A Conversation with Elizabeth Mitchell

You don’t hear her doing Disney theme songs or dancing around between shows on Nick Jr., but Elizabeth Mitchell is kindie royalty — especially for parents who appreciate family music on the quieter, more natural end of the spectrum. With minimum production, Mitchell and her family (including her husband, Daniel Littleton, and their daughter Storey) harmonize over gently arranged versions of traditional tunes like “Little Liza Jane,” more recent classics like Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day,” and a smattering of originals.

Around my house, Elizabeth’s music is frequently heard, and her name comes up in conversation on a regular basis, but maybe your home isn’t so lucky. Let this interview be your introduction to an artist who’s making some of the warmest, most enriching family music on the modern kindie landscape. And if you’re already a fan? Here’s a peek behind the scenes of some of your family’s favorite songs.

I’d like to begin by talking about how you found your voice as an artist. Your albums are filled with such a wonderful sense of peace.

Well, I think it’s definitely informed by spending time with children, and my beginnings as a teacher. That was something I felt like they maybe weren’t getting elsewhere — that the sense of being grounded, and the peace you’re talking about, was something that maybe wasn’t being imparted by Spongebob Squarepants. [Laughter] That has its place, too — we all need to yuk it up and goof around. But maybe there aren’t so many outlets for centering, being compassionate, and thinking about the larger world. Just having a quiet moment with someone else, shared through music.

I just kind of got a sense that was a place I could go with the kids when I was teaching, and it’s a place you can find naturally and effortlessly. It’s also something that comes easily to me — I don’t do zany super well. This is just sort of what revealed itself to me, and it seems to be what resonates and seems to be of service to people. That’s the response I get, and it inspires me to keep going.

It’s a feeling that resonates in your “grown-up” work with Ida, too.

Yes, there are similarities there. And it’s funny, because with Ida, we were always just kind of a little off, a little different — a little apart from what was happening in indie rock during the ’90s. Part of it, but a little different. Not quite lining up. We took a spare approach, with a little more vulnerability, and I feel much the same way with kindie music right now. It’s very exciting, and it’s an exciting time for the music, but I play festivals with other bands in the genre, and I think, “Oh! Okay. I’m a little bit different.” I’m not quite succeeding on those terms.

I definitely see that with Ida. You came up during a fairly dark and ironic time for mainstream music.

Yes. [Laughs]

It made me curious as to how you settled into that sound. Are there basement tapes of Elizabeth Mitchell: The Synth-Pop Years?

It’s just what I’ve always been drawn to, you know? In the ’90s, when people were listening to Hole, I was listening to Elizabeth Cotten. That’s just where I was getting my inspiration. I think there’s been a range of expression in the music that Daniel and I have created, but there has been a thread of peace, and openness, and vulnerability, that we’ve forged on with. It was really the only thing we could do that was honest.

Well, just as a parent, I have to thank you for doing what you do. I know a lot of people who have had the experience I did, where listening to one of your albums for the first time is like applying a balm.

Oh, thank you. It’s funny how often lately I hear people say things like “I put it on and my child goes right to sleep.” [Laughter] I keep trying to make party songs, and then people are like, “It’s so mellow.” There seems to just be something that soothes.

I haven’t had that falling-asleep experience with my kids, but they do love it. They sing along.

It feels like a really profound gift to be able to do what I do, and I never lose the gratitude for how it seems to mean something in people’s lives. As a musician, that’s the ultimate goal.

Have you found that you’re able to feel that response from your audience more directly as a kindie artist than you did when you were on, say, Capitol?

Oh, yeah. [Laughs] Yes. Without a shred of doubt. We made You Are My Flower, the first album, just as a gesture of capturing what I had done teaching, and to share with family. That got into the hands of families I didn’t know, through word of mouth, and I started to get letters from parents — and parents of autistic children who said the music reached their children in a new way. It added a whole new level of meaning to what it meant to pick up the guitar. I was hooked at that moment — it became a mission.

I spoke recently with Chris Ballew, who I know is a big fan of yours —

It’s mutual! I love his music.

And it sounded like he’s had a similar sort of journey, of finding what feels like his true voice through making music for families.

Yes, he and I really relate in terms of family music — how it feels like a whole new door of creativity and purpose at the same time.

And you both rely heavily on traditional music, which is another thing I wanted to talk to you about.

