Raising Creative Kids: Interview with Elizabeth Mitchell
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Raising Creative Kids: Interview with Elizabeth Mitchell

Elizabeth Mitchell performing at Free First Saturday in 2005

Working with musicians and performers is one of my favorite parts of programming for Free First Saturday . The upcoming Free First Saturday, on November 6,  we have invited special musical guest Elizabeth Mitchell to join us for the day.  Her partner Daniel Littleton and their daughter Storey have been on the road for several months performing as a family and promoting their new album Sunny Day.  Somewhere between New York and California Elizabeth took the time to answer a few questions about her childhood and what she is doing to raise her own kid creatively.

1. How did you express creativity as a child?

I studied modern dance from the time i was six years old. My mother first took me to a ballet class when I was five, but I was not made for ballet! I remember my favorite part of the ballet class being the end, when the teacher would bring a bag of small plastic animals, and we could reach in blindly and choose an animal, then dance as that animal. The ballet teacher looked at my mother at the end of the term with a kind smile and said “maybe try modern with this one.” From that time on I went to class twice a week and loved every minute. I was not a technically “good” dancer, but that was not the point. I was moving my body and it was feeding my soul! And I was learning to express myself, in an abstract, nonlinear way. For me, that was the beginning of my life as an artist

2. What was your favorite book?

The Secret Garden” by Frances Hodgson Burnett. I was fascinated by the idea of things being hidden, the little boy hidden away in the house, the garden hidden behind the tall stone walls. I think I found that very romantic and subsequently did a lot of excited imagining that there was much hidden beyond what I saw.

3. What kinds of music did your parents play around the house?

Equal parts Ella Fitzgerald interpreting the great American songbook and the acoustic folk music of the 1970s. Ella was my mother’s favorite singer, but she also loved Simon and Garfunkel, Carole King and James Taylor. We had those albums on vinyl. But then, come 1978, it was the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever all year long, and on an 8 track tape!

4. Were you encouraged early-on by your family or teachers?

Always, by both my family and teachers. My elementary school music teacher gave me a lot of love and encouragement, and was an enormous part of my musical path. She was a thing of radiant beauty to me, her wide eyes and smile, playing Beatles and Joni Mitchell songs on the piano while we all sang along, sitting on a masking taped circle on the floor. She was joyful and relaxed and made me love to sing. It was the 1970s and there was still a lot of support for the arts in public schools at the time. In my memory, we had music class everyday.

5. How would you describe the art that you made as a child? What kinds of materials did you use? Any unusual ones?

I remember constantly making collages. I loved cutting up and piecing found things together, to make something new. Newspaper, yarn, leaves, layering tissue paper, old photographs, seashells, fabric, anything. I think the music that I make today is a form of collage, taking bits of inspiration from many different sources and influences, juxtaposing moments of sound from entirely different eras, cultures and genres, and creating new conversations between generations of music.

6. What was the best gift you got as a child, and who gave it to you?

My grandmother had a best friend named Katie Minton. She was an elderly but very spirited woman who lived alone. We would go visit her and she would always give us something of hers when we left- an old postcard, a piece of costume jewelry, a little box. It taught me to love giving, to be generous and unattached to my things.

Elizabeth Mitchell and Daniel Littleton

7. What was your first job?

When I was a teenager I worked at a fruit stand at a local farm. I grew up in a suburb of New York City so it was a rare thing to have a working farm in our town. But it was my favorite place to be. I loved spending the day surrounded by basil, tomatoes, corn, peaches, it was sensory heaven for me.  The customers were funny though, women who would ask for a tomato that would be ripe in exactly three days! The woman who ran the farm became a second mother to me, she was from Sweden and worked harder than anyone I knew at the time.

8. What song did you —or do you —always include on mixed tapes?

Three songs- Cucurrucucu Paloma, by Caetano Veloso, Djorolen by Oumou Sangare and Bela Fleck, and Raccoon and Possum by the Seeger Family.

9. What’s the coolest thing about being on road? What’s the hardest?

The coolest part is meeting so many amazing and beautiful children and families everywhere we go. People often share stories with us of how our music has affected their lives, and those words truly keep us going. The hardest part is being away from home and trying to find healthy food in the USA!

10. What was the first instrument you learned to play?

I started studying piano at age 5. I had a year of music theory before I even started playing the instrument. I can still remember the light and the colors of that room where I had theory lessons.

11. What instruments do you still play?

A little piano, guitar, harmonium, and lots of percussion. If I could do it all over again, I would be a drummer! Drummers have the most fun.

12. What’s the family favorite bedtime story?

There is a story my husband Daniel and my daughter Storey made up, called “The Land of Blue Clouds.” All kinds of magical things happen there, it changes every night. Daniel wrote a song about it called “Blue Clouds”, that was featured in the HBO Family Documentary “A Family is A Family is A Family.” It came right before a Frank Sinatra song, so we got billing over Frank Sinatra, which was cool!

Elizabeth and Storey

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