Portland guitarist's new album, 'Cloud Corner,' creates clean, spacious retreat

Marisa Anderson began recording a new album of instrumental guitar music in early 2017 — a time of political unrest that coincided with some big transitions in her personal life, as well. But instead of mirroring that chaotic state, Anderson's music became a haven as she wrote 10 songs with titles like “Sanctuary,” “Angel's Rest” and album namesake “Cloud Corner.”

“I come to my recordings with a palette, and on that palette I know what kind of sounds I want — a sonic quality. I know what I want the amp to sound like. I know the tones I want to work with. That's a very early part of when I'm recording. I know that pretty quickly,” the Portland guitarist said recently by phone. “This record, I knew that I wanted something lighter, cleaner, with more reverb. There's very little overdriven sounds on this record. … I thought, ‘Let's just go light and experiment with having a lot of space inside of these sounds.'”

To match those spacious sounds, Anderson found a moody image by Greenpeace photographer Caroline Dossche to serve as the cover of Cloud Corner. In shades of gray, a line of trees fades away, obscured by fog.

“I like that photo for a lot of reasons,” Anderson said. “I like both the form and the formlessness. You know you're looking at trees even though you can't quite see them. I like the sense of distance and movement and horizon it conveys, even though you don't actually see the horizon. I like that it's sequential and patterned. It speaks a lot to compositional elements in the music, as well as an overarching feeling that I had with this record of embodying clarity and obscurity simultaneously.”

“I very purposely don't include any context on record packaging because I believe that the music can and should and does stand on its own, and that a listener should be able to take it wherever it is they take it,” she continued. “That's extremely important. In terms of a recording being a disembodied experience, that's an intention I have: This is for you. Take it. Go where you go.”

While the album art and the songs allow listeners the freedom of boundless interpretation, Anderson's background in political activism informs the way she creates. “Angel's Rest” serves as a eulogy to a Portland trail destroyed by fire in 2017, and “Lament” draws inspiration from images of the Syrian refugee crisis.

“I'm not trying necessarily to overtly convey a message with my music, but the music comes out of the same places in me — caring about the world, having compassion for people who are suffering, feeling a sense of loss or hope,” she said. “The emotions that drive someone to be an activist can be similar to the emotions that might need to be expressed artistically or musically.”

Like previous albums Into the Light (2016), Mercury (2013) and The Golden Hour (her first solo-guitar record, from 2011), Cloud Corner is as experimental as it is approachable. Anderson incorporates familiar touchstones from country, folk, jazz and modern classical, along with sounds and techniques gleaned from West African innovator Ali Farka Toure.

“I was probably 18 when I first heard Ali Farka Toure. It was very immediate. It filled me. His playing was something I'd never heard before. I was just really enraptured by it,” she said.

Anderson held on to the coveted Toure cassette tape. Years later, when she moved to Portland, she met Christopher Kirkley, who runs the Sahel Sounds label. “I was fortunate enough to work with [Kirkley] when he brings in artists from Niger and western Sahel,” she said. “That initial seed that was planted listening to that Ali Farka Toure cassette over and over again, fast-forward 20 or 30 years, and that seed has grown. … If a guy from Niger is in town, Chris will bring him to his house and we'll hang out for an evening of tea, and play guitar.”

As Anderson draws on her many influences in the writing process, she develops a guitarist's vocabulary of riffs, ideas and impressions. For her, documenting those ideas, sounds and tones is a solitary endeavor. “When I go to record, I just kind of work through that vocabulary. I set up the room so it sounds the way I want it to sound, and then I go in there and say everything there is to be said with what I've collected,” she said. “Angel's Rest,” for instance, was a spontaneous composition recorded in one take.

Other than reverb and a clean boost, Anderson eschews effects, opting instead for the limitation of just a guitar and an amp. “The challenge of playing without using effects — without looping, just playing solo guitar — that inspires me creatively,” she said. “Some guitars are very easy to play, and some have a higher action or lower feedback threshold so I have to fight with it a little more. I might want that for a certain idea. Not everything needs to be graceful and fluid. Sometimes the best way to convey struggle is to actually struggle a little bit.”