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Marisa Anderson—Improvising in 3-D

Anderson typically keeps her instruments tuned to open D or open D minor, including this parts S-style 6-string. She also has a parts T-style and plays lap and pedal steel.
Photo by Klaas Guchelaar

The unconventional fingerstylist left classical guitar to join a circus band, play rock solos, and start musical fires with open tunings, clarion tone, and improvisation. She burns brightly on the new The Quickening.

It goes without saying that curiosity is essential for any artist. For guitarists, it’s often curiosity that leads us to spend our time noodling around on our instruments, recording songs, starting bands, searching far and wide for the perfect piece of gear, and it’s probably the thing that led us to pick up our instruments in the first place.

Talking to Marisa Anderson, it becomes quite clear that her music has been the result of her own curious nature since day one. At 10, she exchanged her recorder lessons for classical guitar lessons in her hometown of Sonoma, California. After eight years of study, Anderson was ready to move on and discover more creative ways around the instrument and dropped out of an undergraduate classical guitar program. She explains, “When you get into a more involved classical guitar piece, it does the same thing as a crossword puzzle. It taps into something that I like, but at a certain point the payoff wasn’t enough. I was meeting all these people who were jamming on Neil Young songs and stuff like that, and I was like, ‘How do you do that? How do you just play a solo in the middle of a song?’ I had no idea how to do that. So I dropped out after a year and started pursuing my own thing.”

After a couple years of lessons with Bay Area guitarist Nina Gerber, Anderson gained what she calls a “three-dimensional understanding of the guitar neck” for improvisation, and she began making her way through a string of bands. From country groups to a circus band to an open-minded jazz band and much more, Anderson has had a broad range of first-hand musical experiences—all of which seem to come through in some form throughout her solo work. To put it another way, listening to Anderson’s albums, it’s clear that she has the history of guitar music in her fingertips.

Anderson’s most recent effort is this year’s The Quickening, an improvised duo album with drummer Jim White, best known for his work with Dirty Three as well as a veteran of many high-level collaborations with artists from Jim O’Rourke to PJ Harvey to Marianne Faithfull. The Quickening documents the first recorded improvisations between Anderson and White, who decided to work together after Anderson toured as an opening act for Xylouris White, the drummer’s band with Cretan laouto player and singer, George Xylouris. Anderson explained the genesis of her collaboration with White as such: “It was very informal, based on friendship and a mutual admiration for each other’s style of playing and a musical curiosity: If I play with Jim White, what comes out in my playing?” The result is a remarkable conversation between two master instrumentalists exploring and creating a shared musical language.

In a time when live, improvised musical collaborations are rarer than ever, The Quickening is truly a treasure, so we called Anderson at her home in Portland, Oregon, to discuss this album as well as her thoughts on improvisation, alternate tunings, and lots more.

In 2015, you were touring as an opener for Xylouris White. How did the idea of forming a duo with Jim White arise?
We just became friends and said that it would be fun to play together someday, as you do. The tour was probably three weeks long, in a van—George, Jim, and I and a driver—so we got to know each other pretty well and hit it off. After that tour, we just stayed in touch, and “someday” became a little more tangible and it happened.

Was there anything new that you found did come out in your playing with Jim?
I played much more texturally, which really surprised me because he’s such a textural drummer. I kind of expected that I would veer in a different direction.

Yeah, Jim has such a good way of using the frequency range of the drums to great effect.
One thing that Jim and I geek out on is that we both love technique, and how making a slight adjustment to your technique can open up a whole new world of sound. He’s a master of that.

Were there any ways that you played with a different technique on this album?
There are a couple songs, and it goes back to that textural thing, where I was trying to play a chord that would put the guitar in unison or fifths as much as it possibly could be and get this amorphous wall of some tonality that you can’t tell what it is. Stuff like that—weird, geeky, theory tricks just to steer away from scale or even melody. Obviously there’s some melodic pieces as well, but [I was] trying to figure out how to fill space in a similar way that he does.

You recorded in two sessions and hadn’t played together before or between. Have you played since?
We had the two recording sessions, and afterwards we played a show in Portland and a show in Chicago. This year we were going to play a bunch of shows and tour around. Hopefully, it’ll happen in the future.

“I never have something in my head that I think it’s supposed to sound like. I think the process of recording is the process of revealing what it does sound like.”

What guitars did you use on The Quickening?
I was a little bit limited, because we recorded [the second session] in Mexico, so I couldn’t bring everything that I would normally bring. The main guitar on that is a Gibson ES-339, a newer one, and I have a handmade nylon-string guitar by Ramos-Castillo.

