Episode 424: Anaïs Mitchell, John Darnielle, Jeff Yang

Air Date:
Heard On BETA
Anaïs Mitchell playing guitar
(C) Jay Sansone

Singer/songwriter Anaïs Mitchell talks about her first solo album in a decade. Also, the Mountain Goats’ frontman John Darnielle on his haunting novel, ‘Devil House.’ And Jeff Yang looks back at the last thirty years of Asian American pop culture.

Featured in this Show

  • Singer-songwriter Anaïs Mitchell gives us a hopeful album for difficult times

    Music often reflects the mood of the era in which it was created. Likewise, writers, poets and musicians chronicle our times with their art. Through the sharing of their experiences, we find similarities to our own, and that shared understanding helps us cope with difficult times.

    The last two years have brought us new music about loss and sadness and hope and reflection. While the pandemic spread worldwide, Anaïs Mitchell gathered some of her musical friends together to record her eighth solo album titled “Anaïs Mitchell.”

    She and her friends, including members of her band, Bonny Light Horseman, have created an album that falls squarely in the hope and reflection category. She talked with WPR’s “BETA” about the experience of gathering people in a room to play music together.

    “I think we recorded this whole record in the Hudson Valley,” Mitchell said. “My bandmate, Josh Kaufman, is the producer of it, and we had our friends, JT Bates and Mike Lewis, and we were all there in the room together. We also had Thomas Bartlett, who was playing the piano.”

    “It was so remarkable to share airspace and record this music live. You can hear all of that at the beginning of the track. I think someone makes a heavy sigh, and then someone counts off the drums and then doesn’t play. I love that you could hear the humans in the room at the beginning of the first song on the album, Brooklyn Bridge. And then, of course, the track itself; it felt like it was a portal. It was a sort of an entryway into the record.”

    That “portal” begins a musical journey that speaks of life changes, loss and love. Thanks to the production skills of Kaufman, it is an album of lush yet sparsely arranged songs that highlight Mitchell’s skillful songwriting.

    “It was important to him that the storytelling on this record is the engine of the music,” Mitchell said. “So he wanted to create a lush and warm environment for those stories to be told. But he didn’t want to compete with the melodic line of the voice with other instruments.”

    The album “Anaïs Mitchell” is a departure from her previous project, “Hadestown,” which ran on Broadway until the spread of COVID-19 shut everything down. That project involved writing for characters in a collaborative environment. She wanted to convey a more personal message with her songs for this project.

    “This is the most personal and direct record I’ve ever made,” Mitchell said. “‘Hadestown’ was this grand experiment in taking on the voices of other characters dressing up in these larger-than-life voices. I would take on these characters and dress them up in disguise. The songs on this record are not like that; there is no disguise. They’re almost embarrassingly direct.

    “I’m interested in this intersection between what feels honest and that place in me that feels vulnerable. It could be somebody else’s experience. It could be universal. A million people have had that experience of riding over the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, and so to hit that Venn diagram of what feels intensely personal and intensely universal. That’s where I would like to live as a songwriter.”

    The difficulty of writing from such a personal perspective without pretension is a daunting task. Mitchell explains that she struggles with finding the words that reflect her true feelings, but she knows when it is there.

    “When I finally discovered what that was, I feel in my body that this is what I’m trying to say,” she said.

  • 'Best Storyteller in Rock': The Mountain Goats' John Darnielle gets dark in his latest novel 'Devil House'

    John Darnielle lives a double life. You may know him as the singer/songwriter and frontman for The Mountain Goats. But he’s also a novelist — and a damned good one at that.

    According to Rolling Stone, Darnielle is “The Best Storyteller in Rock.” He’s written more than 600 songs that span a wide range of subjects — the Chicago Cubs, the R&B songwriter Frankie Lymon and verses from the Bible.

    That penchant for storytelling bleeds into his fiction writing, gaining him critical acclaim. His debut 2014 novel, “Wolf in White Van,” was even nominated for the National Book Award for Fiction.

    Now, Darnielle is back with another novel called “Devil House.”

    The story centers on true crime writer Gage Chandler. One day he receives an email from his editor, Ashton Williston Clark, with a news clipping about a grizzly murder in a porn shop in Milpitas, California. The bodies were found amid cult-like decorations in the height of the Satanic Panic of the 1980s. Clark, who notices the porn shop is for sale, encourages Chandler to move in — hoping it provides inspiration for Chandler’s next book about the lurid murders.

    The idea for Chandler’s oddball living situation came from Darnielle’s own life. In his hometown of Durham, North Carolina, Darnielle noticed a building with a homemade sign that intrigued him.

    “It was called Monster Triple X (DVDs.) It was a brick building that’s gone now across the street from Golden Belt, which is a former hosiery mill that had been converted to offices and now is converted to condos like everything else around here,” Darnielle told WPR’s “BETA.”

