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Interview with Grammy nominee Elizabeth Mitchell

Folksy singer-songwriter Elizabeth Mitchell shares how her family and Woody Guthrie have influenced her music.

Elizabeth Mitchell

Elizabeth Mitchell Photograph: Jana Leon

After releasing two handcrafted albums under the esteemed Smithsonian Folkways label, each more charming than the next, Elizabeth Mitchell finally scores big this year with Little Seed: Songs for Children by Woodie Guthrie, a comprehensive tribute and 100th-birthday present to her musical muse. (Coming across Guthrie’s Songs to Grow on for Mother and Child on vinyl had served as a turning point in Mitchell’s kindie career). The Hudson Valley songstress released a second album in 2012, Blue Clouds, which is eligible for the next Grammy Awards, and is releasing two more discs this year. If your family hasn’t seen her perform yet, check out her April show at the Jewish Museum or her June concert at the Brooklyn Public Library—as usual, she’ll be accompanied by husband Daniel Littleton and tween daughter Storey.

Who will be joining you in Los Angeles for the Grammy Awards?
Daniel, Storey and I will be there. We’re hoping we can bring Dan’s brother and his wife Anna (the Good Miss Padgett) and their daughter Penny. We’re hoping they can all come out and perform at the family benefit concert on Saturday before the Grammys.

What will you be wearing?
I don’t know! My daughter Storey has begged me not to wear sweatpants. It’s more about what she’s going to wear. Really, we are going to Los Angeles because she’s excited and we think it’s going to be fun. You’ll have to tune in to Joan Rivers to see what she thinks about my not-sweatpants outfit!

You’re often accompanied by your husband and daughter when you play. How would you describe your family’s sound?
I would describe it as the sound of a family making music. There is no other sound like that in the world—a family that lives and breathes music together 24/7. It is a full range, an honest sound, so you get the good and the bad. It is human-sounding, like it was made by hand.

What are your songs inspired by?

My songs are informed by my experience as a mother, and thinking about what were the most beautiful parts of my childhood that I want to express and make a part of Storey’s childhood.

What was the impetus for Little Seed?
Woody Guthrie has been there for me from the beginning, right from day one, in my path of making music for children. And with the celebration of his 100th birthday in 2012, I thought it would be appropriate to celebrate his songwriting for children and also to tell the story of his journey as a parent, which is less well-known. I focused on that in the liner notes. Hopefully someone’s reading them!

What is your favorite Woody Guthrie song?
“Who’s My Pretty Baby,” because when Storey was a baby and toddler, I would sing it to her every day, just fragments of it, in transitional moments when I felt that she was resisting what we were going to do next. I would start singing that song and it is almost like giving a child a cookie—they’re immediately with you because the song brings out this sweetness and joy. And it is better than a cookie because it is actually good for you! And “Grassy Grass Grass”—the poetry in it! They’re songs that you can use, and that is what I try to do with children’s music: to give people songs they can actually use. That is what Woody Guthrie gave to me.

How has playing for New York City families shaped your sound?

It has been enormously influential. On the one hand, city audiences are maybe the toughest you’ll get, because they are used to seeing the best stuff all the time. But also, when you have a lifestyle that’s fast-paced, and where you need to have a thick skin, I think it’s nice coming into an environment that’s warm and cracks your shell a little bit. Maybe families will get that when they come and sing along with us at one of our concerts.

Is your family looking forward to meeting anyone special during Grammy weekend?
Storey is very focused on meeting Carly Rae Jepsen. That has been the main topic of discussion at home: What are the chances that she will get to meet Jepsen or maybe Taylor Swift?

Who is the first person you would thank in your acceptance speech?
The first person I’d have to thank would be Woody Guthrie. But I’m trying not to think about this at all!

What were you doing when you got news of the nomination?
I was in my kitchen baking cookies with Storey. I had no idea the announcements were happening that day. Then my dad called, and he told me that we got the nomination. I was absolutely shocked and delighted. We stayed focused on the job and didn’t burn any of the cookies!

If not you, then who are you rooting for?
Everyone deserves it, and a million people who weren’t nominated deserve it too. Whoever wins, it is a beautiful thing to go and spread the word of family music. The independent way is the way, and it would be really nice to see that recognized, because it is so infrequent.

What’s your onstage Grammy nightmare?
Saying something really stupid—what I call a Liz Lemon moment! I identify with Tina Fey’s 30 Rock character so much—she’s good at one thing and screws up everything else in her life. It’s possible that I could bring some much-needed notoriety to the kindie music scene.

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