New songs tell old tales
The name Anaïs Mitchell may not be familiar to the casual music listener. But those attuned to the world of folk music will know her as “the queen of modern folk music,” as she has been labeled in many publications.
The 31-year-old songstress will perform with Jefferson Hamer at the Wildwood Hotel in Willamina on Sunday, along with old-time musician Frank Fairfield.
On Tuesday, Mitchell and Hamer released a seven-song album, “Child Ballads,” as a duo. Despite its innocent-sounding name, the subjects of “Child Ballads” include drowned lovers, sunken ships and queens cursed by witches. That’s because the songs are from a collection compiled by folklorist Francis James Child in the late 19th century.
Child’s offerings have been reconfigured many times by folk musicians over the years. Mitchell and Hamer’s collaboration is a gorgeous addition to the tradition. For fans of Mitchell, the unique recording falls right in line with her solo work.
In 2010, Mitchell released a folk opera titled “Hadestown” on Ani DiFranco’s label, Righteous Babe Records. The album follows a variation of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, set in a future poverty-stricken America. It featured celebrated folk artists like DiFranco, Justin Vernon (better known as Bon Iver) and Greg Brown.
Mitchell’s more traditional albums, like 2007’s “The Brightness” and 2012’s “Young Man In America,” similarly present old world themes in a contemporary way. “Young Man” found itself on many Best of 2012 lists, including those of MOJO, Uncut, The Independent, NPR and the Wall Street Journal.
Her folk reign, so to speak, is dependent on the timelessness of the music she creates. In that regard, Hamer proves to be a perfect match.
“What I connect with most is storytelling,” Mitchell recently told The Telegraph of London. “Being Americans, Jefferson and I wanted to be able to sing these ballads in the States and have people understand them, rather than see them as museum pieces. But we also wanted to preserve this very weird, archaic culture, which is part of why we love those songs in the first place.”
Mitchell grew up on a Vermont farm with a novelist father (who first taught her of Child’s work), and began writing songs when she was 17. Her stories are sung with her distinctive, girlish voice – high-pitched, but softened as needed to match the themes of her balladry.
This will be Mitchell’s second show in Willamina.
“She just has such an enchanting way about her,” said Wildwood Hotel owner Katie Kendall. “She’s got a quality that you just have to hear. It’s almost impossible to be in the room and not be in tune with what she’s singing about.”
Kendall said she is equally excited to host Fairfield, whose appearance is drawing as much interest as Mitchell’s.
A late addition to the set is Eugene-based singer-songwriter Jeffrey Martin, who will kick things off.
“It’ll be a great evening of music,” Kendall said. “I’m excited.”
Music begins at 6:30 at the Wildwood, 150 N.E. Main St. Admission is $5.