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.
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  and Mercury , are improvised with maybe one exception on Mercury. Obviously, for Traditional and Public Domain Songs , I didn’t write the songs. They exist. Into the Light  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.