Ten years ago, Erika M. Anderson was a teenage girl from a small town in South Dakota. Although it defied community norms, she decided to pack up her life and head off on an adventure. "When people say they’ve never met anyone from South Dakota, that’s because there aren’t very many people there, and the people who are there don’t leave," says Anderson. Erika headed West to California. "It has the best media brand going," she says. It was after her move to Los Angeles, and then to Oakland, that she became the artist we now know as EMA.
EMA's music can be an emotional maelstrom. Although she is a product of the esoteric Bay Area and Los Angeles noise scenes, her lyrics don't just take a central role in her compositions; filtered through her beautiful, whiskey-soaked voice, they carry the accessible emotional power of a Buffy Saint-Marie or a Neil Young. Her new record, Past Life Martyred Saints, coincides with the recent dissolution of her band Gowns and simultaneous break-up with longtime boyfriend and bandmate Ezra Buchla. Not surprisingly, it is perhaps most striking for its candour and rawness. I spoke to Erika over the phone while she was in Costa Mesa during her recent tour. We discussed her lyrics, her fascination with The Game’s "My Life," and what it's like to be a noise musician who writes pop songs.
AZ: How did you start recording music solo?
Erika: A lot of the songs on this record are really old. I was living in this apartment in LA with Ezra, and he’d go on tour with The Mae Shi. I had a ProTools rig in my room, and I taught myself how to use it. I made these songs, and I was like, "These are too weird. I can’t release them." Some of it was recorded really long ago. After Gowns split up, we didn’t talk too much right away, but [Ezra] did send me a really supportive email at one point being like, "You should take whatever you have worked on, and whatever we have worked on, and you should release an EP." After we split up officially, I really knuckled down in West Oakland and started making a record.
AZ: How do lyrics factor into your composition process?
Erika: Often I’ll get a melody in my head and kind of play around with it. My favorite way to write lyrics is to get into a tranced-out state and kind of have them come out. I don’t really like to revise things. A lot of times, it isn't until I write something that I realize I've been feeling a certain way. A lot of people have described my music as haunting. Sometimes I do feel haunted by things, but if I write about something, it helps to relieve whatever thing it is that is too repetitive, and too there. I don’t know if people realize that there’s an element of self-awareness to it. Some people, if they don’t like it, will be like, "The lyrics made me cringe." I feel like sometimes people don’t realize that it's not completely serious. It is serious, but there’s an element of self-awareness, and of taking it one step too far.
AZ: Why do you think lyrical songwriting is so uncommon these days in experimental music?
Erika: I don’t know. I feel like the pendulum has to swing back at some point. I’ve always really liked lyrics, and I’ve always really liked vocal stuff, and playing a lot and going to noise shows, I’ve felt in some ways unwelcome. There’s this unwritten rule saying, "You can’t use lyrics that people will understand." I thought there were supposed to be no rules. [Noise] turns into the most codified, regimented form of music, which is not what it should be at all. When Gowns first started off, some people didn’t know how to take us. They were like, "This band might be cool if they didn’t sing." I wonder if it's something about the idea of masculine, abstract sound experiments, and not allowing a range of emotions to come through. For a lot of people who are doing experimental music, at some point it becomes like, "I built this Max patch that does this." It's about the experiment, and the set of parameters. You’re supposed to be tuning out everything but your ears.
I did make a record before I made Past Life Martyred Saints that was a conceptual record. It was about deconstructing American folk music-- departing from the premise that a lot of folk music is being made on a computer right now, and seeing how this technology intersects with the idea of folk music. I spent a lot of time sending this off to people, and I really felt the two worlds collide. I would drop it off with noisers, and they would be like, "Yeah, but you sing. I like the feedback, but what’s with this vocal harmony?"I would bring it to more folk-oriented labels and they would be like, "We love 'Kind Heart,' but can you make a five-minute version?" I really felt the rules on both sides. In pop, people aren’t necessarily used to listening to long-duration pieces, or to feedback, so I could understand why that was challenging. But I do get shocked sometimes when people reject experimental music because it has elements of tonality, or because it has elements of humanness.
AZ: You’ve described your song "California" as "a noised-out rap ballad by a Midwestern white girl." What do you think distinguishes it as such?
Erika: I heard The Game’s "My Life" and I just fell in love with that song. Not only am I interested in challenging myself with fidelity, production, genre, and all this stuff, but I’m also interested in the socio-political element of things. What is the rule here that says I can’t make a rap song? It didn’t really work out because it's not on a grid. It actually would have been horrible if I’d tried to throw down a beat and rap over it. There’s that sort of rap ballad, too-- the more introspective kind, or more emotional. Hopefully it's got some swag!
AZ: How does performing live as EMA compare with performing live with Gowns?
Erika: With the performances now, I’m having fun again. While I loved performing with Gowns, I can’t necessarily say that it was fun. With this, I’m really fronting a band. We’re playing these dates with Dale Earnhardt Junior Junior, and the crowd that shows up to see them is totally different from the one that typically shows up to see us. We played Costa Mesa in Orange County today, and it was kind of a straight crowd. We were headlining, and at the end of the night, what looked like a pretty regular dude came up and was like, "You know what? You’re a great entertainer." With the shows now, I want to have fun, and I want to put on an entertaining show. There was an element of danger with Gowns. So many risks were being taken all the time, because we never knew what the fuck was going to happen, which was cool. I want to start bringing back the element of risk into it. The thing is, it's hard to take really crazy risks as the stakes get higher. What was fun about Gowns was kind of an element of DIY, an anti-success element in that band. There are so many awesome things that happen when you play shows where you feel really free. It's different now if I know people are going to review a show. With Gowns it was like, "Why don’t we try this one thing that we talked about but never practiced?" I want to bring that element back, but we’re still a really new band, and I think we’re kind of getting to the point where we’ll be able to do that more.
Past Life Martyred Saints LP is out now via Souterrain Transmissions