For Anaïs Mitchell, it’s been a very long haul from her parents’ sheep farm in Vermont to the bright lights of Broadway. More than a decade after revamping the ancient myth of Orpheus and Eurydice into a modern musical, Mitchell’s “Hadestown” was the toast of New York City in 2019, earning 14 Tony nominations and eight awards.
Beginning on small community stages in her home state, Mitchell thoroughly revised her show through a progression of increasingly larger venues. She worked tirelessly on it every step of the way.
“I’m used to things being hard,” she says. “My worldview is, if it’s not hard, it can’t be good.”
Which is why she was so surprised by the ease with which her latest project came together. Bonny Light Horseman, a collaboration with Eric D. Johnson (of the indie band Fruit Bats) and Josh Kaufman (who has performed with and produced and arranged for Josh Ritter and the National, among others), is an exploration of the three members’ mutual attraction to the traditional folk music of the British Isles.
“This whole process — putting the band together, recording the album — felt easy,” Mitchell says. On the heels of the trio’s self-titled debut, they’re on the road for a brief tour that stops at the Sinclair in Cambridge on Tuesday.
“I don’t know if ‘easy’ is the word. But it did feel effortless.”
Mitchell, who’s recorded a half-dozen albums as a solo artist, says she’d been a “quiet fan” of Kaufman’s for years, taking note as he produced albums by Ritter and other friends of hers. Kaufman, in turn, suggested she meet Johnson, who shared her enthusiasm for traditional folk songs.
“We’re all kind of coming from different angles,” says Johnson, huddled over a cellphone for an interview with his bandmates. “The easy answer is that Anaïs is coming from a traditionally traditional place.” He laughs.
“Josh and I are coming more through the side door, through rock ’n’ roll,” Johnson continues, name-checking Fairport Convention, the Incredible String Band, and the Grateful Dead. (Kaufman co-produced 2016’s “The Day of the Dead,” a 59-track compilation of Grateful Dead covers, with the National’s Aaron and Bryce Dessner.)
The songs on “Bonny Light Horseman” mostly combine old lyrics — in some cases, hundreds of years old — with the musicians’ own interpretive settings. “The Roving,” for instance, is the group’s liberal adaptation of “Loving Hannah,” a downhearted ballad passed down from Jean Ritchie and Peggy Seeger to Mary Black. “Blackwaterside” is the trio’s reading of an old Irish folk song recorded by Bert Jansch and Sandy Denny. Other songs allude to, but don’t mimic, traditional songs as performed by Tia Blake, Nic Jones, and the Irish folk band Planxty, among others.
The band borrowed its name from the album’s title track, which describes a young lass who has lost her beloved in warfare during the time of Napoleon.
A couple of the songs are more contemporary, such as “Deep in Love,” which grew out of a seed Johnson initially intended for his own group. Of the 10 tracks, how many are originals?
“That’s a great question,” says Johnson. “We don’t even really know the answer.”
A real warmth blankets the entire album, with interweaving voices and acoustic guitars and a subtle array of shading, from drawn-out sighs on harmonica and saxophone to the daybreak piano notes that usher in the gentle gospel of “Bright Morning Stars.” The band members say they recorded much of the album during an ice storm in Woodstock, N.Y. Johnson, who grew up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, brings up the Danish concept of “hygge” — essentially, the cozy contentment of sitting by the fire on a cold winter night.
The band has labeled the music they’re making “astral folk.” It’s partly a nod to Van Morrison’s classic “Astral Weeks” album, Johnson says. It’s also an attempt to articulate “a certain cinematic realm of folk music — the gigantic world of feeling,” he explains. Traditional folk music can be a living, breathing art form: “It doesn’t necessarily have to be an old field recording of a person in Wales.”
All three agree that they wanted to avoid the sterility of undertaking “a research project,” as Kaufman puts it.
“There are only so many notes in the scale,” Mitchell says. “There are only so many singable words, only so many stories set to music. On some level it’s all interpretive. . . . It sort of feels like it’s a spectrum.”
For Mitchell, this side project quickly revealed itself as something she’d been hungry for. Amid the crush of “Hadestown” attention, her work with Bonny Light Horseman “felt really restorative,” she says.
Kaufman first saw “Hadestown” with his wife, at a preview in London in late 2018. The crew was still calibrating the fog machine; at one point, the whole stage was covered in a thick haze. For a moment, the only thing the audience could see was Orpheus’s outstretched arm.
Those were stressful times for Mitchell. Now, with the show comfortably settled into an open-ended run, the fog has lifted. And for Bonny Light Horseman, the fire is roaring.
BONNY LIGHT HORSEMAN
With Erin Rae. At the Sinclair, Cambridge, Feb. 11 at 8 p.m. Tickets $17-$20, www.sinclaircambridge.com
James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.