Wise Lullabies for Brave Adults
Wise Lullabies for Brave Adults
A Q&A with Anna Mitchell
By Geoff Gehman
Anna Mitchell burrows to the marrow on “Down to the Bone,” the first full-length record from the Irish singer-songwriter-keyboardist with the Appalachian soul. The Cork resident’s characters yearn to escape to Tennessee, allegedly the land of greener hills and non-smothering mothers; silently rage against female rivals who look better and play better guitar; view romantic paradise as both “swell” and “hell.” Mitchell polishes these dusky jewels with a spacious, searching piano and a voice that’s earthy, ethereal and full of resonant hollows. Guided by an emotional compass, she roams haunted rooms with stained-glass windows.
Mitchell will sample “Down to the Bone” on June 14 during her debut at the Mauch Chunk Opera House in Jim Thorpe, a town blessed and cursed by Irish spirits. She’ll open for and perform with Simone Felice, a kindred spirit who writes and sings with honesty, mystery and poetry. Below, in an email conversation, she discusses how Felice coaxes her inner banshee, her affection for words that wound so well.
Q: What the first song you couldn’t forget, that wormed its way into your ears, heart and soul?
A: There is a song by an Irish guy, Emmett Tinley, from the group The Prayer Boat, “It Hurts to Lose You,” such a cutting song, with a beautiful enchanting melody and strong lyrics. It opens with the line “January was blinding, as we climbed from the basement”; this hit me in particular as a strong opening lyric. As a musician I understand of the woes of January blues, so this lyric hit hard. This is a song of love lost, and is recorded and played beautifully. I’m actually going to play it as part of my set on some of these U.S. gigs, because I feel it’s my duty for everyone to hear it!
Q: Who was/is your most important musical mentor, and what was his or her most valuable piece of advice?
A: My lesser half, Hassey [Brian Hassett], also the bass player in my band. He has a broad range of interests when it comes to music, from [The] Jesus Lizard to Richard Hawley. He takes something from all styles and genres and enjoys music as long as it’s good, whatever that means! He has shown me a lot of bands and songwriters I had never heard of, and introduced me to artists I now count as my biggest influences. The best advice he gives me is to get over myself. I think you Americans refer to that as keeping me “grounded”!
Q: Where did you go while making “Down to the Bone” that you never expected to go? Did Christian Best, your producer and pal, prod and push you in new directions? Did playing that old Yamaha upright piano in his home studio change your attitude and latitude?
A: “Down to the Bone” changed a lot from inception to completion. I wrote most of the songs alone on piano, so going into the studio gave me the opportunity to bring in a full band, and we were able to flesh out the songs and arrange them together. I had worked a lot with Christian before, guesting on albums with John Blek & The Rats, Barry Tierney and some others, so we have a good understanding of each other in the studio, and a great working relationship. Christian, along with Hassey, pushed me in directions that I would not have imagined, always coming up with ideas for instrumentation, tones and arrangements, while being sympathetic to the core of the song.
Q: Every song on “Down to the Bone” has a line or three that scrapes down to the bone. I’m thinking of the narrator of “Tennessee,” who yearns to escape mothers “who cry to be occupied.” So where in the hell did you find a line so spot-on, so bull’s-eye, it hurts?
A: Some lines should hurt! I’m a fan of honesty and directness in lyrics. I do tend to observe people around me, how they interact with each other in relationships and the world around them. I try to make sense of what I see and hopefully even learn something myself along the way. “Tennessee” is a classic tale of somebody wanting to leave their town and escape their situation, presuming that once they get that chance everything will improve, without realizing that the change they need to make is actually more internal and personal.
Q: And while we’re mining for gold, how did you come up with the line “Jealous of every flaxen-haired girl who plays guitar better than me”? It’s quite rare for a song narrator of either sex to be jealous of a rival’s musical ability rather than sexual ability.
A: This lyric refers to a certain someone in my life who tends to fall for “chicks with guitars” and at the time had been showing me how amazing Laura Marling is–which she is. This made me quite green-eyed and crazy–inside of course! This line is from the song “My Consent,” which is about revealing all of yourself to someone and by doing so giving them permission to either accept you and your flaws–I’m still not a good guitar player–or to walk away.
Q: What do you think of the opening line of Joe Breen’s Irish Times review of “Down to the Bone”: “If David Lynch were to reset ‘Blue Velvet’ in the wilds of West Cork…”? Would you be more comfortable with a comparison to Charles Bukowski, evidently a favorite poet of yours?
