Marisa Anderson on soundtracks, mixing traditions, and mariachi
The Portland-based guitarist kicks off her spring tour on April 16 at Arts + Literature Lab.
To hear Marisa Anderson’s solo-guitar instrumentals is to hear many folk and blues traditions swirling in and out of each other. Between songs in her live sets, Anderson does like to tell the audience about the stories behind her original and traditional pieces, but she isn’t didactic or purist in either the telling or the playing. In the rugged improvisations of her 2011 debut album The Golden Hour, and the more stately solo performances on 2013’s Mercury, Anderson’s economical and conversational playing balances out the heady thematic reach of her material.
Anderson’s new album Into The Light, due out in June, overtly pivots away from the blues influences of Golden Hour and Mercury to explore the music of the American West. And for the first time on one of her studio albums, Anderson adds guitar and electric piano overdubs to her usual rotation of solo electric, acoustic, and lap steel. The results span from hazy electric desert-psych on “House Of The Setting Sun” to aching, sparse, mariachi-influenced acoustic plucking on “He Is Without His Guns.” Before releasing the record, she’s on a spring tour—still in a solo format, despite the more layered approach of the new recording—that begins with an April 16 show at Arts + Literature Laboratory. Anderson spoke with me recently from her home in Portland, Oregon.
Tone Madison: The new record has a narrative to it that you've loosely spelled out in the liner notes, and says that it's a soundtrack for a non-existent sci-fi western. Why did you decide to approach the record that way?
Marisa Anderson: I was really inspired by a couple of other records, primarily a record by a guy named Bruce Langhorne called The Hired Hand, and it's a soundtrack to a really obscure Peter Fonda film. The record is much better than the film. So that's an actual soundtrack for an actual movie, but I really love that soundtrack. And then also, Willie Nelson, The Red-Headed Stranger. When he made The Red-Headed Stranger, the movie didn't exist. They eventually, I think, five or six years later, made the movie based on the record, which is kind of funny, but I think the idea that you could make something that was a soundtrack, without there being actually a movie there or something to track, kind of came out of loving The Red-Headed Stranger. Obviously I don't write songs with lyrics with them, but it was kind of a combination of The Hired Hand and The Red-Headed Stranger that got me on that track.
The other part of that is just not wanting to repeat myself from record to record, and needing to have a prompt. As a writer, you have a prompt that sort of spurs the direction that your writing might take. So it was kind of a way to give myself a prompt.
Tone Madison: Sure, and even comparing The Golden Hour with Mercury, there's definitely markedly different approaches on each one.
Marisa Anderson: I don't know how to say this exactly, but with instrumental music it can be really easy to obscure the origin of where a piece comes from. It's not like more lyric-based music, where it's kind of "oh, it's about this or about that," and I don't think music always has to be about anything, but I know that for me, my songs and my creative process do tend to run thematically. In my live shows, I make that very clear, and I kind of wanted a way to do that a little more in a recorded setting.
Tone Madison: And even though your work is instrumental, you draw on these musical traditions where songs tend to have a strong narrative element and characters and morals and stuff like that. How do you try to make those elements translate into an instrumental setting?
Marisa Anderson: One of the recordings that came out in November was a split that I did with Tashi Dorji on Footfalls Records. There's a combination of "The House Carpenter" and "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" on that record, and that's very specifically about putting those exact songs together because of what they say. "The House Carpenter" is the story of a woman who leaves her husband and infant and sails off to the middle of the ocean with her lover, who turns out to be the devil, and the boat sinks and she goes to hell. And that is a pretty strange story, and it brings up a lot of questions for me about, like, who's the narrator, and how do they get to say that, and also about just the story itself. On the surface of it, there's some big mistakes made for love, and then "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean," I thought that was a good reflection on all of us making mistakes, for whatever reason, so those songs were specifically chosen and presented in context with each other. Also, "The House Carpenter" has its roots in Great Britain as "The Daemon Lover," and "See That My Grave Is Kept Clean" is very clearly an American blues song, but those traditions are speaking back and forth to each other over time. I like to highlight the ongoing evolution of those kinds of conversations.
And I think that music can get stuck in the recording process, where the version of a certain song that you heard is "the" version, when in fact, that was a version, and I do like to look forward and think about tradition about something that is alive and moving into the future, not just something that we rely on to understand the past.
Tone Madison: Because you're primarily a solo performer, does that force you to take a fresh approach to a piece each time you record it or play it live?
Marisa Anderson: I think that when I play with other people, I try to bring the same level of intention, although you can do that more in conversation, obviously, if there's more people. I just think maybe it's the nature of my personality—I always want to know why something is or what makes something tick, and lift the curtain a little bit.
Tone Madison: On this record, what were some of the images or moods—or conflicts, because stories have conflicts—that you wanted to portray?
Marisa Anderson: There were a couple of major ones. I wanted to take a step away from the Delta region and Delta blues, and step away from Appalachian music, step away from really overtly European-influenced, southeastern music. I'm from northern California originally, and just as much of an influence to my growing up was hearing the Mexican radio stations. That music was all around me as well. I also spent a lot of time in the desert Southwest, and I wanted to reflect some bits of that influence. And that sort of dovetails into thinking about migration and immigration and who gets to be where and who decides and when. In California, for example, there's people who've been living there, you know, as long as there have been people, and the borders around them change, and so all of a sudden they're not Mexican anymore, they're American as of 1848, or whatever. These kinds of things are playing out really obviously right now in the world, with the refugee crisis in Europe and Donald Trump talking about building a wall. These things are really present with us still.
Tone Madison: The Southwestern influence comes through most prominently on "He Is Without His Guns."
Marisa Anderson: If I could orchestrate that for any band, to me that's a mariachi song almost. I want to hear trumpets and violins playing that song. I don't play mariachi or trumpet or violin. And for that one in particular, I had a still in my head—I could direct that scene, you know? That was really clear to me. You know how in some of that [mariachi] music you get the trumpets to be so sad? That's the kernel there, the really sad trumpet.
Tone Madison: It's always interesting to use the typical role of one instrument as a model for another.
Marisa Anderson: That's actually really common for me. I don't listen to many guitar players and I'm not that inspired by guitar. I craft my pieces usually around trying to do what other instruments do. [Laughs]
Tone Madison: On this record it's slightly more layered than your previous stuff—
Marisa Anderson: It's a lot more layered!
Tone Madison: Why did you decide to arrange it that way?
Marisa Anderson: Well, again, I didn't want to make the same record, a solo-guitar record. With every record I like to try and bring a new element in. With the Traditional And Public Domain Songs record that came out in 2013, I went really deep in the sound world, and it was still just this one guitar, but I split the signal and did all this stuff with it. For this record, I just went for more traditional multi-tracking. For one thing, I'm learning how to play the pedal steel and I wanted it on the record, but I'm nowhere near ready for that to be a solo thing, and so I kind of started off just messing around on pedal steel and finding things that worked, and then picking up the guitars and lap steel and sort of playing with it. I never do have a really clear plan at the beginning. I just sort of roll up my sleeves and get started, and then it takes shape around me. That's where it wanted to go. The songs and the ideas I was having just wanted to be a fuller sound.