Monday, December 9, 2013

Introducing Portland, OR-Based Songwriter and Guitarist Marisa Anderson

Marisa Anderson is a Portland, OR-based songwriter and guitarist who explores the complex fabrics of American folk, blues, and country. At 19 she left college to walk across the country (and in her words, "didn't stop for 19 years"). Marisa was a founding member of The Dolly Ranchers, before embarking on her own solo career. Her solo debut, Holiday Motel, was an Outmusic nominee for Best Female Debut Recording, and in 2011 she released The Golden Hour, her debut for the Mississippi Records label. Her latest album is called Mercury.

Marisa Anderson has opened for  Sharon Van Etten, Daniel Higgs, and Thao and Mirah. Her songs have been featured in the soundtracks of "Smokin’ Fish", "For the Love of Dolly", "Girls Rock", and "Gift To Winter", and she has made festival appearances at Le Guess Who, Creative Music Guild Improvisation Summit, Portland Experimental Film Festival, Sound & Music Festival, NOFest, Electrogals, Festival of Endless Gratitude, Pickathon, and PICA’s TBA Festival.

In addition to her writing and performing music, Marisa's writings on music and activism  have appeared in Bitch Magazine, Leaf Litter, and in Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls, the book. Her new album, Mercury, is out now via Mississippi Records. You can read more about Marisa's walk across the country and head to her website to listen and purchase her music.

When did you begin learning and playing guitar?

Marisa Anderson: I started playing music at about the age of 7. My first instrument was the recorder. I would tag along on my mom’s flute lessons and her teacher showed me the basics of reading music. At around age 10 or 11 I switched to guitar. I took lessons for about 5 years. My teacher played classical guitar, so that’s what I learned.

Which artists and albums inspired you to get serious about music?

Marisa: As a teenager, the guitarist I most looked up to was Nina Gerber, who played in Kate Wolf’s band. I ended up taking lessons from her for a couple of years. Another guitarist that was a huge early influence was Jorma Kaukonen, particularly his covers of Reverend Gary Davis songs.

When did you start writing your own music?

Marisa: I didn’t start writing until I was in my mid-twenties. The Dolly Ranchers had a weekly gig at the Cowgirl Hall of Fame in Santa Fe. We had to fill four hours a night, so I started writing by necessity to keep that gig!

Can you talk about your experiences in The Dolly Ranchers?

Marisa: The Dolly Ranchers was an all-girl country/folk band. We had no drummer, just bass and guitar and two singers, and lots of harmony singing.  The band started as a duo, and grew into a four piece and might have kept growing, but we couldn’t fit more people or gear in the van. We started off at campfires and parties, spent about a year playing all over northern New Mexico, and then when I moved to Portland in 1999. The most practical thing to do to keep the band together was to start touring the West (between Portland and Santa Fe).

We didn’t know anything at all about the music business but somehow we just kept going. Our first tour was booked from a pay phone at the laundromat. We were living on land way out in rural Colorado and we had to walk a mile to the car because the road was washed out, and then drive a half-hour into town to use the pay phone. Touring worked out well for us and we started touring all over the US because we couldn’t keep touring the same 10 western cities over and over.

After the Dolly Ranchers split, how and when did you make the transition to solo guitar?

Marisa: When the Dolly Ranchers split, I made a solo record of songs that I had written for the band that I wasn’t ready to let go of yet. That’s when I figured out that as much as I enjoy singing, I don’t really enjoy performing as a singer. Around that time I was invited into a band called The Evolutionary Jass Band, which was a 7-10 piece improv jazz/noise/rock band. Basically the opposite of the very tightly scripted country thing I had been doing with the Dolly Ranchers.

I spent about six years playing in the Evolutionary Jass Band and I learned so much about composition and improvisation and how to really push myself musically. I grew tremendously in that band. We mostly played in Portland, only going on a couple of short tours.

Mississippi Records put out one of our records, and Eric Isaacson, who runs the label, approached me about doing a solo record. I had started playing a little bit here and there by myself, kind of combining all the different styles I’d been playing up until then; classical, country/folk/blues, and jazz/noise. I guess he heard something he liked in it.

