Melissa Guion: Ornithologist by Day, Concert Pianist by Night
Melissa Guion is a musician, graphic designer, and illustrator based in New Orleans, Louisiana. MJ Guider is her solo music project. In January 2014, she released her first cassette, Green Plastic, on Oakland's Constellation Tatsu label, and after signing to Kranky in 2015, she released her full length LP, Precious Systems, in July 2016. Get ready to spend an afternoon or a season listening to her sounds, and y'all better be looking forward to her new work coming out in 2019. In the meantime, catch MJ Guider on her debut tour across the west this winter.
Where are you from, whatever that means to you?
I'm from New Orleans, LA and live there currently. My childhood was mostly spent on the outskirts of New Orleans, in the city with the airport. My father is from New Orleans and my mother is from Cuba.
Where did your relationship with art making begin?
I've made music and have been obsessed with it for as long as I can remember. My formal music training started at age 6 with piano lessons after filling my household with probably unbearable noise from toy instruments up until then. Visual art came a bit later - I got really into birds as a kid and would go to the library, find books about them, and draw the ones I was learning about from those books. Later on in music school, I started making flyers and posters for shows, which sparked my interest in design.
Birds! What are your favorite birds and where did your love of them come from?
ALL birds are amazing creatures…but…if I had to pick a few favorites, I’m a big fan of the American Kestrel. They’re very small raptors. Where I live we have so many incredible water birds that I look forward to coming across, like black-crowned night herons and anhingas. I also have a really soft spot for crows.
My interest in birds may have come about because my dad would always point them out and tell me what each one was and little facts about them when I was a kid. Or maybe because I had some pet birds back then. If you had asked me in grade school what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d have told you very matter-of-factly, “ornithologist by day and concert pianist by night.” Neither of these have come to pass so far.
Does your music and visual art collide?
Definitely. My motivations and influences for both pull from the same pile of stuff. With both I’m interested in the interplay of things created by a machine - with software or hardware - and things that are formed more by hand and require using your body to produce it. With both I like drawing out contrasts, using subtraction, and leaning into ambiguity.
I also make all the artwork associated with my music, so in that way they very much collide. It’s important for me to craft the visual elements of the project with the same intention as the music.
Who are you listening to right now?
Right this moment, as I’m answering this question, I’m listening to the self-titled album by Urban Dance that I’ve listened to probably dozens of times since I first heard it about a year ago. It’s one of the many albums out of Japan that were produced by members of Yellow Magic Orchestra in the ‘80s - in this case 2/3 of YMO, Haruomi Hosono and Yukihiro Takahashi.
I’ve always gotten into feedback loops with albums, where I’ll listen to something over and over for days and weeks at a time. I hadn’t listened to this one in a few months, but now I’m back on it and it’s still got me. I’m on my third listen of this sitting. It’s so good!
Is there a dream collaboration you would love to do one day?
This isn’t a collaboration per se, but I would love to write some music for a Gregg Araki project of some sort. His film Nowhere was hugely formative for me and led me to discover so much art that I've drawn influence and inspiration from since my introduction to it as a teenager.
Never leave home without..?
Always in my backpack: lip balm and eye drops, a notebook and drawing pen, one of those lights that straps onto your forehead, rain gear, and a wallet-sized photo of my late dog Lester, taken at a department store portrait studio. Those are the things I need.
What are you working on now or in the near future?
I'm working on a few new recordings and preparing for tour coming up later this year supporting my friends Thou, who just released an incredible new album, Magus. The live-band iteration of MJ Guider - which I consider something like a sister version - just played our first show a few weeks back and this tour will be the first time my music is being performed outside of New Orleans, so that’s really exciting. Non-music-wise, I recently left the in-house graphic artist position I had for several years and am working completely independently for the first time.
How does playing live with other musicians change your process/ the sounds/ your feelings?
I’ve enjoyed performing and collaborating on arrangements of the songs with the live band so much. The musicians I’m working with, Mike Wilkinson and Emily McWilliams, are amazingly talented. They’re each songwriters for their own projects (Marker and Silver Godling respectively) and really “get it” in a way that makes working with them on performing the music a real pleasure.
It’s cool to see a song lead this double life where the live version and the recorded version are different, sometimes just slightly and sometimes in more dramatic ways. And for some of the newer stuff I’ve been recording, my gears start turning during certain parts of the production process, thinking about how it can be translated in a live setting, which I never really used to consider at all. It’s good to have that little disruption to my writing process crop up at certain points. Even just having those thoughts come up as I go takes some of the sometimes-overly-reclusive solitude out of the “solo artist” experience.
Has switching to working freelance changed your relationship with creating work?
It’s been a very positive change. The “work” work is more in line with what I’m interested in producing. I feel more invested in what I’m doing and don’t feel like “work” is an oppressive force, which is how I’d felt a lot of the time at various jobs. The flexibility of freelancing is making it possible to manage my music life in a way that I wasn’t easily able to before. Also, I’ve had the time (and more importantly, the ENERGY) to create personal work. I’ve been designing posters in between projects just for the hell of it, just because I love making posters.
Another big plus is that I usually get the right amount of sleep now. I had no idea how much sleep I really needed! It feels like I’ve acquired a new power.
You referred to yourself as curious, a little obsessive, and a little absurd. What are your latest obsessions?
Halloween is coming up, so watching horror movies is the current obsession. Outrageous ‘80s and ’90s body horror films are my absolute favorite.
Tell me a story about your family. Or that sweet grandma with flowers I saw when I was stalking your instagram!
That’s my abuela! She’s 93 and such an incredible human being. She moved to New Orleans from Cuba with my grandfather and my teenage mom in 1968, and used to sew mail carrier bags in a factory, among other things. She’s super resilient, independent, intelligent, and has a great sense of humor. I know it’s not really a story, but I’m so inspired by her. I’m lucky to know her.
What are some ways in your life that you practice self care?
Let myself move slowly, paint my nails with something shiny, enjoy time by the bayou near my apartment, eat sweets, take a step back from Making Serious Art and make something incredibly self-indulgent and silly, switch on a pink light...
Is art and performance a healing process for you?
Absolutely. Beyond that, not making it hurts. Art can feel like it does its own damage sometimes, but my experience is that it’s self-healing. Like some kind of lizard ouroboros.