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Marisa Anderson’s New, Weird America

“There is a new, weird America, too. It’s not lacking, and I like that one,” says Portland, OR musician Marisa Anderson. The solo instrumental guitarist is responding to a comment comparing her adventures to those of musicians like Woody Guthrie, using Greil Marcus’ concept of “the old, weird America.”

It’s an easy comparison to make: A young woman takes off into the desert to sleep under the open sky, then spends 19 years rambling on foot around the country, stopping and living in places that capture her interest before moving on and doing it over and over again.

Anderson has been based in Portland since 2006, but in the midst of her ramble she joined a circus band that played for encampments of anti-government guerrillas in Chiapas, Mexico, and was a member of the all-female country band The Dolly Ranchers, which held down a four-sets-a-night gig at a cowboy bar in New Mexico. After moving to Oregon, she spent six years as a member of the seven-to-10-member Evolutionary Jass Band, performing both tightly structured songs and free improv, before going solo and relying on only what she can accomplish with her fingers, guitar and amp.

Since then, Anderson has released five albums and a single, contributed to two compilations and written or contributed to the scores of eight movies, while also guesting on such notable projects as Sharon Van Etten’s Are We There and Beth Ditto’s “Moonage Daydream” single.

Although Anderson is a highly skilled and knowledgeable musician who grew up studying classical guitar, she’s chosen an overdriven electric guitar as her means of expression.

“I really like sustain,” she explains. “You can get the voice and it rings and you can play against it and you can get distortion and the overtones and all of this stuff… I’m not attracted to [other] effects, all those funky boxes. I really love the versatility of just one electric guitar. I especially love playing really quietly while turned up really loud, getting that hum that happens when you do that.”

Anderson has expressed a desire to play guitar in every setting possible, and her solo ventures have included busking, art and film openings, house shows and even a recurring slot in the bulk foods section of Portland’s Cherry Sprout Produce store.

“There are challenges in every setting, there is a tensile connection or bucking the arrival of whatever feelings in whatever situation, and it’s really fun to just work those in every environment and see what comes up,” she says.

In her own words, Anderson is “building my toolbox, my vocabulary, by increasing my capacity concerning what is music and honest music-making. I can apply different types of sounds that we might think of more like roots music or whatever, and I can apply some jazz sensibility or a jazz process to that sound and to the way that I compose that sound.”

Her evolution is evident in her most recent albums, The Golden Hour (Mississippi, 2011), Mercury (Mississippi, 2013), Traditional and Public Domain Songs (Grapefruit Records, 2013) and Tashi Dorji/Marisa Anderson (Footfalls, 2015).

For The Golden Hour, Anderson set up a reel-to-reel tape machine and recorded every idea she had on each theme she might want to include, but she didn’t listen to any of it until it was time to choose tracks for the final release. “I wanted to cut through all of that chatter, thinking, ‘We’ll just make and make and make and figure it out at the end,’” she says.

In reaction to that editing process, “Mercury was just one amp and purely what I was getting out of that,” she says. Then, on Traditional and Public Domain Songs, she says, “I figured the songs were already there… I would split my signal so I was going through a couple of different amps, and one amp was set mostly on static and white noise and kind of explosive. I had it roaring, just pushing it hard, and the other amp was clean, and [there were] mics around the room… A lot of Traditional Public Domain sounds like more than one guitar, but it’s not.”

Anderson’s 2015 split LP with like-minded Asheville, NC guitarist Tashi Dorji was built on what she learned about recording during Traditional Public Domain but returned to the world of composition. Live, her set reflects all of these aspects of her playing.

“It’s about a third traditional material,” she says. “There are about two songs in the set that are writing themselves as they go, but they’re still improvisational within a structure… and I have a number of songs from Mercury that have a vague beginning and they get to some kind of ending, and in the middle they do some stuff that is never the same way, and then one or two songs that are like, ‘That’s how they go.’ It’s kind of all over the board, really.”

Sounds like an honest reflection of her life.