By BRUCE DENNILL
Katie Anne Mitchell is a singer, songwriter and actress based in Los Angeles. Her debut album is called The Many Lives Of Mockingbird.
You have songs and spoken word storytelling on The Many Lives Of Mockingbird: there’s an argument (a commercial one, anyway) that this makes an already niche release more challenging for the average listener. The artist in you probably doesn’t care, but how do you see this collection reaching out as far as you’d like it to? And where is that – your immediate community; like-minded songwriters and performers; the folk music market?
Honestly, it was a terrible move commercially but, as you said, the artist in me decided to take a flying leap off that cliff. I don’t regret it. My ambition wasn’t to become a commercial success; it was simply to get this story told. The album was more about serving the story than me. I believe that stories choose us to tell them, and it is our responsibility from there to listen and repeat as well as we can. We may filter them through our own lens and the story may always carry that sheen of our own colour because of that, but ultimately, the stories don’t belong to us. We, as humans, are too small for that. All that said, I hope some more financially viable stories and songs choose me somewhere down the line.
As far as where it goes from here, I’m not sure. It’s found its way into little nooks and crannies in the folk community. Got some distribution over in Europe. Even reached the leader of this Scottish commune who found it lying in the rain on the steps of this 15th Century castle. Who knows where it’ll go from here? I feel it’s a bit out of my hands at this point. I hope that it reaches the people who it connects with, maybe gets some folks to challenge their assumptions or turn over ideas about the human experience.
Sound-wise, and in production terms, you lean towards a musical space that allows for melancholy and menace, and everything in between. Performing in that space must require a certain mindset: is that a natural place for you to go to?
Strangely, yes, it is. If you knew me as a person in passing, you’d probably think it was a terrible shock that this came out of me. I have the appearance and demeanor of a small-town farm girl. However, if you knew me as one of my closest friends, you probably wouldn’t be terribly surprised. I like studying the dark, difficult emotions at the extremities of the human condition and have a deep, long-standing fascination with the occult. Additionally, despite my more amicable outward conduct, I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression throughout my life so the voices in these songs are by no means unfamiliar to me. True to one of the outstanding themes of this album, I believe it is critical to acknowledge difficult emotions in life in order to work through them and move forward. Songwriting and storytelling have been a safe place to explore these feelings and work through them instead of letting them rot in my gut.
How does your experience as an actress help with that transition?
It’s definitely been helpful having the background in acting to know how to go about unveiling the backstories of the characters in the story and sink into all dimensions of them: where they’ve been, what’s happened to make them the way they are, what their hidden motivations are. Acting gave me the tools to ask the right questions to lay the foundations for the characters essentially. It also gave me the tools to let me know when it’s time to let all of that go and just play, particularly when it comes to recording and performing. Then, instead of intellectualising too much at that point, it gave space to let these characters come to life and show me who they were.
What were the parallel stories behind The Many Lives Of Mockingbird – the inspiration for the over-arching tale (in both spoken words and the lyrics in the songs) and the decision to release this kind of album rather than a more traditional, possibly unthemed collection?
As I said before, I really feel like this story found me. However, I think the tale, inevitably, carries in it some stories based on my own life (relationships I’ve had, the love of the folk community, struggles with feeling small and making myself small) and some stories based on loved ones’ lives (experiences with cults, more bad relationships, etc). I also have an affinity and deep love for fantasy tales so it’s not surprising that I interpreted the story through that lens. It does also, of course, carry with it themes I’ve been interested in: the aforementioned belief that we need to fully explore our darker emotions to move through them, the contrary nature and beautiful messiness of humanity, escapism and isolation and anger as mechanisms for avoiding dealing with pain, and the importance of community and authentic connection and unconditional love when moving through trauma. Speaking of trauma, I was speaking with a friend recently who had listened to the album, and he made the point that it was, to him, a ghost tale using the supernatural as a metaphor for trauma. I would say that I definitely agree with that sentiment.
All that said, some elements of the story I couldn’t predict and came, seemingly, out of nowhere. I remember when I wrote the vignettes about moving through the layers of hell on the second part of the album. I had written it basically in one night and I felt downright freaked out by the time I finished it. It felt like someone else had taken over my body and written it. It was truly an out-of-body experience. Thankfully, it ended the way it did with a hopeful movement to the other side, so it didn’t feel like it was coming from a malicious place.
