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MJ Guider interview: “I didn’t set out with a specific inspiration for making the record other than my standard compulsion”

We talk to Melissa Guion about open spaces, New Orleans, and her brilliant, far-reaching new album, Sour Cherry Bell.

Hailing from New Orleans, Melissa Guion is the brains behind MJ Guider – one of the most forward-thinking artists to emerge in the last ten years.

Guider‘s 2016 debut album, Precious Systems was a top 10 staple in this scroll’s end of year album list, and leading up to the release of her second long-player, Sour Cherry Bell, it was hard to imagine her bettering it.

But better it Guider has in one of the finest ambient releases one will hold an ear to in 2020. No mean feat considering the likes of Julianna Barwick, Windy & Carl, and Less Bells have also unleashed notable releases this year.

Sour Cherry Bell is a cosmic leap from Precious Systems. With synths that are drenched in dark-wave, Guider‘s heavenly vocals capture the essence of dream-pop while the low-end drones are reminiscent of druggy downer-rock. There are also those famous echoes of kranky touchstones, Bowery Electric.

With so many influences captured whilst still maintaining her distinct sound, it’s incredible how Guider has stitched together such an array of soundscapes without sounding pastiche in the slightest.

It’s indicative of an artist breaking boundaries, finding new terrains to produce the perfect tones and with Sour Cherry Bell, the results are profound.

From front to back, Sour Cherry Bell is a journey. It would almost be remiss to single out one particular track, such as they weight these ten songs carry.

The concurrences on songs like The Steelyard and Simulus instantly jump out at you. Songs one can immerse in and get lost to laying in an empty field despite also possessing a quality as late night bangers in a room full of dead-eyed souls inhabiting an abandoned warehouse.

Soundscapes that essentially offer endless possibilities.

Then there’s Body Optics, a song that flashes with luscious drones which swell and pummel your internal organs, while the nagging bleeps leave you simply stunned. It’s music that pulsates all the senses. The best kind.

If Precious System didn’t prove it, then Sour Cherry Bell bestows MJ Guider as one of the finest purveyors of experimental sounds today.

We were lucky enough to ask Guider some questions prior to release of Sour Cherry Bell.

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Sun 13: It’s been four years since Precious System. What have you been up to in this time?

MJ Guider: “It didn’t feel like it was that long ago until earlier this year when the pandemic hit and we entered an indefinable time-free endlessness, but before that I had been doing some things.

“I went through a big shift in how I made a living, not on purpose but for the best. My dad got sick and then got better. My dog got sick and did not get better. I went on tour a couple of times, but otherwise haven’t often left my house much less New Orleans.”

S13: Can you tell us about the recording process and what was the inspiration behind Sour Cherry Bell?

MJG: “This time around I did more at home than the shared rehearsal space I rent part-time. I only have one day and one evening per week available to me at that space, which was a limitation that had previously been a major mental roadblock. For this album I used it only to record the things that benefited from high volume, and all the vocals, then did everything else at home.

“I didn’t set out with a specific inspiration for making the record other than my standard compulsion. There were a couple of years post-Precious Systems where I wasn’t doing much recording at all, then I had a few collaborative projects around town where I had to either perform or write music or both, and that kind of kick-started my energy for working on the record in a really focused way.

“I’d say spring and summer of 2019 I gathered the assortment of things I had in varying states of completion and really threw myself into working on the album pretty intensely, then didn’t come up for air for much of anything until it was done.”

MJ Guider - Sour Cherry Bell

S13: While it feels very much like an MJ Guider record, I find it quite far removed from Precious Systems. I haven’t come across many electronic artists in the last ten years that have taken such a leap from their first album to the second. Did it feel like that when you were in the writing and recording process?

MJG: “It really didn’t, honestly! I knew I didn’t want to make the same record again. I also knew I didn’t want to make something completely unrecognisable from my earlier releases. I definitely found myself idling in a place that I know many artists have found themselves in early on in the process where you’re thinking, ‘How do I take a step forward from where I just was?’

“It wasn’t until I stopped trying to come up with the answer that I started writing things that excited me. I had to just let myself have fun and not get hung up on what it should or shouldn’t be.”

S13: There are a lot of influences interwoven on the album. So many artists attempt to incorporate an array of genres and fail, but I think you’ve really nailed this aspect and, in my opinion, it’s Sour Cherry Bell‘s greatest feat. Prior to recording, was this something you were conscious about?

MJG: “Thank you, that’s quite a compliment. It’s something I do think about, but I’m not really focusing energy on trying to inject as many bits and pieces from as many different influences as I can. I end up enjoying the process more when I let things come through from wherever they want and don’t try to limit myself to a narrower style palette.

