Somewhere on Marisa Anderson's résumé is the phrase, "Once portrayed the ass-end of a jaguar." It was the mid-1990s, a few years after the Northern California-born guitarist dropped out of Humboldt State University and decided to live the next decade and a half without a fixed address. During that time, she walked across the country twice, joined up with various activist groups, lived out of tents, cars and buses, and got involved with a community circus troupe, which traveled to Chiapas, Mexico, visiting encampments of anti-government guerrillas and giving allegorical performances depicting the overthrow of an evil ringmaster by a group of rebellious animals. Anderson wrote the accompanying music, and appeared in walk-on roles as a "very bad juggler" and, yes, the hindquarters of a two-person jaguar costume.
Anderson's stint in the circus ended, along with her period of itinerancy, in the early 2000s, when the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle brought her to the Northwest and into a shared house in Portland. In a way, though, Anderson, 42, is still an artist without a home. A folk musician more enamored with sounds than songs, who prefers improvisation over the constraints of tradition, she has endeared herself to Portland's experimental community more than, say, the LaurelThirst happy-hour scene. Even there, she doesn't quite fit in. A self-described Luddite, she has no use for the pedals and computer programs of her peers working in noisier mediums. Her latest album, Mercury, is 16 tracks of rustic, stream-of-consciousness guitar instrumentals, recorded over the past year at her home studio. It's music based in the American roots tradition, filtered through the methodology of jazz.
"I'm taking the music that resonated with me my whole life and treating it in a way that I think is exciting," says Anderson from a booth at the back of Spare Room in Northeast Portland. "I like improvised music. I like people who are just playing by the seat of their pants. But the jazz language, that vocabulary isn't my vocabulary. And I don't need to play folk songs. I like folk songs, but I don't need to play them. I'm just not called."
As a songwriter with a deep social conscience, however, Anderson is driven by the same desire that spurs most folk traditionalists: to communicate her life. The experiences from her rootless past are imprinted all over Mercury—not on the words, of course, because there aren't any. Regardless, each song is pinned to a specific memory for Anderson, reaching back to her childhood in rural Sonoma, Calif. If the direct meaning of titles like "Happy Camp" and "Furnace Creek" remain personal to her, the feelings those references summon within her are imparted with such evocative picking and strumming that lyrics would only get in the way.
"It's a challenge to have a full palette of emotional ideas and auditory interest without words," she says. "In folk music, country music, blues—we already know the words. We already know your heart is broken. We know times are hard. We can hear a sound, even, and we already know where it's going. So I don't need to say it again."
SEE IT: Marisa Anderson plays Mississippi Studios, 3939 N Mississippi Ave., on Sunday, June 16. 9 pm. Free. 21+.