From the November/December 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Jeffrey Pepper Rodgers
Back in 2006, Anaïs Mitchell was in a Vermont studio with producer/guitarist Michael Chorney working on her album The Brightness. Then in her mid-20s, she was already a rising star of the singer-songwriter world, winning the Kerrville Folk Festival’s New Folk award and signing with Ani DiFranco’s Righteous Babe label. For The Brightness, Mitchell was working with a set of songs rooted in personal experience, but at the same time she found herself exploring a totally different type of songwriting that drew on Greek mythology, and shared these new songs with Chorney.
“After about two or three of them, she said, ‘MC, I think I’m writing a folk opera,’” recalls Chorney. And, she added, “Why don’t you score it for your band?”
So began the epic journey of Hadestown, Mitchell’s musical retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. Over the course of 13 years, Hadestown grew from Vermont community theater to a concept album (featuring such notable voices as DiFranco, Greg Brown, and Justin Vernon) and then to full productions Off Broadway, in Edmonton and London, and ultimately on Broadway, with Mitchell rewriting her creation every step of the way. All that persistence certainly paid off—in 2019 Hadestown swept the Tony Awards, winning Best Musical and much more, and this year scored a Grammy for its original cast recording as well. With a story that feels both ancient and eerily contemporary, Hadestown is a triumph of art and songwriting, and in many ways that is its subject too: how a song can raise us up in hard times.
Steeped in blues, folk, ragtime, and jazz, Hadestown is a decidedly nontraditional musical. The band is onstage and very much part of the cast, and the main driver of the songs is acoustic guitar. On Broadway, Chorney plays a Gibson J-45 that is the designated show guitar, using unique prepared-guitar effects to create an array of unexpected sounds (see “The Prepared Guitarist” sidebar on p. 36).
Before the coronavirus pandemic struck, the musical was gearing up for a national tour while continuing to pack Broadway’s Walter Kerr Theater. And Mitchell also emerged with her first major post-Hadestown project: Bonny Light Horseman, a new band with Eric D. Johnson (the Fruit Bats) and Josh Kaufman (multi-instrumentalist and producer for Josh Ritter, the National, and Bob Weir). Picking up the thread of Mitchell’s 2013 Child Ballads album with Jefferson Hamer, Bonny Light Horseman reimagines traditional songs in a landscape of spacious folk-rock. Their self-titled first album was released in January 2020.
Early this year I connected with Mitchell by email (her preference as she was winding down from public and press duties with the impending arrival of her second child) to talk about her journey as a songwriter and guitarist through Hadestown and beyond.
Before Hadestown, how aware were you of the conventions of musical-theater songwriting? Were there models you looked to as you turned it into a full theatrical production?
I’m not someone who comes from the theater world—not really a “show tunes” gal. Definitely the songs I grew up loving most came from the music world, especially the folk/singer-songwriter one. But I did do a lot of exploring and listening to musicals over the course of working on the show. I even did one semester of grad school in musical theater, until I realized I was too busy actually working on the show to finish the degree!
I’d say the main musicals that I’ve been inspired by are sung-through shows. Les Misérables was huge for me, and Sweeney Todd. More recently, Hamilton, and The Great Comet of 1812 by Dave Malloy, another collaborator of Rachel Chavkin (my director). Sung-through musicals have their own logic: there’s no separation between song and scene, there’s a total suspension of reality, and it requires figuring out how to write recitative dialogue, among other things.
How did you manage to stay interested in working on these songs for so many years? The payoff is obvious now, but I imagine that wouldn’t always have been the case.
Ha! Well, there were many, many times of despair in my little concrete writing spot in Brooklyn, rewriting the same song or scene for the nth time, where I was like, “This is crazy. I should get a different job. Anything would be easier than this!”
But a few things kept me going. One, being able to bounce the new work off of my collaborators, especially Rachel Chavkin and our dramaturg Ken Cerniglia. Two, being in the room with actors, seeing them bring the words to life in ways I never could have imagined. Not to mention the other design elements—hearing how Michael [Chorney] and Todd [Sickafoose] elevated the music at every turn with their orchestration choices, and seeing how the visual world evolved with sets, costumes, and lights, was really a dream. And probably most profound, there was just always a sense that the work could be better, that it wasn’t finished. A myth that old and deep keeps revealing itself in new ways, so it never got old. I think all of us who worked on the show would say the same.
