Multi-tasking would be an understatement to describe the work load over the past year of 25 year old Cork singer songwriter Anna Mitchell. Her career as a solo artist, band member and collaborator has resulted in tours and recordings in Ireland, The UK, Europe and The States in a hectic twelve month period. She has recorded her debut solo album Down to The Bone which was released in February 2015 and as a member of John Blek and The Rats has contributed to the song writing and played keyboards on their recent album Borders which was released in September 2015.
Both these projects involved tours of Ireland, The UK and Germany with Anna playing the support slot on all dates before taking her place behind the keyboard for the main act.
Notwithstanding the studio and touring schedules of her band and solo career she also managed to find the time to tour as a duo act with renowned American songwriter and poet Simone Felice in Ireland, The UK, Europe and The States. So impressed was the celebrated American poet and songwriter Simone Felice, he invited her to join him on 5 week European tour in winter 2014 stopping off in Ireland , U.K , Belgium and Luxembourg as well as a 3 week tour throughout the states in May/June 2015.
A quick trip to Woodstock in February saw Anna at Applehead studios in Woodstock, singing, playing piano, harmonium & percussion for a live recording of Simone’s new double album From The Violent Banks Of The Kaaterskill (also featuring The Felice Brothers, Simi Stone and Gabriel Dresdale) which was released in September 2015 on Mighty Hudson Records and on Warner Australia.
Lonesome Highway managed to steal twenty minutes from Anna Mitchell’s busy schedule before she took to the stage at Cleeres Kilkenny with Simone Felice on the final night of their sold out Irish tour.
How can you possibly manage to sustain three projects at the one time?
It’s hard but it’s not only that. As well as balancing three touring acts, this year there was also three albums to be recorded and released on which I feature heavily, but they are all such rewarding and different from each other that it keeps me going, even though right now I'm pretty tired. It’s what I want though. I want to be able to tour six or eight months of the year and make a living from it. That’s my goal. This time last year I was only beginning to enter this busy time of my life. I’m just finishing the Simone Felice tour tonight, home for a week and then off to Germany with The Rats for three weeks and following that lots of headline solo gigs and support slots lined up for December.
January and February sees me performing my own headline gigs in Germany followed by three weeks touring again with the band in March. April and May.But I am really loving it.
Is this workload by design or as part of a learning process?
There is most definitely a goal. I’m aware that I can’t keep doing what I’m doing at the moment indefinitely, I want to get to the stage when I can tour with my band and be able to afford to pay the guys. Once I can achieve that, that’s my idea of success.
Is Anna Mitchell more comfortable behind the keyboard or upfront as a lead vocalist?
As a band leader, I suppose you could say that I’m more comfortable as a singer than as a player. I’ve been singing all my life and whereas I’ve been playing piano for over fifteen years it’s only in the past three years that I’ve been playing publicly. What I really enjoy is playing with my band, who are effectively the musicians who also make up John Blek and The Rats
When did you start performing as a singer?
I’ve been signing all my life really, you can't shut me up, and it must have been so annoying living with me growing up! No wonder my sisters are both quiet! I’m from a farming background and when I was a toddler my Dad used to mind me and take me with him on his daily jobs around the farm, he even had a baby seat fitted on his tractor! I used to sing my head off in the milking parlour because there was so much noise in there that I wouldn't be annoying any one really, maybe just the cows.
After that my Dad was involved in a coursing club that used to meet every Sunday after the course and have a sing song in this little pub. Everyone had to sing a song whether they could sing or not. It was really lovely, a typical Irish country pub scene. I used to make it my business to have a new song every week, Emmylou Harris, Marvin Gaye, Helen Reddy, music that I used to hear at home. That was my stage. This went on for four or five years from the age of nine. My mother is a great singer and introduced me to all these great singers and writers from the 1960s and 70's and I still listen to that music today.
My grandfather was Donal Ring who had a well-known ceili musician and had a band for many years. Everyone in my mother’s family, except her, played in the band. My mother was more inclined to listen to Linda Ronstadt and Abba rather than traditional music. She was musical but stayed away from the band as she didn’t like the hours they had to put it. They were playing six and seven nights a week for almost twenty years. So you could say there was always music in the family but I can’t say I was influenced by it as it’s in stark contrast to what I’m now doing.
