Anais Mitchell travelled back to the 19th century to create her new album, which she’ll perform at Celtic Connections. Interview by Sue Wilson
ORIGINALLY published between 1883 and 1898, Francis James Child’s five-volume English and Scottish Popular Ballads remains a central foundation document in the field of traditional song. Comprising 305 individually numbered and classified ballads, most presented in multiple variant forms – including transplanted versions from North America – it also features Child’s assiduously researched commentary on their history and origins, tracing some narratives as far back as medieval Scandinavia and ancient Greece.
The collection has been a bottomless wellspring of the contemporary folk scene since the first stirrings of revival in the late 1950s, and even many a non-aficionado will recognise titles like Scarborough Fair, Barbara Allen, Raggle Taggle Gypsies and The Great Selkie – otherwise known as Child 2, 84, 200 and 113.
Interestingly, like that subsequent seminal preserver of British folk traditions Alan Lomax, Child was American, a sailmaker’s son from Boston who became Harvard professor of rhetoric and oratory at the age of 26. Presumably he shared something of the same outsider’s fascination with the material that underpins the forthcoming duo album, simply entitled Child Ballads.
The album was recorded by critically acclaimed US singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell – who made several best-of-2012 lists with her last release, Young Man In America – and her band’s lead guitarist Jefferson Hamer, here also partnering her in the new record’s front-and-centre vocal harmonies.
The daughter of 1960s back-to-the-land idealists, Mitchell grew up surrounded by books and music in rural Vermont. She encountered her first Child ballads as a child herself, among sundry protest anthems in a hippy-era songbook called Rise Up Singing. Both their narrative and linguistic elements piqued an interest that later became a fixation, after she heard such definitive interpreters as Paul Brady, Martin Carthy, Nic Jones and Dick Gaughan.
“The material itself really is the source of modern narrative poetry as we know it,” says Mitchell, whose penchant for the mythic and supernatural was previously highlighted in her daringly ambitious, widely fêted “folk opera” Hadestown, a modern updating of the Orpheus myth (which itself features in the Child corpus: King Orfeo is ballad No 19) performed at Celtic Connections in 2011.
“The stories are so powerful and so masterfully told, the language is so compelling: as a poet or a songwriter for whom lyrics are the most important thing, you can’t help but worship at this altar. But also as a writer, it was amazing to spend time looking at all the different versions of the same ballad, seeing how much the characters and perspectives varied, how the story was told, even to whether it ended happily or sadly. So while working with existing material gave us our initial framework, the variations within the Child collection – which we just took to calling “the Source” – also gave us a lot of creative freedom.”
In what felt like a somewhat daunting move for two young 21st century Americans, Mitchell and Hamer used that sense of freedom to do what, in fact, their anonymous forebear exponents of the Child material had been doing for centuries, and adapt the ballads to suit their own talents, tastes and experiences.
“It’s a very fine line to walk,” Mitchell says. “The otherworldliness of the tales and the archaic language they’re told in are a lot of what gives them their power, but at the same time some particular words or narrative elements felt as if they’d be obstacles to the story unfolding, especially for an audience unfamiliar with traditional folk songs. For us, too, we had to have lyrics we could sing without feeling like we were playing dress-up. And being American, we’re not especially comfortable with all the lords and dukes and knights in the originals - so there are lots of gentlemen in our versions.”
Melodically, too, Mitchell and Hamer continued to build on the traditional dialectic between precedent and invention. With Child’s collection containing only the words to the ballads, minus any accompanying music, the pair’s choice of settings was guided in part by classic treatments from the 1970s and 80s, with Martin Carthy’s 1976 release Crown of Horn proving particularly formative. “Initially, Anaïs and I thought this whole thing would be a neat little side project that we could dust off in a week or two,” Hamer recalls. “So we started singing the songs, discussing which ones to pick, whose versions to use, and everything seemed on track. Then one night during winter 2010 we ended up listening to Crown of Horn, and realised that he was operating on such a vastly deeper level, in terms of his imaginative and emotional involvement with the songs, and the way everything about his singing and guitar playing grew out of that. It kind of sent us back to the drawing-board – but also made us see that the way to go was to be bold, inventive and unafraid.”
Child Ballads is far from an overtly radical record, its core twin vocals and guitars only sparsely embellished with additional acoustic instrumentation. But the central, closely entwined interplay of Mitchell and Hamer’s voices – in songs usually performed solo – lend it an arresting dynamic vitality, enhanced by typically sure-handed production from Gary Paczosa (of Dolly Parton and Alison Krauss fame) and freshly transcending the material’s antiquity.
“It really has been a complete twin-mind project from the start, ever since Jefferson and I first realised we shared the same obsession with these songs,” Mitchell says. “We’ve laboured over every line and note together, so there’s really no separating which ideas were whose, and singing together just feels like a natural culmination of that process – almost like enacting some kind of ritual.”
• Anais Mitchell supports Karine Polwart at the City Halls, Glasgow, on 2 February. She also plays as part of Hazy Recollections at Celtic Connections on 3 February, and at the Pleasance Cabaret Bar, Edinburgh, on 8 March. www.anaismitchell.com
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