How and when did you connect with Mississippi Records? Can you tell us about your connection to Mississippi Records and the community there?

Marisa: When Eric first opened the store, I was living up the street. We knew a couple of people in common, so I would come and hang out at the store and listen to records and we became friends. The store and the label are pretty special. Eric has his own way of doing things-no website, vinyl only etc. It’s grown quite a bit since it started ten years ago, but back then there was no label, just the store and a handful of people who would stop in and visit.

What do find most rewarding and inspiring (both professionally and personally) about the Portland music community?

Marisa: It’s kind of a contradiction, but what I most dislike about the Portland music community is directly responsible for what I like best: all ages shows in non-commercial spaces. Portland has become such a mecca for young bands and at this point there are more musicians than audience and it’s a hard environment for young, local, underground musicians playing challenging music that isn’t going to fill rooms or make people dance and drink.

As a result, there are some great venues and shows that happen under the radar. One of my favorite places to play and to see shows is a little grocery/produce market called Cherry Sprout. Once every month or so they move the vegetables aside and present music, or if it is sunny they’ll move the show outside. It’s word of mouth and DIY and done from the heart. Other great Portland music entities are the Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls and the Creative Music Guild, both of which are working hard to make space for music you won’t hear about through mass media/mainstream cultural channels.   

Can you provide a brief musical/ personal history of writing and recording your previous albums?

Marisa: With the Dolly Ranchers recordings, we would write the songs, arrange them, and go into the studio and record them live. It was very simple and straightforward. Maybe some vocals would be overdubbed.

With the The Golden Hour, which is the first record I did for Mississippi Records, I would work on an idea in my practice space for a month or two and then go to my friend Michael’s house and we would spend a day recording everything I could play on that idea. He would do the engineering and the mic placement and I’d just play until I didn’t have a single new idea left. We never listened back to what we had recorded, we just put the tapes in a box. After about a year I listened through it all and edited it down to what I thought was the record.

With the new record, Mercury, I wanted to have a little more control over the process so I spent a year teaching myself to record at home. I have a simple setup: just an amp and a couple of mics so it wasn't too hard to learn. One song on the record was written in advance and the rest of them are improv. A few are first takes, and the rest are ideas that I would work on and listen to and just keep at until I got what I wanted.

With The Golden Hour I had no idea what the record was going to sound like, but most of the songs on Mercury were in my head before I recorded them. The process of making this record was very purposeful. I knew what I wanted it to sound like, and I just kept playing and recording myself until I got it right. 

How did coming off of your experiences of making and touring for The Golden Hour prepare you and / or inspire you to begin writing the new material.

Marisa: The hardest thing about the process of making The Golden Hour was that by the time the record came out I had no idea how to play any of the songs. So when it came time to tour for the record I basically had to rewrite the whole thing for performance. Sometimes what works on a record is very different from what works in a live performance. I definitely didn’t want to repeat that process this time around, so I wrote Mercury with performance in mind.

Also, I learned to pace myself. Since most of my performance is improvised, I had to learn to make structures that I can improvise within while I’m on tour and playing night after night. I needed to create pieces that I can enjoy playing when I’m exhausted or when the sound isn’t optimal. Mercury is a much more deliberate record in that regard.

When I play improvised music, I can’t rely on ‘oh I know the song so I can just go through the motions’; I have to really be playing and involved in it every time. So any new material has to really be able to hold my interest as a player.

Were there elements of your last record that you wanted to explore further?

Marisa: I wanted to keep exploring tone and all the different ways a guitar can sound.  I don’t use any effect pedals beyond a little bit of boost to create distortion. To create variety in sound between the songs I use a few different guitars and different amp settings and mic placements. I love the challenge of using just my hands, guitar and amp to make all the sounds.

What new directions were you considering moving into for the new album?

