Somebody bought me a subscription to American Songwriter a few years back. I try not to read music magazines because I can get totally sucked in and then afterwards I end up feeling kinda like I feel after I read fashion magazines. The musical equivalent of oh, god, my thighs are fat. But I realized quickly that American Songwriter was different and I’m really a fan of what you’re up to, I just love the attention to the actual art and craft of songwriting. So often that process is veiled and I understand why, because it’s mystical, it can’t be reduced to a formula, you feel somehow that to talk about it is undignified, kiss-and-tell. But I think not talking about it leads to this weird myth that songs should write themselves, that unless they tumble out in a rush, fully formed, they’re not truly inspired. Which has not been my experience at all. For me the stuff that tumbles out in a rush is usually journal-type ego drivel and it’s the songs I really give a long incubation to that feel more lean and true.
I had a dream once during a summer I was wrestling with some serious writer’s block. I had taken a part-time job and was staying off the road just to be able to wake up and write, and I was putting in the hours, day after day, and really didn’t have anything to show for it. Creative work is unfair like that, you can go to your day job and put in this many hours and know you’ll get this much money, but creative work is like, you get the wind in your sails, or not, and it’s not an even trade. Anyway I had this dream that David Rawlings came to me with the master of the new Gillian Welch album. This was before The Harrow and the Harvest and I, along with the rest of the country, was just desperate for a new record from those guys. He put the record on and we sat there together and listened to the whole thing. It was so, so good and I heard it all, the lyrics, the arrangements, the drums (there were drums). There was something about the lyrics that every single line taken alone was abstract, but as a whole it made complete sense. I was halfway through observing this to David Rawlings. “Dave,” I said, and then I realized I had just called him “Dave” and thought to myself, “I don’t know David Rawlings, I’ve never met him, so why am I calling him ‘Dave’?” And then I realized I must be dreaming and therefore, this was not the new Gillian Welch record, and in fact, it could by my record, if I could only get out of the dream with it. I had a sensation of gathering up all the songs like leaves in my arms and then I opened my eyes and flew out of bed and into the next room and tried to write it all down. But all that was left by the time I got to the pen was this little stanza and it came with a melody:
This is the turning of the page, of the page // This is the turning of the page in your heart/ / Let them ride you to the river // Let the ceremony start // This is the turning of the page
Ha! it’s so funny when I look at it now! I never was able to use it for anything. But the dream, the dream itself was powerful because what it seemed to be telling me was, that everything we strive for in the daylight already exists and is whole and perfect in the unconscious mind. The thing is, how do you get it out of there. There are guards at the gate of the unconscious mind, you can’t just go in the vault and grab the gold and run. You can’t get in and out if your hands are unclean, if your intentions are impure. Some people who for whatever reason are able to get in and out real easily, it makes them insane. Anyway for me, the daytime striving is a way of proving to the guards/the muses/whoever that you’re trustworthy. That you deserve to get in and out of there sometimes.
The Canadian songwriter Ferron has always been a real inspiration to me. I mean god look at these opening lines: “My momma was a waitress, my daddy a truckdriver. The thing that took their power from them slowed me down awhile.” One time I got to meet Ferron and she said something so simple to me that I’ll never forget. She said, when you say a word, an image, you summon a spirit. If you say “door” you summon the spirit of the door. Then you say another word and it summons another spirit and the two have chemistry together. I know this is true and it’s the reason why writing songs is like writing a spell or a prayer. I believe in the power of certain cliches because they summon spirits we all know and understand and can control. They come from the classic spellbook of American songs and we know if we sing about driving down the freeway or a white dress, which spirits we’re summoning. There are powerful magicians who work only within this spellbook and I admire them. For me though, the most fascinating thing is to string words and images together one after another in pursuit of a particular collection of spirits whose chemistry is something unknown, true and thrilling, spirits capable of touching the heart in a virgin spot. Oh man I just got self-conscious and felt like I sound lame and self-important and should stop writing this shit! But anyway the process of writing a lot of the songs on this new record Young Man in America was really like this, utter words and images in certain order in a quiet room or an empty car and see what spirits they summon. If the wrong ones, utter different stuff in a different order. I felt like with the title track like here was this mythological character, this desperately desirous sad young man, and he was like a totem pole, made up of many spirits, his clothes were woven through with all different feathers and furs… prairie dog, raven, hurricane, sword and shield, wind, canyon… I went through all different words and images until the right ones incorporated themselves, the ones that had a chemistry with each other. Sometimes if you use the wrong word it summons a very big bold spirit and he tries to take over the song. Gotta watch out for those guys.
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Anais Mitchell’s ambitous new album Young Man in America is out now on Wilderland Records/Thirty Tigers.
Anaïs Mitchell Tour Dates:
* with Cowboy Junkies, Rich Robinson and Paul Kelly
† performing Hadestown
February 28 /// Joe’s Pub /// New York, NY
February 29 /// Ram’s Head /// Annapolis, MD
March 1 /// Tin Angel /// Philadelphia, PA
March 2 /// Jammin’ Java /// Vienna, VA
March 3 /// The Southern /// Charlottesville, VA
March 4 /// Mountain Stage /// Charleston, VA*
March 6 /// Evening Muse /// Charlotte, NC
March 7 /// Grey Eagle /// Asheville, NC
March 8 /// Eddie’s Attic /// Atlanta, GA
March 9 /// Square Room /// Knoxville, TN
March 10 /// The Basement /// Nashville, TN
March 28 /// Doug Fir /// Portland, OR †
March 29 /// The Tractor /// Seattle, WA †
April 4 /// Freight & Salvage /// San Francisco, CA
April 6 /// USCD @ The Loft /// San Diego, CA
April 7 /// Edye Theater /// Los Angeles, CA
April 12 /// Eastern Mennonite University /// Harrisonburg, CA
April 13 /// Mockingbird /// Staunton, VA
April 14 /// Carnegie Hall /// Lewisburg, WV
April 19 /// The Ark /// Ann Arbor, MI
April 20 /// Space /// Evanston, IL
April 22 /// 7th Street /// Minneapolis, MN