Musician Marisa Anderson Looks for the New in the Old

Marisa Anderson performs “Chimes” at the Into the Light album release show in Portland, OR. Photo by Jody Darby CC-BY-NC.
Marisa Anderson performs “Chimes” at the Into the Light album release show in Portland, OR.
Photo by Jody Darby CC-BY-NC.

I have been a fan of Marisa Anderson’s music since discovering her albums at the legendary Chapel Hill radio station WXYC, where my show usually ran from from 4-8AM.

At 4 in the morning in a windowless studio, the title of Anderson’s 2011 release “The Golden Hour” seemed apropos. I would listen to her virtuosic, dreamy fingerpicking through my headphones, fuzzy around the edges but always precise; Anderson’s playing is euphoric and timeless, grounded in the best of traditions while reaching its branches toward future plateaus. Feeling her music tangibly in the studio during those rapturous early morning hours, I felt the kind of intimacy with Anderson that only the best folk musicians can inspire, evoking the “high lonesome sound” that touches the listener at her core.

While Anderson is a successful independent artist who works with a variety of record labels including Mississippi and Chaos Kitchen, she has also worked with radio stations aligned with Creative Commons, such as WFMU and KBOO community radio in Portland. Anderson uses her work with these stations to augment her catalog, releasing “community-owned songs” for free on the internet, including the 2013 Elizabeth Cotten split 7″, released under a BY NC-ND license.

Anderson’s music can be found on the Free Music Archive, on KBOO, and at a record store near you. Anderson is currently on tour through Europe and the United States and generously answered these questions by email.

You are a student of American music as well as a musician yourself. How has your scholarship shaped the way you play and think about music and your craft?

In many cases when we say “American music” we are actually talking about music that arose in the southeastern United States as a result of the cultural collisions of the past 500 years. The melodies are hybrids, the songs were passed orally, and the words adapted to reflect the singer’s situation or to comment on current events of the time. This is particularly true for many religious and patriotic songs where the words were basically propaganda attached to a melody that belonged to another song.  For example, compare “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” to “John Brown’s Body,” or “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” to “Johnny I Hardly Knew Ye.”

I think of myself as existing along a continuum, as being caught up in a conversation that moves backward and forward through time. Tradition is what we glean from the past and what we pass onto the future.

Recording technology froze the folk process and tricked us into thinking that songs have fixed identities. I like to think that I’m picking up a conversational thread from another time, shining my own light on it, and passing it on into the future.

In 2013 you released an album of traditional and public domain songs. While most of these tunes are well-trodden territory for folk musicians, your renditions push on the boundaries of interpretation, creating a rich soundscape while still maintaining the songs’ integrity. Why did you decide to release this album? What compelled you to interpret these songs in this way? Why public domain and traditional songs in particular?

In 2013 I was the artist-in-residence at KBOO community radio in Portland, Oregon. As KBOO is a community-owned radio station, for my residency project I decided to make a record of community-owned songs, or in other words, public domain songs.

I chose to address songs that were already well known standards because I wanted listeners to approach the recordings with some degree of familiarity, to invite the audience into the project rather than use it as a platform to display some obscure knowledge.

I believe that common things in the world around us hold deep surprises, and that looking for the new often involves looking at the old.

Using public domain material freed up the creative side of recording because my responsibility was to arrange and interpret music rather than compose it. I was able to dive deeply into the sonics of the record. This became really important because I was making instrumental versions of songs that contain lyrics and stories that are very familiar to many people. The melodies and chord changes for the songs I chose are simple and repetitious. The major challenge of the record lay in how to make compelling renditions of these simple forms without losing the essential identity of each song.  In other words, how was I to convey the emotional impact of the lyrics without singing, and without significant modification of the melody? I was looking for ways to serve the songs and enrich the melodies when I started working with more diffuse and textural sounds to fill out the emotional palette.

“Battle Hymn of the Republic medley” from Live at WFMU on Shrunken Planet April 28th, 2012 by Marisa Anderson. Released: 2012. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

You often work with independent radio stations like KBOO and WFMU to produce new music under Creative Commons licenses as well as release your work with traditional licensing arrangements under several labels including Mississippi and Chaos Kitchen. Can you talk about what sharing your work looks like in this context? How do you find inspiration in these two different modes of production?

Making and distributing a record is a physical process, with associated costs. Many people are willing to pay for the artifact, or even for a download. Today, when most music is accessible for free, I see these purchases as a modern form of the patronage system and I deeply appreciate people who choose to support my work in that way.

My records are largely improvised and often the version of a song that gets put onto the record is simply one of many versions. The songs change every time I play them and it’s nice to have an avenue for people to hear the evolution of a song that started as an improvisation, became fixed onto a record, and is released into the world through performance.

I appreciate that each arrangement has its value. I don’t feel ownership of a performance in the same way as I do for the actual composition or the physical artifact.  A performance, by its very nature, is a shared event which feels natural to me to release more freely into the world.

What is it like to be a successful independent artist in 2016? Where do you find inspiration for your work? How do you find distribution in the age of the streaming service?

I feel like the luckiest person in the world that I can pay my bills by playing guitar and sharing what I create. It’s a tremendous privilege and one that involves quite a bit of strategy to stay afloat. I’ve found that the key for my survival as an independent artist is threefold: I keep my overhead low both personally and professionally and I do as much as I can for myself, which means at different times I’ve had to be my own booking agent, recording engineer, tour manager, etc. I also make sure that my income comes from multiple sources such as record sales, commissioned work, and performance fees.

I find inspiration in so many places! Sometimes inspiration comes in very concrete forms, from current or historical events or the juxtaposition of a modern viewpoint with a song from a different era.  At other times it’s very abstract: I often respond to natural processes, dreams or memories. I tend to work through aspects of my personal history through composition. I also can get really inspired by the quality of a sound, or by searching for a sound that just feels right.

Probably I don’t think enough about distribution. I have a few different methods that work well enough to get the music into the world and I just trust that the music will find its way to the ears of those who need it. I know how much I need to make in order to survive, and once that amount is secured, I’m a bit lazy. I’d rather be making music than chasing every last dime!

Would you consider releasing more of your work under Creative Commons? What benefits and drawbacks do you see with sharing legally on the Web?

I’m sure that more of my work will be released under Creative Commons or other free licensing structures. I like that more people can share in the music, and that anyone who want to trace my process or the evolution of one of my songs have an avenue to do so.

A friendly reminder: Our partners at the Free Music Archive are raising funds to stay afloat. If you are one of the 40 million people who benefitted from their work this year alone, please consider donating. You’ll ensure that this important project lives on (and get a cool shirt!)

Source: Creative Commons.

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