A: I’m happy for anyone to make whatever comparisons they like, if it means people are getting something from the music, and if it spurs others on to check it out. David Lynch in the wilds of West Cork with Bukowski sounds like a good weekend!
Q: What makes you and Simone Felice a good fit? You both write penetrating, sometimes wounding songs about the mysteries and wonders of relationships. And you share a singing style rooted in late-night, wee-morning soul searching.
A: Simone and I both enjoy penetrating lyric writing for sure. I think we are a good fit as we like to leave space within a song, but when the space is filled it is filled with something that adds greatly to the overall emotion and atmosphere created by the song and performer. I love playing with Simone as it shows a different side of me as a performer, I tend to sing in a much higher register when I sing with Simone; he calls me his Irish banshee! I also have learned a lot from Simone in terms of reading an audience and performance. He is an amazing magnetic performer and I really enjoy watching him do what he does best.
Q: Simone strengthened his audience chops by playing in New York subway stations with his brothers. Have you had similar public experiences that built up your crowd calluses? Any busking, for example, in Cork or Dublin?
A: I’m not a busker; my voice and songs don’t lend well to busking! I started out playing great singer-songwriter sessions which gave me a chance to try out my songs on people and to grow as a performer. The Ruby Sessions in Dublin is great, and the KC Sessions in Cork too.
Q: Space, and spaciousness, seem to be a hallmark of your singing—giving words room to breathe and sentiments room to stick. What do you think of the importance of taking your time to be concise and incisive?
A: I like to get straight to the point. Space is important to me; space is everything. It gives the listener time to take it all in.
Q: What kind of song are you aching to write?
A: I really want to rock out! I want to write some stuff with the band, rather than on my own with the piano, jam it out, and see what we come up with. I’m currently on tour in the U.S. and I have some days off in Woodstock and I’ll try to write some new material. A friend of Simone’s has offered me a piano in a rehearsal space in the woods, by a lake with a view of the mountains. If that’s not inspiring enough, well…
Q: Have you had any recent breakthroughs that have made performing live more comfortable and writing less painful?
A: I have always been comfortable performing. Luckily, I really feel at home on stage. When it comes to writing, I have found that the best thing to do is to relax and not put pressure on myself to write, just concentrate on living and the inspiration will come.
Q: What do you do to stay sane on the road?
A: Tea! Also, I find that I write a lot in the road, always taking notes. Seeing new places, playing in venues new to me and meeting new people can be very inspiring. I always come away with a song or two after a tour, which is very satisfying.
Q: What tops your Bucket List? Hint: recent Mauch Chunk interviewees have spoken of traveling across the U.S. and reducing hunger across the world.
A: I want to travel for sure, I want to see the whole world and play my music in lots of countries. Also:
Learn to yodel.
Play a full gig on guitar.
Own and look after a hive of honey bees.
Make my own gin.
Q: What tops your Fuck It List? Hint: recent Mauch Chunk interviewees have spoken of ending religions that kill the spirit and killing all snakes—a predicament you don’t have in Ireland.
A: No doubt, taking all of the money that governments use for military, and feed hungry nations, and aid cancer research–this world is so backwards. Also, on a lighter note, I would get some device implanted in my brain that buzzes every time my dinner is burning. God, I’m an awful cook. It makes me sad, because I love food. I always give myself food poisoning!
Q: So why do the characters in the video for “Fall Like That” wear globes on their heads?
A: Nothing to do with their looks I assure you. The band really are a handsome bunch! This song is about falling for someone, and how love can sometimes make you a little deranged. The ball heads are in my imagination perhaps, but also the ball heads are there so that everyone can identify with this feeling. It’s not just me, it’s you too. Being in love with someone can sometimes make you crazy!
Anna Mitchell: The Scoop
One of her biggest fans is Simone Felice, her American and European touring mate. His bumper-sticker endorsement reads: “Beware of Anna Mitchell.”
She has a regular gig in the country/alt-folk band John Blek & The Rats, fronted by a fellow resident of Cork.
Her vocal role models include Billie Holiday, Gillian Welch and Stevie Nicks.
Her go-to album is Joni Mitchell’s “Blue.”
Jeff Buckley’s version of Jessie Mae Robinson’s “The Other Woman” makes her shiver.
Asked by The Irish Post to name the love of her life, she quoted Sippie Wallace’s musical advice: “Women be wise, keep your mouth shut/Don’t advertise your man.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. One of his favorite Anna Mitchell lyrics appears in “Tennessee”: “And the broken roads reflect the skies/My mind and all politicians’ lies/And life seems much too polite to move along.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.