I can’t remember which guitars I had for the first session we did, which was in Portland. When I hear one of the songs, I hear a Bigsby, which means I was using this weird Gretsch that I got at a pawnshop years ago, which is basically not a Gretsch anymore. It’s some kind of ’50 Anniversary model, semi-hollow, thin with humbuckers installed in it—the tone controls don’t work on it anymore. It was a pawnshop mutt. I do often hold the body and shake the neck, so it could be me doing that but I feel like there’s one song where it could be that Gretsch.

While this album is improvised, it’s hard for me to tell how much of your previous albums are improvised. They all seem to have their own approach to the material.
Some of them are and some of them aren’t. The first two guitar records, The Golden Hour [2011] and Mercury [2013], are improvised with maybe one exception on Mercury. Obviously, for Traditional and Public Domain Songs [2017], I didn’t write the songs. They exist. Into the Light [2016] was fairly improvised, but it was multi-tracked, so at a certain point you’re committing to a thing that already exists. I think that record was me just trying to teach myself to play pedal steel a bit better. It was the first time that I multi-tracked. I never charted anything, it was all happening spontaneously, and the same with [2018’s] Cloud Corner.

TIDBIT: Marisa Anderson and Jim White entirely improvised their new album in two sessions—in Portland, Oregon, and in Mexico. “The songs start off much more improvised than they become,” Anderson says. “If they get adapted into a performance version, I tend towards keeping those performance versions more structured.”

In light of your background with classical guitar and improvisation, do you have any thoughts about why improvisation is important to you?
More than important, it’s natural. It doesn’t come natural to me to commit to the same thing every time. That just feels like having a boss. When I’m performing, I’m playing songs that are based on the songs on the record—at a certain point they do take a form and I do play to that form. I’m free to do it or not do it as I wish to. Most of my stuff is built with some launchpads in it, so if on any night I’m like, “I’m gonna go over here for a little while,” it’s great to do that.

The songs start off much more improvised than they become. If they get adapted into a performance version, I tend towards keeping those performance versions more structured, for sure. I like improvising in front of people, but not solo. That requires collaboration for me. I’ve done it solo and that’s how I know that I don’t think it makes my best show, and I want to put on a good show. We all listen to records and are like, “I like that song,” so it’s nice to get in front of an audience and be like, “Here’s that thing you like.” Maybe it’s a little different than what it sounds like on the record, but I think that’s awesome, and, personally, I would prefer that as a listener.

Recording, for me, is a very in-the-moment, heartfelt, spontaneous, exciting process, and if I go into that process already knowing exactly what I’m going to do, that just takes the fun out of it. I’m making music that feels fun and that’s what I like to do—make it up as I go. After this many years of doing it, I feel like I apply some critical thought to my technique and to my compositional chops, so it’s not just free jamming.

I never have something in my head that I think it’s supposed to sound like. I think the process of recording is the process of revealing what it does sound like.

Since you grew up playing classical guitar, what got you into playing electric?
It’s about sustain—that’s the main thing to me with the electric guitar. The notes ring out for so much longer, and that provides all these sonic possibilities.

At some point probably 10 years ago, in my solo work, I left standard tuning and pretty much haven’t been back. I mostly play in open D or D minor, and part of that is so I can really take advantage of drone strings and sustain. I really try to not play the tuning and play songs, so you might listen and not realize I’m not in standard. That’s the goal that I have for sure.

This mongrel Gretsch Anniversary model with a Bigsby vibrato is one of Marisa Anderson’s main guitars. She also achieves vibrato by shaking the neck of this pawnshop find. Photo by Klaas Guchelaar

Is that when you first started exploring open tunings, or you gave up standard all together?
That’s when I gave up standard tuning. When I play with other people—if I’m in an ensemble situation or someone wants me to play on their thing —I’ll play in standard because it’s just easier and quicker. That’s what I’m educated in and other people can read as well. But in my own work, I pretty much don’t play in standard.

What inspires you the most about a tuning? What is it about open D and D minor that speak to you?
I like that it’s modal. I feel like because I play exclusively in those tunings, and one string is a half-step away from each other, I can lump them together. I’ve developed my own system of thinking about them, and they’re not an open tuning for me anymore—if that makes sense. It’s not that I’m experimenting with different tunings. That’s the one that works for me and that’s what I play in. I can play chords, I can play scales, I know the tuning in the same way that someone might know standard, and I know standard tuning, too.

If you were to spend 10 years in any tuning—DADGAD or open G—you would find your voice in it. For me, when I go into DADGAD it’s fun, but I sound like I’m playing British, and when I go into open G, I just can’t get away from hearing Keith Richards, because I just haven’t spent the time in it. I haven’t made those tunings mine. I can be a tourist in them and have fun and make pleasant music, but it’s not home.

