the Standard Hotel last November. “Literally: It used to be, this is my seat, this is where I go play guitar in the stairwell. And then suddenly the audience is there and there’s nowhere for me.”
But this necessary step back from “Hadestown” finally gave her the opportunity to reconnect with the music world from which she’d long been absent, and return to her own, more intimate form of songwriting.
“Hadestown” and her stirring 2012 album “Young Man in America” involved a lot of “dressing up in costumes, getting access to some kind of larger-than-life feelings and language, like, ‘I’m the king of the Underworld,’” she said, laughing for a moment as she did her best Hades impression. “I do really enjoy that. But these songs are all me, the stories are my stories. That feels very different.”
THOUGH SHE IS not quite at the level of Ben, Jerry or Bernie, Mitchell is certifiably Vermont Famous — the sort of New Englander who gets recognized in hushed tones at folk festivals and farmers’ markets. Her hair is shaggy and dyed darker than the blonde of her “Hadestown” days, and she speaks in a chiming voice that often sounds innocently wonder-struck, before a joke or a playful bit of profanity suddenly brings it back down to earth.
Behind the wheel of her salt-kissed Chrysler Pacifica in January, she pointed out local landmarks on the 15-minute drive between the house she is renting in Bristol and her parents’ farm: her high school; a sign for a local “radical puppetry” company; a humorously and undeniably phallic-shaped headstone that has always made her laugh (“Who chose that?”).
Mitchell describes her parents as “hippies, back-to-the-landers.” In the late 1960s, her father, Don, scored a book deal when he was still a Swarthmore undergraduate, for a semi-autobiographical hitchhiking novel he’d written called “Thumb Tripping.” He sold the movie rights, moved to Los Angeles with his young wife, Cheryl, and wrote the screenplay to a pulpy, “Easy Rider”-era film adaptation of his book. He cashed out in the early 1970s and used his Hollywood earnings to buy a 130-acre farm in Vermont’s Champlain Valley.
For most of Anaïs’s childhood, her entire family lived on the property, including her grandparents in that wooden house her father helped build for them. Cheryl opposed television, so young Anaïs would sneak over to her grandparents’ place whenever she wanted to watch; she has fond and uncommonly subversive memories of the nightly news with Dan Rather. She rode horses, roamed the woods with her older brother and, like her namesake Anaïs Nin, journaled prolifically.
She found those old diaries recently in a box in her grandparents’ house, and the experience inspired “Revenant,” a heartfelt, acoustic-guitar-driven song on the new album that finds her extending a mature grace to her younger self: “Suddenly I saw you there, runny-eyed in a wooden chair/Ran outside to hide your face in the wild Queen Anne’s lace,” she sings. “Come and let me hold you in my arms/Come and get my shoulder wet and warm.”
Mitchell went to Middlebury College, and supported herself as a figure model for art classes. “I was always very comfortable nude because no one can see us here, so everyone would skinny-dip,” she said on the secluded farm. When she was 19, one of those gigs led to the sort of meet-cute that might appear in an R-rated comedy: Noah Hahn, a student in one of the classes, turned out to be the man she would marry.
They were apart quite a bit in the early years of their relationship, as Mitchell was paying her dues on the road as an aspiring singer-songwriter. But — as she proposes on the new album’s ode to an artist’s muse, “Bright Star” — sometimes longing and distance can bear unexpected fruit. She was driving home alone from a show one night, hoping Noah was waiting up for her, when the melody and a few lyrics of what would become the first “Hadestown” song came to her out of the blue:
“Wait for me, I’m coming, in my garters and pearls/With what melody did you barter me from the wicked underworld?”
LIKE THE LONG gestating “Hadestown” (Chavkin compares the pace at which Mitchell works to “watching a tree grow, because it’s so deep, so imperceptible”), one of the most affecting songs on Mitchell’s new album took years to finish writing.
“Little Big Girl” is partially about the tension she experienced returning to her hometown, appearing to the outside world as a grown and accomplished woman while, internally, still feeling like that same scrappy little Anaïs she was years ago. But the song is roomy enough to tap into a more universal sentiment — how strange it is that we all “keep on getting older” while still feeling “just like a kid.” Or, more specifically, that the world treats you as an ever-aging woman when you sometimes feel as defenseless as a little girl.
“There’s so much art made by people in their 20s about the ups and downs of your love life,” Mitchell said. “I’ve been there and I love that music. It’s very deep and real. But there’s also all these other elements of being the age I am now, and being a mom, and relocating myself in the world and in my family. I want to be able to write about that stuff, too.”
Mitchell knows this kind of work can be too easily dismissed as “culturally irrelevant mom art,” as she put it. But the remarkable specificity of her songcraft and the expansive, almost mythic scope she brings to her human experience as a wife, mother and 40-something woman demand to be taken seriously.
“On her other records, it’s someone else’s epic poem that she’s running through her own beautiful sense of language and harmony,” Kaufman said. “On this one, she’s looking back like, ‘I have my own epic poem here. There’s these people, these relatives, my kids, my long relationship with my husband, my long relationship with my songwriting.’ It’s a self-portrait, but like any compelling self-portrait it’s vulnerable enough that you almost feel like you’re looking in a mirror. It resonates deeply because it’s so honest.”
FOR ONE NIGHT in November 2021, Mitchell once again had a designated seat in the theater when she attended the reopening of “Hadestown” following its pandemic closure. “It just made me miss the process of working on that show so much,” she said later. “I spent the first act of the show spinning wheels in my head like, ‘What musical could I write next? I need another story!’” She is content for now to focus on her work as a solo artist and with Bonny Light Horseman, though the thought of never writing another stage show after “Hadestown” would be like if she “went to grad school and then didn’t use the degree.”
Mitchell doesn’t see such a clear delineation between the two artistic worlds she straddles, though. “I do think there’s a common denominator with writing for the theater and writing songs,” she said. “Ideally, the song could live on without you. You don’t have to sing it, someone else could sing it. I love that. Someone singing it at their wedding, or at a funeral, or at a protest.”
She reached for a bit of lingual antiquity and metaphor that tracks closely to her own move to Vermont. “You know how you spell playwright as playwright, like you’re building or constructing something?” she asked. “A songwriter is kind of a songwright. It’s like building a house that other people will inhabit.”