FOXY DIGITALIS INTERVIEW NOVEMBER 2011 by Jordan Anderson
Earlier this year Marisa Anderson released The Golden Hour on Mississippi Records, a solo album of improvisational music for guitar and lap steel that demonstrates both the care Anderson puts into her performances and the wide array of influences, East African and Mississippi Delta blues guitar playing among them, with which she complements her own unique instrumental voice. Here she discusses the impact that music has had on her life, and how she views the creative process.
How old were you when you first became interested in music, and how have your ideas about music changed over the years? What was it about music as a form of art that first caught your interest?
I have three sources of early inspiration. The first music I can remember that carried me away was singing Sunday School songs at church between the ages of four and eight years old. A lot of those songs still roll around in my head today; rousing Protestant hymns with lots of clapping and hand motions. I also remember driving in the car with my mom and listening to classical music on the radio and she would quiz me to identify the different instruments and melodic lines. That got me listening to how all the different parts and voices can work together to make a piece. And I remember riding in my dad’s truck listening to country music and kind of tripping out, especially at night, with the music and the lights. I don’t know if my ideas about music have changed much since then. Emotion, expression, technique, and transcendence are still the framework for how I experience music.
Who are some of your biggest musical influences?
I can’t really point to any one artist or group as a main influence. My mom was a big musical influence, because she had the good idea that learning how to read music and listen to it was a necessary life skill. She plays piano and flute and through her I got the idea that the practice of music was something important to make time and space for in my life. My older brother was an influence because he brought home records and took me to shows when we were teenagers. He exposed me to most of what I heard when I was a kid. I grew up in the Seventies and Eighties, so early on it was Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd and later it was Metallica and the Grateful Dead.
On my own, I’ve always been drawn to folk music and functional music. Work songs, game songs, story songs, laments, parade music, marching bands etc.
How did you come to work with Mississippi Records for The Golden Hour? What does the title of the album mean to you?
I live in Portland, and when Eric first opened the record store (this was before the label), I met him through a mutual friend. I’d go to the shop to look for records, or Eric would come to a show and we started talking about doing a record together. I wasn’t exactly looking to make a record, but Eric talked me into it.
The Golden Hour is the hour just before sunrise and just after sunset. Those are my favorite times of day.
In your bio it mentions that you once walked across the United States–how did you find this experience and what did you learn most from it? It also sounds like you’ve had some amazing experiences with traveling elsewhere, for example your bio also mentions that you toured through southern Mexico–what have been some of the most interesting places that you’ve come across?
I’ve been part of two cross-country walks. The first was in 1990 and it went from LA to New York. There were about 100 people walking. It was organized as a vehicle to talk to people about environmental/anti-nuclear issues. The second walk I was on was in 1992. It went from New York to Nevada. It was part of the 500 Years of Resistance movement that was centered around the anniversary of Columbus landing here in 1492. The purpose of the walk was to connect the issues of nuclear energy with the colonization and abuse of native lands in the US and all over the world.
I spent most of the Nineties living in my car or in a tent. I was part of a collective that provided logistical support to large groups of people. If there was a protest or encampment we would be called in to provide a kitchen, help with security, hygiene, set-up and cleanup, and meeting facilitation. We had a school bus and an outdoor kitchen and an army tent. The Mexico trip happened when we joined forces with a theater group who had gotten funding to take a circus show down to Chiapas. I played in the circus band and went on to work with that theater group for a few more years.
If I have to sum up a decade of travel I would say I learned that people are the same everywhere. We’re all concerned with the same things; eating, sleeping, fucking, protecting our children/land/livelihood. If we are going to have a shared future, we have to learn to look out for each other and advocate for everyone’s access to these fundamental human concerns.
How did you begin working with the Rock ‘n’ Roll Camp for Girls, and how have you found this work?
I started at Rock Camp as a volunteer, in 2004. I had been touring full time for a few years and was pretty burnt out on it. I felt like I was living really selfishly. Working at Rock Camp was a good opportunity to combine the musical and the activist parts of my identity. I ended up staying and taking full time work there. It’s a really good community of people.
What have been your favorite new or old records that you’ve come across this year? What albums have you listened to most?
I get really deep into one or two records a year. This year it’s been Ishilan N-Tenere, a compilation of music from the Sahel region of West Africa. Last year it was A Orillas Del Magdalena, a compilation of cumbia from the Discos Fuentes archive. A perennial favorite is Alice Coltrane’s Journey to Satchadananda.
What other forms of art are most interesting you? Who are some of your favorite artists in other mediums, such as painting, film, literature, etc.?
I read a lot, mostly non-fiction, with occasional forays into sci-fi. I like films that are big and slow with long shots and not much action, and I like stupid gangster movies from the seventies. I was recently at the Tate Modern and I was blown away by the Gerhard Richter exhibit.
What was recording and releasing The Golden Hour like? How did the idea for the album come about?
The process of making the record was a pretty unique experience for me. Like I mentioned earlier, Eric kind of talked me into making the record. We’d been going back and forth about it for a few years, but I never felt ready to commit to making it. Finally he just told me I was ready and that I needed to do it. He basically wanted me to make a “blues” record. Beyond that it was up to me. I spent about a year preparing, just approaching this idea of the blues from every angle I could and deconstructing my own approach. The recording was done at the house of my friend Michael Henrickson. He’s got a big house and each room sounds totally different. I would work on one idea for about a month and then go over to Michael’s and he made the decisions about what room I should play in, what mics to use, where I should be in relation to my amp etc. I’d play through that one idea for the whole session until I had nothing left to say, usually several hours, and we’d get what we could onto tape.
Then I would go home, discard that idea and work on another one for a month. We filled up a bunch of tapes. I never listened to any of the tapes until the end of the year, when we sat down to mix. We culled it all into a couple of hours, dumped it into a digital format and I took it to my friend Jesse Johnson to do the final mix. We didn’t do any cutting and pasting–every piece on the record is exactly as played, and we didn’t add much EQ or panning or anything, it’s all pretty much in the same shape as it was recorded.
What is the improvisational process like for you? What do you get most out of improvisation?
I like to think of improv as a conversation. There’s a topic, or it’s agreed upon that there is no topic, and each player addresses the topic/lack of topic, listens to the other players and responds to the developing conversation. If it’s a good conversation, new ideas flow, familiar ideas reveal new twists, everybody is engaged, maybe you learn something new or think about something in a new way as a result. If I’m playing solo, I’m engaged in a more personal exploration, but one that includes the room I’m in, the audience, and the moment we are in together.
I played for six years in a band called the Evolutionary Jass Band, which was 7-10 piece improv-based group. We would meet twice a week, eat together and then play for 2-3 hours. Six years of doing that with the same people twice a week is the best training I can imagine for learning how to play improvisationally. One of the fundamental lessons I learned in that band was how to be scared in front of people, and be okay with it. I learned that if you’re standing in front of a bunch of people with an instrument in your hands and no pre-set idea about what is going to happen next and you’re not scared, then you are either delusional or dissociated. I learned to be brave, to take risks, to not take myself too seriously and to play without holding back. I learned to trust myself and the audience, and to trust the music as it was unfolding. I like improvisation because I’m playing in a room and feeling what it’s like to be there, in that place and time with those specific people. Each room and each audience participates differently in the conversation and so I often learn something new about the piece or about the process. The process challenges me personally to stay present and to play from a very deep, very aware place.