Collaborating with other artists for this project: what were the reasons for doing so? Did you want extra perspectives (Self-Made is essentially a guest spot from Rebekah LeAnn Wiggins; not including you at all – is that right?), or were there other aspects – emotions; musical capacity – that you felt you couldn’t fully deliver alone?
The story behind Self-Made is that Bekah and I were in a duo together called The Middle Annes, so we spent a lot of time working together. We had actually considered doing a Middle Annes album in the beginning before I had really fleshed anything out and just doing the songs we had been performing, but we ultimately decided that it didn’t feel quite right because I felt there was a story that I needed to add and it felt like the story wanted to be told by me. Plus, I had all these songs that I had been working on before we got together as a duo and I wanted to be able to release them out there as my works. Bekah also felt the same way, so it was a mutual decision. However, Bekah is still important to me as an artistic partner and inspiration, and I wanted to give her a chance to add more than just the vocal harmonies and come forward into the limelight. Additionally, she and I both felt like that song belonged in the tapestry of the album. I appreciated that different perspective and Bekah is such an incredible singer and songwriter, so it was an honor to include her song on the album. I actually did do some minor background vocals on Self-Made, but yes, it was absolutely Rebekah’s song.
As far as harmonies go, Rebekah is a freaking genius so there are definitely elements she added that I couldn’t do on my own. It was a true pleasure to have her on there as well as other supremely talented musicians. I was so lucky to have them contributing their musical prowess to the recordings. I definitely think that really made the album.
The little Crazy sample in Goodbye Eddie is a collaboration of a sort; a bit of Willie Nelson or Patsy Cline in the mix. In your writing, how direct are your musical inspirations? Many people equate “influenced by” with “sounding like”, but that is not necessarily the case: who would you not be a singer-songwriter without?
I love Crazy as a song and, in my own little morose way, adding it into Goodbye Eddie was a fun bit of dark humour as well as a nod to artists I really respect. As far as who I would not be a singer-songwriter without, I would have to say so many people. Of course, you’ve got the classics: Joni, Willie, Janis, Simon & Garfunkel, Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, Billie Holiday…and on and on and on. However, I also worked for the Art of the Song radio programme and Standing ‘O’ Project (a music streaming website that was aimed at fair pay, generally geared toward the folk community) and that’s really where I started in music, so I would say that I was more influenced by the lesser-known folk heroes in the community: people like Sam Baker, Grant Peeples, Sara Hickman, Mary Gauthier, David Amram, Butch Hancock, Tom Wilson, John and Viv from Art of the Song and Standing ‘O’ project…and again, on and on that list would go. Those are just a few that pop out right now, but I could have a whole different list of names for you if you asked me tomorrow. I don’t necessarily know if I sound like any of them, but I absolutely as you said, wouldn’t be a songwriter without them. From a familial standpoint, my mom played a number of instruments and spent a good amount of time in an orchestra and my grandmother was a talented poet, so I would say I wouldn’t want to dismiss their influences either. Also, authors, Neil Gaiman, Charles Bukowski and others played their part in defining me as well. All this is to say that I was extremely fortunate that I had people around me in my life that sparked that light of creativity. I don’t know that I would have found my way to this path otherwise.
The creative structure of The Many Lives Of Mockingbird points to possibilities of the album potentially morphing into a play or film at some point. Is that a goal (or was it when you began the project)? And would you like to combine your “creative universalism” in that sort of way at some point?
I thought about making MLOMB into an animated film or even a podcast series at some point, but I’m not sure that’ll really come to fruition. At this point, I’ve already changed my musical style and direction a bit and I’m seeing where that takes me. I will say, that I am currently working on writing a musical with my friend that uses a lot of the themes from Mockingbird and may even incorporate a couple songs. We’ll see.
As for incorporating the “creative universalist” approach, I’m really drawn to merging different artistic expressions together, so it’s inevitable. I’m not a purist by any means. Even if I wanted to be, it’s not how my mind works, and I don’t think it’s any use fighting against that. So on with chaotic expression we go!
For more about Katie Anne Mitchell, go to her website.