There’s such a pronounced New Orleans quality to the Hadestown music—much more so than I hear in your solo music. Why did you wind up going in that direction?
I write songs on acoustic guitar, often fingerpicked. They’re rather skeletal that way compared to a piano composer. I was going through a big Travis-picking phase when I first started writing songs like “Way Down Hadestown.” But I was also working from the very earliest days with Michael Chorney, who put the iconic trombone, twin string parts, and really swinging rhythm section in the band. Michael plays both guitar and saxophone, and his sensibilities include vintage folk and jazz and art music of various stripes, all of which he brought to his orchestrations.
The spirit of the trombone quickly became essential to the show and sounds so New Orleans-y. And New Orleans continued to make sense as a touchstone in many ways, especially later, when I was working with Rachel. New Orleans is a mythic city, a music city, and its proximity to both oil culture and the unpredictability of nature made it feel thematically right and rich for this story.
Did you find you needed to approach lyric writing for theater in a very different way than when writing songs just to perform yourself?
Definitely. For one thing, I had a whole team of people—director, dramaturg, producers—weighing in almost constantly on the dramaturgical needs of the piece. Many lines that I found very beautiful poetically just weren’t working hard enough on behalf of the storytelling, so they had to be revised. There’s also a really different kind of structure to dramatic songs. A song like “Wedding Song,” which I played for years in my songwriter shows, always felt structurally whole as a piece of music. But dramatically, it fell flat, because drama demands that every song have results, revelations, or both. It took many rewrites of the intro piece “Come Home with Me,” plus a recitative interlude and then a bridge to another song (“Epic”) and back, to make it feel like we had truly arrived someplace by the end of the scene.
In the Hadestown songs, how much did the guitar parts change from the way you played them originally?
Well, Michael has been playing the guitar part in the show for more years than I can count, and he developed his own voicings. I think some of them were even constructed to interlock with my own parts when we used to perform duo shows. But the guitar book, like all aspects of the show, has evolved immensely over 13 years. Michael’s got such a distinct tone and idiosyncratic style of playing, it’s a miracle that we’ve found subs who are able to play the guitar book when he’s not onstage!
How would you describe the process of working with Michael and others to build orchestrations for these songs?
Michael began arranging the songs from the earliest days in Vermont. Todd Sickafoose produced the studio album for us (2010) and began adding his ideas to Michael’s at that point, and then joined Michael as an orchestrator when we began developing the show Off Broadway and beyond. I should also mention Liam Robinson [of the folk duo Robinson and Rohe], our music director and vocal arranger.
All of those guys brought so much of their own personalities to the arrangements, and for the most part, it was like: “Hell, yeah, this is brilliant, and I wouldn’t have even known how to ask for something like this.” In a few rare cases things went in a direction that didn’t feel like they satisfied the needs of the drama, and that feedback would either come from me or from Rachel, who despite being a nonmusician has a very keen ear for music.
But another thing you have to understand—and here’s where the back-and-forth I’m sure got crazy-making for those guys—is that from workshop to workshop, production to production, many of these songs were changing quickly, and sometimes changing forward and backward. Sometimes I’d be like, “Okay, we’re going back to the second verse structure from Edmonton here, but we’re adding a bridge.” And that has got to be really challenging for artists whose work spans multiple instruments and voices. That’s a lot of staves of music that have to be altered to accommodate, for example, even a few new lines of recitative going into the middle of a song.
As someone who normally writes by ear, how have you found working in a medium where the songs are ultimately notated?
It was quite the rigmarole. I’d have to make a demo of myself singing the stuff, send it to a copyist, and they’d do their best to copy down my phrasing. Then, inevitably, the music director would be teaching it to someone and it would sound weird, like a very math-y version of what I’d done, and we’d have to amend it. But luckily our MD [music director] and all our singers are very ear-based and flexible, and we figured it out.
What inspired you to return to the well of traditional music with Bonny Light Horseman?
You know, I was in so deep with Hadestown for so long, and I had a hard time writing “my own” songs during that time—it always felt like “cheating” on the show. When I started working with Josh [Kaufman] and Eric [D. Johnson] on these very old songs and adaptations, it suddenly felt like, here’s a thing I can do. It felt intuitive, easy even, and also very inspiring to dive back into the very old lines, the very old images. Josh and Eric are extraordinary musicians, and it felt like a very egoless coming together for this project. You call it a “well” and that is exactly right. It’s water from a deep well.
