We caught up with Marisa Anderson and discussed her folk instrumentation and how her cross-country walks inspired her music.
Into The Light was released last year. How was this record different from your last few?
Into the LIght is different from the other instrumental guitar records I've made in a few aspects. The biggest difference was that it was multi-tracked, and I played a few different instruments on it. The record has pedal steel and electric piano in addition to my usual toolkit of guitar and lap steel. Compositionally, the record was different as I tried to steer away from Appalachian or Delta blues based compositions. I was looking for a more cinematic, Southwestern sound on this record.
Your music is rich in traditional American folk and blues instrumentation. Who are the artists from the past that you admire?
I admire so many American musicians from the past - Son House, Reverend Gary Davis, Elizabeth Cotten, Doc Watson, Washington Phillips, Nina Simone, Fred McDowell, Napoleon Strickland, Otha Turner, Mississippi John Hurt, Blind Willie McTell, The Blue-Sky Boys, Almeda Riddle, Pop Staples, Hazel Dickens, Woody Guthrie...the list goes on and on.
Some of your songs feel really fluid and alive. Are they written pieces or is there some improvisation in the recording process?
My songs are almost entirely improvised when I'm recording them. Later, they become more formally structured if I want to adapt them to performance.
Your bio reads like folklore with stories like dropping out of school to walk across the US. Could you share what motivated you to drop everything and just start walking? Where'd you land? What drew you to stop there?
I've been on a couple of cross-country walks and spent most of the nineties traveling around the US on foot, hitchhiking or living nomadically in my car. Most of my travel was motivated by political campaigns I was a part of organizing or participating in. The first cross country walk I went on in 1990 was to raise awareness about environmental issues and the second was in 1992 to connect the issues of Native American sovereignty to the anti-nuclear movement. These were large group walks, usually 100 people, sometimes more. For many years I was part of several large encampments protesting nuclear testing in Nevada and nuclear waste dumping in the Mojave Desert.
I was motivated to get out in the world and meet all different kinds of people, and I was motivated to use my body to work for things I thought were important. I landed in Portland at the end of 1999. I was ready to live in one place and I had friends here.
You have songs called "Deep Gap" and "Galax" on your album Mercury. Being raised in the mountains of North Carolina, I'm familiar with these two places. Did you spend time in those places? How did they influence your creativity and songwriting?
I love the music of North Carolina, and am influenced by many musicians from the state. I've never lived there, but I have traveled through lots of times and have many friends in North Carolina. I wrote "Deep Gap" as a tribute to Doc Watson, and I wrote "Galax" with the idea of hearing hundreds of different fiddle tunes playing at once.
Into The Light was very well received by many media/music outlets. Did you expect your music to reach this level of attention? Did the reception ever become shocking? Can you remember the first time you felt like this project was really taking off?
I try not to have expectations regarding things I can't control, such as who might like my records. My expectations are personal, and my internal marker of success is that the opportunities to play guitar and make records grow and expand. I don't feel like this is a project. I'm 46, I've been playing guitar for 35 years. It's what I do regardless of whether anyone is listening. As far as taking off, well, the music business is fickle and I consider myself a worker, so I just show up for the job everyday and try not to pay too much attention to any kind of buzz. I will say that it was a bit shocking when I heard that Rolling Stone wanted to talk to me.
You've recently collaborated with some musicians. Can you describe what that was like and who you worked with?
I occasionally get asked to contribute guitar to a song on someone's record. In the past few years, I played on a Sharon Van Etten record, on the Jackie Lynn record that Circuit Des Yeux did, and I did some live recordings with Beth Ditto. It's different each time. With Sharon, I went to the studio where she was recording and played the track a few times, with the Jackie Lynn record I recorded my parts at home in my studio, and with Beth I played a handful of small shows some of which ended up being recorded.
I've noticed your name appearing on a few big festival lineups. Have you performed for a large festival crowd before? Do you prefer smaller, intimate settings or the larger venues?
I like all kinds of shows. I've played to big crowds and tiny rooms, and everything in between. My music is based in improvisation and I really like how the diversity of crowd size and venue affect the performance of the song. I learn something every time!
Some of our favorite works by you are your traditional fiddle tunes translated through the lens of fuzzy, reverberating electric guitar. How were you first exposed to the old-time stuff?
My dad listened to country music and some older folk stuff like Doc Watson, Woody Guthrie etc, so I grew up with that influence. In high school, I listened to the Grateful Dead a lot. They were heavily inspired by blues and country and traditional music and I was able to trace my way back in time through following some of their references.
What type of stuff have you been listening to lately? Any notable albums you've been stuck on?
Let's see..this week I've been listening to Antonio Bribiesca, Mary Margaret O'Hara, and the Neil Young record Rust Never Sleeps.