    Darnielle had been working in the old Golden Belt building when he and the other tenants had to leave because developers were going to retrofit the building for condominiums. But before that, Darnielle drove past this sign nearly every day.

    “It looked so homemade. It looked like something from a different universe,” he said. “Everything these days is laser printed, but this was hand-painted, and it was sort of darkly inspiring. And then it was gone.”

    Creating a sense of place based on his own lived experiences lays the groundwork for the early part of “Devil House.”

    Every place is so distinctive that you don’t really know anything about it unless you’ve been there,” he explained, adding that that feeling became even stronger after he lived in Iowa for several years.

    “You hear people talk about Iowa and you say, ‘Well, you don’t know anything about what it’s like here. You’ve seen ‘Field of Dreams’ and that’s about it.’ Or you watch the caucuses every four years, and then they do some local color interviews,” he said. “It sort of shored up in me that if you’re trying to sketch a picture of a place, you should give as complete a feeling of it as you can.”

    He continued, “I think that starts with history — like how did this place come to be populated by immigrants? Almost always. If you’re talking about the U.S. or most, if you’re not native to the country, then your people immigrated at some point. And how did they get there in California?”

    In “Devil House” Darnielle looks at immigration and the history of westward movement to California — and Milpitas where the novel is set — putting Chandler’s life and career in a historical moment that can easily be compared to real life.

    “I think it helps bring people inside a place because these stories are relatable once you dig deep enough into them,” he added

    In addition to exploring the history of California, Darnielle also gets into the Satanic Panic via Chandler’s writing.

    “I was at ground level for the Satanic Panic, working (in mental health) on children’s and adolescent units. So I had these adolescent characters who I was going to have marking the porn store in some way to scare off people and not just scare them off, but to freak out people who happened to cross it,” he said.

    “All that ties into the fact that folklore and urban legend play into a lot of the themes in this, the things people think they know about things. The Satanic Panic was a case where a lot of people thought they knew a lot about stuff they didn’t actually know about.”

    A novel within a novel

    Writing a novel about a novelist gave Darnielle the opportunity to conceptualize multiple storylines, including that of protagonist Chandler’s previous true-crime book, “The White Witch of Morro Bay.”

    In the story, the White Witch was a teacher at the local high school. She killed two male students who showed up at her apartment and get into a struggle with her. She used a knife to stab the boys in self-defense, but once they were dead, she cut up their bodies and dragged the pieces to the shore of Morro Bay.

    Near the end of “Devil House,” Chandler receives a letter from one of the mothers of the teacher’s victims, upset about the way Chandler wrote about her son.

    “It’s an attempt to broaden the scope of the telling of a story,” Darnielle explained. “Because when we tell a story where somebody gets seriously hurt or killed and really any story, questions of perspective loom and usually almost every story winds up being narrowed to only include one perspective with may be a nod toward the possibility of other perspectives. But I wanted to burrow a little deeper and see if we could understand how stories like these affect the incidental people in their tellings.”

    This section raises a lot of questions about the ethics of writing true crime, like is the true crime writer exploiting victims for his or her own gain?

    “It’s a broader question than just true crime,” Darnielle said. “It’s the case in true crime. It’s the case in biography. It’s the case in autobiography. … And it’s the case in the news that when you tell a story, you are only including some of the perspective most likely. And of course, there’s no cure for that.”

    “But at the same time, it’s a call for taking care and being aware, for reading one’s own work and seeing what you maybe didn’t notice you were saying and so forth,” he continued. “It’s important in true crime. But I do want to say the book is not so much a critique of true crime as more about the weight of writing, of its specific weight on real people out in the world.”

  • Jeff Yang looks back at the last three decades of Asian American pop culture

    For over 30 years, Jeff Yang has been a media action leader in America’s Asian community. In 1989, when he was graduating from college, he convinced several friends to relocate to Manhattan with him to launch A. Magazine.

    “I stood on my bed in my dorm room, exhorting these friends of mine to move with me to New York City and try to launch an Asian American magazine because at the time, magazines were where it was at,” Yang recalled.

    “If you had a magazine, then you could kind of say your community, your part of the world existed in some fashion, like planting a flag,” he said.

    Now, Yang has corralled his fellow action leaders Phil Yu (founder of the Angry Asian Man blog) and Philip Wang (co-founder of Wong Fu productions) to author perhaps an even more comprehensive project in Asian American representation with “RISE: A Pop History of Asian America from the Nineties to Now.”

    Yang told WPR’s “BETA” that the book developed out of a series of conversations he, Yu and Wang were having that were not unlike the ones he and his A. Magazine co-founders had in the dorm rooms. They thought the best outlet for them was this three-decade snapshot of Asian Americans through the lens of pop culture.