So even at this earlier age had you considered music as a career or was it simply a pastime?
No, I always felt I wanted a career in music but had no idea how to go about it. I’m the eldest in the family so did not have older siblings to advise me or to copy. At school I had intended to follow a science career. I did all my work experience in science and loved it until one time I was working in a lab and they had me purifying water for over two weeks which completely turned me off. I couldn’t handle the smells and decided this is not for me! I included music on my CAO as an option and ended up in UCC studying music. I really enjoyed college met some amazing musicians there.
Did you meet the members of the band through college?
No not at all. Our drummer Cian was in college at the time but in a different year than me. When I was about twenty one I started doing these singer songwriter evenings every week. John Blek came along to one of the sessions as he was looking for a girl singer in the band. He approached me afterwards and we chatted and got along very well. He asked me would I be interested in joining the band. At the time I was living in the most awful apartment, no windows, no television and the heating was not working. John used to call up every day and we would just play music all the time and drink tea! John introduced me to the rest of the lads and I joined up. They are all such good musicians and the most conscientious and sensitive bunch you could meet. There are six of us, some quiet, some mental and you would think that me being the only girl in the band that my head would be wrecked. Not the case at al, we really get on and look after each other. If that dynamic was not there I wouldn’t be happy doing it. Good music is born out of good relationships.
Where did the relationship with Simone Felice originate?
John and I supported him in Leap Castle in Roscrea about two years ago. He stayed around for our set and afterwards said he would really love me to play on stage with him. He asked for my contact number and I genuinely didn’t expect to hear from but two days later he called and said he had a really big gig in London the next day and that he’d would fly me over to play with him. I hadn’t had a holiday for about five years and was actually going on holiday that day so it was ‘look I would love to but can’t’ and explained. He understood and said something will happen in the future. He was over to play the Galway Arts Festival last year and asked would I do it with him. I knew some of his stuff so we had a ten hour practice day and played the following day to three hundred people. It was terrifying for me but we managed to pull it off. Earlier this year he invited me over to the Catskills to record his live double album with The Felice Brothers and Simi Stone. It was amazing as I’ve been a huge Felice Brothers fan for years, Ian Felice is one of my favourite songwriters.
Has observing how Simone Felice projects himself on stage been influential?
It’s amazing. He is unique in how he presents himself on stage. I would never perform in that way because it would not suit me, but it suits him. We played to a full house in Coughlans Cork last night and a number of people approached me afterwards to comment how more confident I have become on stage. In my earlier days I would be thinking ‘please don’t look at me on stage look at some of the other band members’. I now feel so much more comfortable on stage and remind myself that when people come to my gigs they are actually there to listen and look at me. Even up to six months ago I would be freaked out of my mind before gigs thinking why people would want to come to my shows. I recently said to my mother that I’ve done more growing up over the past six months than you could imagine. She told me she’s remind me of that in a years’ time. Touring with Simone has certainly contributed to this.
Your debut album Down to The Bone was very well received. How will the follow up album compare?
It will be a lot different in terms of the music and how it will be recorded. The material is more group based rather than my personal emotions and self-obsessions (laughs) and a lot, but not all of it, will be more upbeat. All my best songs to date are written for this album and I’m really excited about it and am going to give it a major push. I want it to have a seventies feel and record it in a way that really sounds like a band album, because that's what it will be. I’m going to record it live in the studio to achieve the 70’s feel that I’m looking for.
Is your material aimed at a particular market or do you simply write what comes naturally to you?
No, I’m fully aware that what I’m doing is not for the mainstream but it’s what I like and reflects me as a song writer. At the same time when I write a song which I think is good obviously it goes through your mind that other people might also consider it to be good.
What music will be playing on tour in the van driving the motorways in Germany with six of you in the band?
We’ve had this discussion alright as I have this Spotify offline account that I’ve paid for a month’s listening. Everyone has their playlist for listening in the van. The Jesus Lizard, an American punk band from the eighties will be featured. Samantha Crain and Caitlin Rose will be playing, Calexico also together with a lot of podcasts with different musicians that I have put together. When we get sick of listening to music we then spend the rest of the time talking about it!
Interview by Declan Culliton