I was surprised that your latest project is a new band as opposed to a solo album.
It’s not like it was a premeditated choice—more like when the muses say, “Hey, how ’bout this?” you kinda gotta do it. I’d love to make another solo album and hope to before too long. But this came along and felt really vibrant, really life-giving. And I have to say, I’ve loved making this music and touring it when I’m truly a member of a band—I’m not even the “lead” singer, since Eric and I share the singing. I love it when Eric’s singing lead and I can just hang back and enjoy rocking out with the rhythm section and Josh’s wild and warm guitar-playing.
How would you compare the approach to traditional songs in Bonny Light Horseman to what you did with the Child ballads with Jefferson Hamer?
I’d say whereas Jefferson and I were really going for long, intense, detailed narrative ballads, really going deep on the language, Bonny Light Horseman’s approach is more impressionistic. Less language, more repetitive hooks, more wide-open space for a variety of instruments.
Even when you are not explicitly working from a traditional story/song/myth, do you see a relationship between your own songwriting and these traditions?
Absolutely. What I’m after as a songwriter is the intersection of what feels emotionally true for me—what I can truly inhabit—and what feels connected to the whole wide world, the past, the future. I think writing songs is a lot like writing plays because in both instances, you’re building a house for other people to inhabit. I’ve often thought, the way we call a writer of plays a “playwright,” we could also call a writer of songs a “songwright.”
There are a lot of artists who are happy simply to self-express, happy to be the sole, beautiful, idiosyncratic vessel of their music, if you know what I mean. But for me, I’ve mostly wanted to build the kind of song that others can sing, and I think the traditional song world is so beautiful in terms of: We don’t even know who those writers were, but these songs are houses that have stood the test of time.
Looking back, how has creating Hadestown changed you as a songwriter?
Well, this is interesting. So much of my working and reworking of Hadestown was text-based. Rachel would often say, “If you want it on the stage, put it in the text!” Theater is very obsessed with text; I have to say it seems like music is almost an afterthought for many in that world—but not for Rachel! But I also found many moments where less was more in terms of the writing.
Emotional shorthand is so effective. An actor can sometimes do more with one well-placed pause than with a whole paragraph of text. That pause is the canvas the actor paints on. And I think with Bonny Light Horseman, we’ve found that what we want for these renditions of these songs is for there to be plenty of space around the words. That space is the canvas the musician paints on. So I wonder if that’s the direction I’m headed writing-wise—to allow words to do less of the work. I don’t think it necessarily makes writing words any easier. They still have to be right, just . . . fewer of them?
Two Sides of “The Wall”
One of the most powerful and widely covered songs from Hadestown is “Why We Build the Wall,” which may seem like current political commentary but actually was written more than a dozen years ago. While the core of the song stayed the same during the show’s evolution, it’s interesting to compare the guitar part in the show with how Mitchell plays it.
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Example 1 shows Mitchell’s version, fingerpicked in dropped-D tuning with a capo at the fifth fret. The video at acousticguitar.com includes a clip that Mitchell made for AG in 2017 demonstrating her part. By contrast, Example 2 shows “The Wall” as played by Michael Chorney in the show (and on the original cast album), in standard tuning with a capo at the third fret. Both sound in the key of G, but the voicings are subtly different.
The Prepared Guitarist
The guitar book of Hadestown, in the words of its creator, Michael Chorney, is “a monster”—in part because the guitar is so prominent throughout the show, with very few breaks. An additional challenge comes from the extensive use of prepared guitar, which he calls “one of the secret ingredients to the sound.”
Chorney’s guitar preparations in Hadestown involve taking a piece of coated, bendable copper wire about seven or eight inches long, weaving it through the strings, and tightening the ends. “When it’s above the soundhole, or up around the 12th or 15th fret, you get a very percussive sound,” he says. “That’s what you hear on the opening figure of ‘When the Chips Are Down,’ for example.” When the wire is back by the bridge, as in “The Epics,” the effect is more subtle, almost like an analog chorus. In a video on the AG website, Chorney demos some of these sounds.
Throughout the show, the guitarist plays one instrument—a Gibson J-45—and has to apply and remove the wire very quickly to be ready for the next cue. That takes real practice, Chorney says
“If we had used just straight-up acoustic guitar over the course of the whole play, it would get very homogenous,” he says. “So I was trying to find a way to make the instrument more versatile.” —JPR