    “Different portions of those 30 years represented something really pivotal in the way that Asian-Americans were both depicted in the world but also the way we saw ourselves. And yet it’s also a portion of our history that has really gone mostly untold and certainly undocumented,” Yang said.

    “So, we first got together to put together the idea for this book under the assumption that would be sort of like filling in that donut hole, just celebrating all the different ways in which the last three decades have been pivotal to the evolution of our community,” he said.

    However, in the wake of a global pandemic that cast an accusatory and dangerous attention on many swaths of Asian communities, the book took on a different tone.

    “We had this global pandemic, and with that came this unprecedented wave, it felt, of anti-Asian hostility and xenophobia, and we realized that more than just celebrating what had happened to the last 30 years, we also felt the need to almost put it in a time capsule or a hope chest,” Yang said. “If everything were to somehow go away, if all the hard-won success we’d gotten to had started to just shatter under the weight, we would have something to rebuild with. We’d have a blueprint.”

    Yang, Wu and Wang capture the free-flowing vibe of blogs and podcasts in “Rise.” The book assembles all these touchstones in Asian American pop culture in a fun structure of essays, poems, thought experiments, cartoons, dialogues and more. Furthermore, they are delivered in both a universal and personal way.

    For instance, Yang discusses how the Hong Kong cinema golden age of the late ’80s and early ’90s helped heighten representation of the Asian community, but he addresses it through the intimate lens of memories of Chinatown theater visits and the feeling like culturally, for once, he was ahead of the curve.

    “It was the first time we actually started to see Asian faces across the board. We certainly weren’t seeing that in Hollywood, and it made a huge difference because it helped us recognize that we didn’t have to actually just be slotted into a single kind of role — the sidekick, the villain, the temptress,” Yang said.

    “It was a twofold thing,” he continued. “On the one hand, it really stretched our own horizons by helping us see the world and ourselves differently. But also, it made us cool for the first time.”

    Yang also opens up the book to famed Korean comedian Margaret Cho to voice her side of the story recapping their falling out over Yang’s harsh criticism of Cho’s short-lived sitcom, “All-American Girl.”

    In the early ’90s when network executives were essentially handing out sitcoms to every popular comedian and Cho was one of the most popular, Yang was a TV critic at the Village Voice. He was tasked with reviewing ABC’s “All-American Girl.”

    “It was not a good show. It was a show that, more importantly, I thought, really betrayed Margaret’s own comedy herself,” Yang said. “She’s raw and out there and just way over the top and in this show, she even calls herself kind of Fonzie from ‘Happy Days’ as opposed to who she actually is in real life. And I wrote that into the review honestly.”

    Cho contacted Yang and lambasted his reaction, stating that because he was Asian, it would carry more negative weight for the network heads.

    “She wasn’t entirely wrong because the show got canceled after 19 episodes. They didn’t even really give it a chance to evolve and to shift its focus to align more with Margaret,” he said.

    “I wanted to amplify and elevate and give people a chance to decide for themselves what they thought was worthy,” Yang continued. “Because we, as Asian Americans, had no room for mediocrity, much less disaster. If we did something wrong, then it would kind of like salt the earth for the next two decades, which is kind of what happened with ‘All-American Girl.’”

    It would indeed be two decades before the next all-Asian sitcom, with 2015’s adaptation of Eddie Huang’s memoir, “Fresh Off the Boat,” also created by ABC. In an ironic twist of fate, “Fresh Off the Boat” would star Yang’s son, Hudson, as Eddie.

    “What’s really interesting about Hudson and many of his peers is that the things that we had to actually defend or constantly define or rationalize are things that he sort of takes for granted,” Yang said.

    “Fresh Off the Boat,” like “All-American Girl,” is set in the ’90s.

    “The world is so different for him. And so, I think for him, it was as much as anything else a reinforcement of how far we’d come when he played a role that was anchored in such a very different view of an Asian-American reality from the one he was actually experiencing,” Yang said.

    Yang is hopeful that lengths achieved on the journey from “All-American Girl” to “Fresh Off the Boat” and beyond will allow the same leniency in cultural currency afforded to other communities moving forward.

    “We have been held to the standard of never being able to be mediocre and the luxury to be mediocre is something which more than anything else is a core part of feeling like you’ve been accepted in a society — because not everything is going to be a blockbuster and not everything’s going to be a critical success. But just because you have failed or done middling should not mean that you’re exiled to the wilderness forever. … That luxury to be mediocre is perhaps what I wish for most for Asian America,” he said.

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Steve Gotcher Host
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Technical Director
  • Anais Mitchell Guest
  • John Darnielle Guest
  • Jeff Yang Guest

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