I love that because it feels like a conversation through time. I love going back, finding old folk songs, and making them new — it feels like actively being part of the folk tradition. I feel very honored to have anything to do with the tradition established by artists like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie — especially since we work with Smithsonian Folkways. I still can’t quite come to terms with the fact that I’m on a label that’s so integral to that tradition, but I try not to think about it too much. [Laughs] I’m just trying to pull the thread along, by personalizing those songs and giving them a broader global perspective. It really turns me on — it makes me so inspired to perform something like “Buckeye Jim.”

I was just playing that with some kids last weekend, singing it quietly and talking about how the lyrics are kind of like a dream. We were imagining that we were telling a friend a secret about this really strange dream we had last night, and we didn’t want anyone to hear. The verse that we added says, “Way up yonder in the quiet night, a blackbird sang in the pink moonlight.” That was our way of adding McCartney to “Buckeye Jim,” which makes me so happy.

What’s your process when it comes to rearranging these songs?

Well, it can be a convoluted one at times. [Laughs] It’s mostly Daniel and I, and then Warren Defever, our partner we work with from the band His Name Is Alive, and we’ve invented this weird sort of musical language over the past…what is it now, 13 years? Wow. And now we have a new partner in our daughter Storey, and she’s certainly informing our arranging process in all sorts of ways.

Arrangements can be born at any moment. One of the first shows we did live with Storey was in Lowell, Massachusetts, when she was three. It was on this huge stage, it was just the four of us with our little instruments, and we set up a microphone for her and told her to do whatever she was comfortable with. So we performed “Three Little Birds,” and on our studio recording, you’ll notice there’s an echo. Well, that happened because she started running from the front of the stage to the back and then back to her microphone, just in time to create that echo. She came up with that idea there, and we thought, “That’s how this should sound.” Three years old, and coming up with more interesting ideas than we could have.

So sometimes, things can happen that way — they can come out of just singing with children, and listening to their creativity, which is pretty consistently going to surpass anything we’re capable of imagining.

Now that we’ve talked about your arranging process, let’s discuss your philosophy when it comes to writing original songs for kids.

Yeah, you know, I haven’t really done a lot of it, and it’s something I aspire to, but I’m such a music fan and listener — I’m constantly inspired by songs I hear and I ask, “How can we interpret that?” Most of my own writing comes in that form — re-imagining things. I guess I feel that the songs I choose to interpret are so exquisite that the challenge of bringing my own writing to that level is…well, it’s something I aspire to.

Maybe at some point, I’ll do an entire album of original material. But we have a new album that’s almost finished, and I’m holding out to see if I can finish a couple of original songs to complete it. That’s the missing piece the album is waiting on, so we’ll see. Knock on wood!

It’s harder to do than I think a lot of people realize, and it’s interesting to hear you say it’s intimidating for you.

Yeah, I take it very seriously. I’m trying to really create something meaningful for people. It’s really a daunting, humbling legacy I’ve joined by working with Smithsonian Folkways, and I want to give them something they can feel good about — something worthy. That’s what I’m striving for artistically. It’s not for me to say if I’m achieving that, but that’s my goal.

Let’s talk a little more about the fact that your music is not only for families, but it’s being made by a family, which, to me, hearkens back to the strong participatory element that used to exist in popular music. It’s been largely forgotten over the last 35-50 years or so. It’s obvious why, but there aren’t many families performing together ’round the parlor these days.

Yes, yes, absolutely. A big part of my mission is to make listeners empowered to make music themselves. We don’t make perfect-sounding records, by the standards of what some people would think they should sound like. They sound human — maybe the way your family would sound. And that’s the kind of music that inspires me. I like to listen to people in their natural voice — I mean, my favorite singer is Jerry Garcia, and he was not a perfect singer, but he was a very human singer. That’s what moves me.

I know this isn’t for everyone. But I’m trying to inspire people who might be on the fence, and maybe have a ukulele sitting around — trying to get them to think, “Yeah, that sounds like fun. Let’s get together and make music tonight.” Just for the love and the joy of it, really. There’s so much to be found, especially if you’re willing to be vulnerable and not pressured to meet some idealized standard that people think of as entertainment.

Kids growing up today watch American Idol and think of music as a competition, you know? At times it is, yes, but not at the core. It’s really about expression and community, and that’s why we play music as a family, and make the kinds of recordings that we do — because I know it inspires children. I know it does.

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