Mitchell describes her parents as “hippies, back-to-the-landers.” In the late 1960s, her father, Don, scored a book deal when he was still a Swarthmore undergraduate, for a semi-autobiographical hitchhiking novel he’d written called “Thumb Tripping.” He sold the movie rights, moved to Los Angeles with his young wife, Cheryl, and wrote the screenplay to a pulpy, “Easy Rider”-era film adaptation of his book. He cashed out in the early 1970s and used his Hollywood earnings to buy a 130-acre farm in Vermont’s Champlain Valley.
For most of Anaïs’s childhood, her entire family lived on the property, including her grandparents in that wooden house her father helped build for them. Cheryl opposed television, so young Anaïs would sneak over to her grandparents’ place whenever she wanted to watch; she has fond and uncommonly subversive memories of the nightly news with Dan Rather. She rode horses, roamed the woods with her older brother and, like her namesake Anaïs Nin, journaled prolifically.
She found those old diaries recently in a box in her grandparents’ house, and the experience inspired “Revenant,” a heartfelt, acoustic-guitar-driven song on the new album that finds her extending a mature grace to her younger self: “Suddenly I saw you there, runny-eyed in a wooden chair/Ran outside to hide your face in the wild Queen Anne’s lace,” she sings. “Come and let me hold you in my arms/Come and get my shoulder wet and warm.”
Mitchell went to Middlebury College, and supported herself as a figure model for art classes. “I was always very comfortable nude because no one can see us here, so everyone would skinny-dip,” she said on the secluded farm. When she was 19, one of those gigs led to the sort of meet-cute that might appear in an R-rated comedy: Noah Hahn, a student in one of the classes, turned out to be the man she would marry.
They were apart quite a bit in the early years of their relationship, as Mitchell was paying her dues on the road as an aspiring singer-songwriter. But — as she proposes on the new album’s ode to an artist’s muse, “Bright Star” — sometimes longing and distance can bear unexpected fruit. She was driving home alone from a show one night, hoping Noah was waiting up for her, when the melody and a few lyrics of what would become the first “Hadestown” song came to her out of the blue:
“Wait for me, I’m coming, in my garters and pearls/With what melody did you barter me from the wicked underworld?”