Interview: Elizabeth Mitchell

IMG_3664_2.jpgI suppose the fact that it's taken me more than six months to post an interview with Elizabeth Mitchell is an indication of just how much is going on in the family music world. Luckily, like Mitchell's music, most of the information herein is timeless.

I conducted this interview backstage at the 2010 ACL Festival, where Mitchell performed with her band (including her husband, Daniel Littleton, and daughter Storey). Backstage, where we were both waiting for Frances England to perform, and over the happy music-making noises of kids at the drum circle, Mitchell and I chatted about early musical memories (think classic rock, not nursery rhymes), the jadedness of adult rock show audiences, and how she chooses which songs to sing. Also, she gives us a sneak peek into a couple of her forthcoming albums.

Zooglobble: What are your earliest musical memories?
Elizabeth Mitchell: I guess singing to myself a lot. To myself, by myself, along with the clock radio, or not.

Did you make up songs?
I think I did, I think I was just always singing. We listened to a lot of music in my home -- there wasn't a lot of playing music. I studied piano, but nobody really played. It was the '70s, so my mom loved Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, Carole King. And then there were also great singers like Ella Fitzgerald -- that's my mom's favorite singer, so we listened to her a lot. And my parents both also loved classic Broadway musicals such as My Fair Lady and West Side Story, so we listened to that. And I would sing along with all of it. Even A Chorus Line, which has some very questionable lyrics in those songs, and I would sing along having no idea what I was singing along with.

Also, the Allman Brothers' "Ramblin' Man." I loved that song. It was one of my favorite songs as kid. I had no idea what a "ramblin' man" was, though when I think about it, looking back, I can remember the first time I was in a motel room, by a highway, and I heard the sounds of cars and trucks going by at night. So I think there was something about "Ramblin' Man" that was resonating with me even though I had no idea what the song was about.

It's a great melodic line, though.
It's great. It's a great song. I love the Allman Brothers. We actually did a recording of the Allman Brothers song "Blue Sky" recently. I'm a sucker for '70s classic rock, I love classic rock.

You've talked before about how much like the Ruth Crawford Seeger book [American Folksongs for Children, others] -- so you didn't listen to that as a kid?
Oh, no, no. That wasn't part of my children. That was an adult experience for me. I didn't grow up with a folk tradition as part of my family life. It was something I discovered as an adult, but it was something that happened the same time that I started teaching, so they were both huge light-bulb moments. It was really magic that they happened at the same time, because they really created this path that I'm on now.

So when did you started teaching music and singing in preschool?
That was 1993. I fell into a job. I was playing kinda pop music, and I was not inspired. I was not excited about "let's get a record deal!" - the whole thing left me kind of cold. I got this job through a friend of a friend. I was always drawn to working with children and that was how I got the job. At first, I don't think I even told them I was a musician. And then along the way I said, "I could bring in my guitar." So I did, and it just happened naturally, singing with the kids, and it was so exciting...

I was playing in a rock band at the time, and I'd go see a friend's band at CBGBs and I'd find myself thinking, "What would my students think of this now? What would they think of these people? They're all tough they're trying to be, how cool they think they are." I was so much more drawn to their perspective than that of my peers at that point in my life. That was something that stayed with me for a long time.

SunnyDay.jpgYou have this new album [Sunny Day] -- I'm curious how you go about picking songs because you have few original songs. On your records they're mostly covers, more recent songs, or folk songs -- how do you choose?
We're very open in what our interpretation of children's music is, clearly. And it's usually that the song has an openness to it that can be interpreted in many different ways. I also try, with putting a new album together, to create a new neighborhood where there's all different kind of neighbors living on the same block, where there's Augustus Pablo and Ruth Crawford Seeger as next door neighboors. To me that's a really exciting reimagining of what life can be and what kind of music can inform our daily lives. So that's a big part of it, keeping some diversity and unexpected juxtapositions of traditions, that we can all really live together peacefully and joyfully and bringing that to people through sound.

I also really love a recording like "Little Liza Jane," taking a really old song and reimagining it in a personal context. It becomes this conversation I'm having with music and songmakers from a hundred years ago and that's something I also want us all to feel with making music, pulling a thread through time.

And culture --
Yes, absolutely.

That's one of the things I like about your albums. It's not just the Velvet Underground next to Woody Guthrie song, it's also --
A Korean folk song, yes.

IMG_3662_2.jpgA Korean folk song -- where do you find those... for lack of a better word, "foreign-language" songs?
Well, I often do just through people that I meet. Our violinist, Jean [Cook], is Korean and she brought a lot of songs that her mom taught. And just now I did an interview with someone whose mother is German and French and she was going to teach me a song. I always keep my ears open and that's really the best way to learn. When we went to Japan two years ago, we asked a friend who was Japanese to teach us some language so we could get by over there and she taught us a couple of songs -- songs are a great way to learn a new language, because they're often it's really basic, elemental language and you can hold on to it, and remember a word, find that word and use it to communicate.

Well, I think Frances [England] is about to come on, so I'm going to ask one more question, and that is, so what's next for you?
Two records -- we're trying to finish a Spanish album with Suni Paz that I'm so happy about, we're so close. We sang a little Spanish today, don't know if you caught that.

I did.
"John the Rabbit"... "Juan Conejo / Si, senor." And then we've got an album called Blue Clouds, from that song "Blue Clouds," which is in the HBO Rosie O'Donnell special from earlier this year, and I guess it's a lullaby record. I was really resisting the lullaby record but I'm surrendering to it now and that one's almost done as well.