“A lot of the records I love the most do a fair bit of travelling across genres and influences, so maybe this is some deep programming, what my brain wants.”

S13: There are really strong juxtapositions on tracks such as The Steelyard and Simulus. Tracks that feel equally conducive to open spaces along with dark warehouses full of people late at night. Was this something you thought about?

MJG: “The effect of high contrast in visual art and cinema is something I’ve been really drawn to for the longest time, so I’m often looking to simulate that feeling.

“I’m especially interested in the way perception of a whole is altered when the range of the experience through each part is very wide and you’re kind of drifting in the space between.”

S13: I’m not sure what the feeling is in the U.S., but here in the U.K. with Covid-19 people have come to appreciate open spaces so much more. With Precious Systems it felt like the environment and the outdoors played an integral role in the record. Were open spaces influential with Sour Cherry Bell?

MJG: “Open spaces are having a well-deserved moment of appreciation right now in the U.S., as well. I’m fortunate to live by a really wonderful park and I’ve spent more time there these past six months than I had collectively in my life prior to the pandemic. I’m constantly covered in a slick layer of sweat and sunscreen.

Precious Systems was a bit more heavily influenced by the environment, I think, but yeah, there are definitely parts of Sour Cherry Bell that are indebted to the world beyond my apartment walls – open spaces, the streets, and the natural world. In some ways it’s a bit more removed, since it was made more in my personal space. It’s how I perceived the world from a place of isolation.”

MJ Guider (photo credit: Craig Mulcahy)

S13: How much of an influence does New Orleans have on the music that you produce?

MJG: “New Orleans will always show its influence whether I wanted it to or not. I was born here, grew up here, went to music school here, and never lived anywhere else, so it’s inevitable. But don’t expect to hear much jazz influence until I finally get my hands on a saxophone.”

S13: As an outsider looking in, New Orleans has a rich artistic history, but not necessarily with electronic and experimental music. Does being on the fringes make you more determined to produce the kind of music that MJ Guider produces?

MJG: “It’s true, New Orleans is definitely not known for electronic and experimental music, though it seems to have gained a bit more traction in recent years. I find some freedom in not being immersed in a big scene, but on the other hand I imagine living in a city with a large interest in electronic and experimental music has its benefits.”

S13: Back to the album and Body Optics feels like the centre-piece. It really encapsulates the new dimensions to your sound. Would you agree?

MJG: “I think Body Optics exists in that ‘space between’ I mentioned earlier. Considering that, I’d agree with the assessment. The visual representation of that song in my head is practically the embodiment of making that strange space, and really settling into it.”

S13: Perfect Interference is an interesting inclusion. It feels so far removed from the rest of these songs insofar as it could almost be defined as a ‘conventional’ song. Care to elaborate on how this song came about?

MJG: “Leaving that one skeletal was an easy decision, but an awkward one at first. I have some strong tendencies toward density and that song is pretty spare. There’s no beat, no bass, almost zero reverb on my voice, but that felt like the right treatment for the song, and the song felt like it belonged on the record. It was an exercise in control.”

S13: Then there’s Sourbell. It feels like a song the Cocteau Twins never wrote. How much of an influence are they with this project?

MJG: “Cocteau Twins? Were they like a Thompson Twins side project? Haha, sorry, that’s a really stupid joke and I’m probably not even the first person to have made it.”

S13: (Laughs) Very true…

MJG: “I’d say a couple of Cocteau Twins records are in my desert island trunk. They’re certainly an influence of mine and I do love them.”

S13: Onto the closing track Petrechoria which seems like a haunting, reflective piece. Was it an easy decision to end the album this way?

MJG: “Yeah, it really was. When I was doing the sequencing shuffle it was always at the end. I hadn’t really thought about it until now, but it’s a very different ending than Precious Systems had. That wasn’t a deliberate reversal of tone, but it’s interesting to think about. Let me ponder that for a few months and get back to you.”

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S13: I’m sure it’s hard to say at the moment, but are there any plans for a tour at some point next year?

MJG: “No plans yet. Since everything is so uncertain, I haven’t given a lot of thought to what tour might look like or when it might happen. But I would love to tour when we get to do that again.”

S13: Appreciate you taking the time to answer these questions, Melissa. Take care and hope to see you play here in the U.K. soon.

MJG: “Thank you! Really looking forward to that possibility.”

Sour Cherry Bell is out now via kranky.

By Simon Kirk

Product from the happy generation. Proud purple bin owner surviving on music, books and LFC. New book, Welcome To Charmsville, available from all major vendors.

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