Her young man lives in a bleak America

Anaïs Mitchell is on a U.S. tour that brings her to the Tin Angel on Thursday. Her new album offersno easy answers.
Anaïs Mitchell is on a U.S. tour that brings her to the Tin Angel on Thursday. Her new album offersno easy answers.

"The record is a reflection on our country as wild place."

Posted: February 24, 2012

Two years after singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell released the ambitious and career-defining folk opera Hadestown - a musical retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice set in Depression-era America - she's back with a decidedly different but equally ambitious effort, Young Man in America.

Produced by Todd Sickafoose, who also helmed Hadestown, the new album features several New York-based rock and experimental jazz musicians, and has Mitchell inhabiting several musical characters, male and female.

"The record is a reflection on our country as wild place, a not necessarily safe place, where it's each man for himself and you're not sure if anyone's got your back," the 30-year-old Mitchell said by phone from London, where she played a handful of shows before launching her 25-city U.S. tour this week.

So, while Young Man in America isn't an opera from the Vermont-based musician, it is an epic tale, albeit one without clear-cut conclusions or easy answers.

"The young man in the story line is a mythological creature, but also a flesh-and-blood person with a desirous thirst for success and pleasure. Like many people, he's looking for his place in the world and isn't sure what that is," Mitchell says. Several of the album's songs, she notes, are inspired by Celtic balladry and its use of archetypal, clearly drawn characters. The song "Shepherd" was influenced directly by a short story, "The Souls of Lambs," written in the late 1970s by Mitchell's then-college-professor father.

"It's about how the things we are relentlessly pursuing in life, beautiful things, are the very things we trample down in our pursuit," Mitchell said, adding that she's about the same age now that her dad was when he wrote his short story.

"Some of the things he addressed - family, looking for salvation through your work, trying to figure out what's really important - are things I wrestle with myself," Mitchell said, adding that her father "is a very important figure throughout the album." (It is his face as a young man that adorns the CD's cover.)

While the hard-to-categorize Hadestown seemed to diffuse the "folk singer" label long pinned on Mitchell, she can "still much indentify with old-school folk music, especially Celtic, which is very narrative and lyrically dense."

Mitchell's high, fluttery - but ultimately insistent - voice often draws comparisons to Cyndi Lauper and indie harpist Joanna Newsom, but her penchant for aural experimentation sets her apart from many peers.

"Creatively, things just seem to get more exciting for me," Mitchell said, adding that Young Man in America was a "completely different" recording experience than its predecessor.

"Hadestown had so many different players on it, and I had to go to them [to record], which became something of a scavenger hunt," she recalled. "For the new album, the initial recording was done in two days."

Onstage, Mitchell is backed by what she's dubbed her Young Man Band: multi-instrumentalist Ben Davis, bassist Noah Hahn, and keyboardist-singer Rachel Ries, who also will open Thursday's Tin Angel show.

"Rachel and I go way back together; we recorded a joint EP in 2008," Mitchell said. "It's a good vibe being onstage with these three."

Anais Mitchell with Rachel Ries plays at 8 p.m. Thursday at the Tin Angel, 20 S. Second St. Tickets: $12. Information: 215-928-0978, 215-928-0770, www.tinangel.com.

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