Marisa: I had more ideas about what directions I wanted to avoid; I didn’t want to make a "Faheyesque"/ Takoma style record and I didn’t want to repeat The Golden Hour. When Eric asked me to make The Golden Hour, he said he wanted a "blues" record. So that was the lens I worked through. With Mercury, I chose a different lens, and to me, Mercury has more Appalachian influence and more of a twangy, country vibe.

For Mercury, you recorded 16 compositions for solo guitar and lap steel and in live takes, with no overdubs, looping or electric layering. Did you have a pre-conceived direction, vision, and or feel for the new record you wanted to make?

Marisa: I’d been thinking a lot about minimalism and spaciousness and how to say more with less. I wanted this record to sound full, but not cluttered. I wanted to continue to record live and solo, using only single takes and no overdubs. In making this record, I was inspired by the guitar players of the 1920s and 30s who could make their guitars sound like full bands. Those players knew how to fill the space and also what to leave out of their arrangements to keep the songs moving.

Because of current technology we now have the ability to create huge layered pieces with hundreds of different sounds and parts and instruments. It is a really good time for people who shine at arranging and instrumentation. On the flip side, I don’t hear so many great instrumentalists and I wanted to make a dynamic, emotional, interesting and varied record that was really the sound of one person playing one guitar. I wanted the new record to be essentially different from The Golden Hour while still being recognizably my playing and writing. 

Please describe your songwriting process.

Marisa: Songs usually start with wanting to re-create a feeling or sensation. Like what it feels like to drive through the desert at night, or the smell of a sunny day. Usually a sound or a smell will trigger a feeling and then I just chase it until I get it. Or sometimes I don’t get it and it’s gone.

I don’t think about songs or music in terms of what can be done on a guitar. Its just that I’m trained on guitar, and I don’t have the patience to learn every instrument. Some songs I’m trying to play like a saxophone or a fiddle or a piano. I want to play like a honky-tonk piano player or like a roadhouse blues band or like a symphony orchestra or like a thunderstorm.

Was there a tune(s) that set the course for the album?

Marisa: There were a couple of tunes that made me know I was onto something. With "Galax" I was trying to play all the parts of an old-time band at once, the fiddle, banjo, guitar and bass parts calling and responding. "Deep Gap" was a piece I’d been wanting to make for awhile but it kept eluding me until I had a dream about it. The opening melody and the tuning were in my dream (it’s a weird tuning; open F#m) and I got up and went into my studio and recorded it in one take and that’s the version that’s on the record. That song was waiting for me to find it.

What were you listening to during the writing and recording of the album that you can point to as significant influences?

Marisa: I listened to Doc Watson a lot for this record, for his tone and his light touch and that nice bit of bounce that he had in his hands. I was inspired by shape note singing for a few of the songs, trying to make vocal-like lines where the high voices sustain while the low voices carry on underneath with their melody and all the voices go in and out of each other in a beautiful tangle.

I listened to Ennio Morricone and noticed how he would take simple phrases and repeat, layer and rework them throughout a soundtrack. His music has such a flow, and each part is very simple and very cleverly arranged.

I also listened to commercial country music, like Brad Paisley and Dwight Yoakam. When I listen to those big over-produced country records I’m still struck by how good the guitar playing is and by the sort of bombastic sound of it. Its like processed food: saturated and artificial and delicious for one bite. At the core of it is something real, and I guess that’s what I’m searching for.

What are some of your non-musical sources of inspiration?

Marisa: Cloud formations, industrial machinery, the light at certain times of day or in certain parts of the country, and the weather...

What have you been listening to lately?

Marisa: I haven’t been listening to much music lately. When I first finish a record, I need mostly silence. I think it’s kind of a palette cleanse.

Will you be touring nationally? What's next for you?

Marisa: I have a new record set to release in December through the Grapefruit Record Club. It is a solo guitar record featuring traditional and public domain songs. I really love this record and am so happy I got to make it!

Right now I'm working on a collaborative record with Doug Keith and Phil Cook and in 2014. Then I'll do a US spring tour and a fall tour in Europe. And of course, I'll continue to play and write and record. Who knows what will come of all that!

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