A.L. ADAMS: How did you initially discover the Child Ballads?
ANAÏS MITCHELL: We were both familiar with the Child Ballads by way of other artists' having sung them: Martin Carthy, Nic Jones, Fairport Convention, Anne Briggs, Pentangle, Joan Baez, etc., but when we started working on the record we got hold of the books. They were in a used book store in this small town in Vermont, five volumes, paperback. It was a real different thing to work from the written text, because not only can you see 12 different versions of the same ballad back to back, you also see it as a written story, with different acts, main characters, etc.— a pretty different experience than hearing them sung. We worked a lot in the car on tour, or in houses, and we'd usually start by reading aloud all the different versions of a ballad to see what different people's approaches are. Then we'd go line by line picking and choosing the language that felt best, story-wise, poetically, and also as Americans, trying to find language that felt right coming off our tongues. Sometimes none of the lines in the text felt right so we'd make up our own, trying to stay faithful to the story. If there was a traditional melody we loved, we sang that, but in a couple of cases, we decided to forge our own. I'd say we got bolder and more "activist" with our interpretations as the project went along... The first few songs we did were pretty faithful to our favorite recorded versions, and the last few songs we did are more their own animal.
How are the Child Ballads similar and different to your prior catalog of songs?
Storytelling has always been real important to me as a songwriter, love stories, political stories... and Hadestown (the opera I put out a few years back) was definitely a grand experiment in storytelling over a cycle of songs. The ballads are really the ancient source of songs-as-stories; they're unapologetically narrative—seven minutes long, dozens of verses, virtually no choruses or bridges, etc. I think they take to an extreme something I might have played around with in my own songs but never gone "all the way" with. The Young Man in America album was getting written and recorded at the same time as the ballads—the two records were neck and neck for awhile, then Young Man pulled ahead—but in any case I know for a fact that a lot of the old school language of the ballads made their way into the Young Man songs.
In a broader framework, what do old ballads have that modern pop songs tend to lack?
Well, like I say above: unapologetic narrative-ness. You gotta be in the mood for these songs, you know what i mean? You don't wanna put this record on to pump yourself up for a big night on the town. But for the patient listener able to follow the thread all the way into the labyrinth, there is a great reward. The stories are fantastic, hypnotic, and the poetry is deeply thrilling. The imagery sticks with me in a way that pop music doesn't really touch.
Do you have a favorite image or metaphor from the record?
I always loved the "Tam Lin" story: the image of the pregnant heroine Janet holding onto her lover Tam Lin as he changes into fearsome creatures—a wolf, a bear, a lion—and when the shape-shifting is over, and he becomes a naked man in her arms, she covers him with her "coat so warm" and takes him home. In most versions of the song there's a lot of explanation about the faerie world, and the details of the curse that has landed Tam Lin in this supernatural, non-human condition. But we felt like the shape-shifting alone spoke so truly and loudly as a metaphor for sticking with someone you love as they change—"holding them close, fearing them not." It still gives me a chill sometimes.
How much of the melody and arrangement was already available, and how much did you have to construct yourselves? Did learning these songs feel melodically and harmonically intuitive, or was there something about their structure that felt unusual or surprising?
Besides the Child books, another great resource we have access to nowadays that we wouldn't have had even five years ago is iTunes and YouTube, because we could look up any ballad and hear multiple melodies for it back-to-back. The beautiful thing about all these variants, lyrical and melodic, is that you can't really break these songs. There IS no "right" way to sing them, only a series of ways that might feel more or less compelling to different singers and listeners. With "Willie's Lady," "Willie of winsbury," "Clyde waters," and "Geordie," we stuck with existing melodies recorded by others that we loved. With "Tam Lin" and "Sir Patrick Spens" we pretty much came up with our own melodies that felt like they suited our telling of the story. "Riddles" is sort of a mashup—one phrase from an alternate version of "Geordie," another phrase is from the Ewan MacColl traditional melody, only tweaked to sound major rather than minor, etc.
There is something exotic about the modality of a lot of these songs that I find super compelling.. It's less definedly major or minor and it's way less resolute than American folk music... less 1, 4, 5. But I have to say that these long-form songs feel very natural to me to sing. I always have loved long songs, Dylan stuff, Joni Mitchell stuff. I always get excited when I see a 10-minute track on a record, and I'm a wordy gal, so, I dig it, that feels natural to me.
What inspired you two to partner up on this project?
This was an extraordinarily collaborative effort. I'd say the songs that ended up on the record are also the ones that felt most thoroughly like they had both our stamps on 'em (as opposed to some other stuff we worked on that felt more like Jefferson's baby or my own). I can't point to a line and say it was my ideas or Jefferson's, I really can't remember at all. It was GREAT to have a partner in this kind of interpretation and arrangement, because I feel like we kept each other honest. It's easy to want to go too far in one's own idiosyncratic direction all alone in one's bedroom, and this way I felt like we were both just trying to serve the story.
I think we partnered up because we both happened to be really into the same 1970s Brit-folk records, and that's rare... and we loved singing together and were excited to get to sing these songs in real close harmony. As for our different styles and strengths, Jefferson is the harmony master, I lay all credit at his door for that! He also has more experience with traditional music, modality, chord substitution, etc., as he plays a lot of Irish and other trad sessions in New York. I think for my part I brought a sort of "hey, let's obsess over every fucking word of these ballads" attitude, something common to my own creative process, which Jefferson really got on board with.
Listening to these lyrics, I was struck by how lurid, dramatic, sexual and life-or-death they were, and it seems like we don't get that feeling as often from modern folk music. Have film and TV taken over the narrative role that folk music and poetry used to hold? Has folk gone soft?
Wow, good thought. Well, there's something to be said for that—back in the day these ballads were getting "written," there were no films or TV. In fact, most people couldn't read, so... oral storytelling was IT. Yeah, these stories are hot and deep and dark. I LOVE the show-don't-tell quality of the telling: "Janet goes among them all, her face as pale as milk / Janet goes among them all, as green as any glass" lets us know she's pregnant without having to come out and tell us. "And he has laid this lady down among the roses green / And he has laid this lady down among the roses red"... HOT.
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