“I mostly play in open D or D minor, and part of that is so I can really take advantage of drone strings and sustain.”

You record most of your stuff at home—obviously not The Quickening, as we discussed. What’s your recording setup at home?
It’s super simple. I usually run two amps, three mics. I’ll do a room mic and a close mic on each amp. It’s usually a Princeton Reverb set to have a lot of tremolo, a lot of reverb, very high-end shimmery. Then I have another amp, usually a Swart amp—a custom AST Mk II HP that I like a lot—and I set that with a clean, solid tone. Then a room mic that blends the two and adds a little room body to it. That way, when I record, I’m not too worried about picking an exact tone. Both are available later.

I don’t have a lot of effects. I have a clean boost and sometimes I’ll throw a little reverb in, because I like reverb on reverb. In general, there’s basically no effects and I just try and make really good sounds with the equipment and sort it out in the mix.

What kind of mics do you use?
I have an SM57 on the Princeton and a little Oktava on the Swart cabinet, which is not a Swart, just some 2x12 with Celestions in it. For the room mic, I just got this Mojave large diaphragm condenser and I love it. If I’m recording on nylon-string guitar or acoustic guitar, I’ll combine the Oktava and the Mojave, and I think that works really well. All of those mics are under $500. Keep it simple.

You have to shop around. I’ve bought mics and used them and realized, “I don’t like this mic,” and had to wait around till I had a chance to buy another one. It’s a process of discovery, and everyone has their own taste and their own sound. I definitely have had mics that I’ve had to use because those are the mics I had that I didn’t really like, but I like my setup right now.

Custom S-style
Custom T-style
1930s Dobro
1940s Gibson ES-125
2015 Gibson ES-339
Modified 1950s Gretsch Anniversary Model
Ramos-Castillo custom nylon string

’70s Fender Princeton Reverb
Swart Custom AST Mk II HP
2x12 cabinet with Celestions

Dunlop EP101 Echoplex Preamp
Electro-Harmonix Hum Debugger
Electro-Harmonix Holy Grail

Strings and Picks
Various Ernie Ball and D’Addario styles and gauges

What kind of room are you recording in?
It’s kind of a long, rectangular-shaped room with a ceiling that’s not flat. I don’t know how to describe the shape, but it has all these angles. It’s kind of a large room.

With a simple setup, every element really matters. What kind of strings are you using?
As a person who plays fingerstyle on an electric guitar, I will say … you know how some sets have heavy bass/light treble? What works is to go opposite that and go light bass/heavy treble, because the thumb is really strong. It doesn’t need more. The thumb can be overwhelming in fingerstyle playing, so having strings that are bigger is not necessarily a thing. Often, I’ll switch the gauges to accommodate a richer treble sound to make up for the thumb-thumping sound. My gauge range is between .010, .011, and .012—mixing from those packs.

So it’s the treble side of a pack of .012s and the bass side of a pack of .010s?

How about for nylon string?
As a kid, I liked Augustines. That guitar, right now, has half a set of Ernie Balls in the bass and half a set of D’Addarios in the treble, and I think I’m going to switch back to D’Addarios in the bass, but maybe a different gauge!

You notice a difference between the bass and treble in different brands?
Yeah, for sure.

Your pedal setup is very simple and I get the sense that all the sound is really coming from your hands and the amp.
I love to play with different stuff, but it goes back to what we were talking about with tunings. You can play the tuning or you can play the tune. Pedals are kind of similar to me, where I would just rather play guitar. In the amount of time allotted to me to make music, I feel better when I’m playing guitar than when I’m manipulating sound through pedals. Not to say there’s not super cool shit you can do, and some of it I wish I could do, but I don’t resonate there. If someone is doing something with a pedal or a whole set of pedals, whatever sound someone is making, I want to feel and hear that sound completely, and I want to replicate what that feels like without using the pedal. That’s a challenge that I enjoy.

Especially coming from playing classical, where you learn so much very subtle right-hand technique. I feel like that gets lost when you start putting all these things in the signal chain. The real subtleties of dynamics or of certain techniques—which is just how I grew up playing and what I do—can get lost because you’re obscuring the attack or you’re obscuring the decay or you’re obscuring the harmonic frequencies or enhancing them or whatever. It becomes a sound that is manipulated after it’s being made, rather than a sound that’s just been made. I’m not saying one is better than the other, because everyone should do their thing.

Marisa Anderson performs in the perfect rustic setting for her song “Cloud Corner,” which serves as a great introduction to her melodic and rhythmic style. It’s easy to observe Anderson’s skillful approach to right-hand technique as she masterfully guides the song’s dynamics, building up in the middle of the piece and bringing it down for a gentle landing while maintaining her warm, clear sound.