Anais Mitchell inspired by songwriters and authors

Just 45 days after opening for Ani DiFranco at Albany’s Palace Theater, Mitchell returns here — to C

It’s Anais (uh-NAY-iss) Mitchell’s turn.

Just 45 days after opening for Ani DiFranco at Albany’s Palace Theater, Mitchell returns here — to Caffe Lena on Friday with guitarist and producer Michael Chorney.

“It’s a great honor and a lot of fun,” Mitchell said of touring with DiFranco, whose Righteous Babe Records released Mitchell’s latest (and third) album, “The Brightness.” “No two Ani shows are alike. So it’s great to get to see so many free ones.”

Mitchell said DiFranco “crashed through a wall none of us even knew was there with her music, and we all rushed in after her.”

Mitchell rushed in armed with early training on violin and guitar — she now studies piano and voice — and a head full of lofty literary and musical influences. “I’m inspired by writers who can meet me where I am and take me to some other more beautiful and dangerous place,” she said, citing songwriters Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman and Gillian Welch; and authors Lawrence Durrell, Henry Miller and “especially the Russians, who rush at the truth and big ideas.”

Punk-rock do-it-yourself independence also guided her. “U2 made a big impression,” Mitchell recalled. “My girlfriends and I used to watch [the U2 film] ‘Rattle and Hum’ and actually make out with the TV screen.”

Her own voice

She also loved the feel, if not the language, of 1980s pop: Peter Gabriel, Talking Heads, the Cure, Cyndi Lauper and Prince. “I admire a lot of singers,” she said, “but you can’t really have anyone’s voice but your own.” Her own voice shares a bit of the trebly dramatic warble of Kate Bush with Victoria Williams’ simplicity and the pop bounce of Cyndi Lauper.

As a guitarist, she said: “I admire people who use the guitar like a piano,” and guitarist and fellow Vermonter Michael Chorney applies this technique to both her albums and live shows these days,

After writing what she called “a handful of terrible songs — an important stage in any songwriters’ career,” Mitchell went public, playing a bookstore in her Middlebury, Vt., hometown, then busking in Boston subways. If she hit the subway at 7 a.m. as commuters headed to work, Mitchell sometimes made $75 an hour.

“As I didn’t have very many songs back then, it was perfect,” she said. “I could play the same three songs over and over again, and by the time I got back to the first song, the audience would have turned over completely.”

Soon, she was touring basement clubs with troubadour Robert Blake, sleeping on floors after the punk bands finished.

Checking out Arab world

She had traveled to study in Costa Rica and Egypt while young. So it was natural for her to ramble as an adult, and for observations from her travel to frame her songs in time and place.

“When I went to the Middle East, it was because we had just started this unconscionable war in Iraq and it felt like the right time to check out the Arab world in a real human way,” she said. “Anywhere you go, there are people just trying to pay the bills and make jokes and sell you a piece of fruit and give their kids a better life, and that makes the whole world seem brighter.”

Her album “The Brightness” shines a light on that common humanity. It does not rely on the rigid linear structure of a travelogue, but instead displays a clear desire to take the listener “to some more beautiful and dangerous place,” and to “rush at the truth and big ideas” — as she said the writers who inspire her do. For example, in “Song of the Magi,” Mitchell welcomes Jesus back to the Middle East with an ironic warning: “Welcome home, my child; your home is a checkpoint now — welcome to the brawl.”

“The Brightness” is the most fully realized of her three albums (“The Song They Sang When Rome Fell,” 2002, and “Hymns for the Exiled,” 2004”), and she was among the New Folk Competition winners at Kerrville, Texas, in 2003.

At Caffe Lena on Friday night, she and Chorney will probably play some songs from “Hadestown,” a folk opera that they co-wrote and that they introduced in 2006. “It’s based on the Orpheus myth, but set in a futuristic, vaguely Depression-era-esque company town,” she said. “It is my favorite project that I’ve ever worked on and feels like a door opening on the big wide world of show tunes. I hope to write more for musical theater, and I hope to meet Stephen Sondheim one day and he says, ‘Nice work, kid.’ ”

And why not: Mitchell recalled that Ani DiFranco told her “Great to hear you” when they first met; then signed Mitchell to her own record label and lent Mitchell her audiences on tour. Now, it’s Mitchell’s turn to build her own audiences.

Anais Mitchell

WHERE: Caffe Lena, 47 Phila St., Saratoga Springs

WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday

HOW MUCH: $14, $12 for members

MORE INFO: 583-0022,, or

Categories: Life and Arts

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