EMA Explores the Void
EMA (aka Erika M. Anderson) really comes into her own on The Future’s Void, the follow-up to Past Life Martyred Saints. The new album features a balance of noise and avant folk as Anderson vacillates from whispering to screaming. Anderson recently phoned from a Wisconsin tour stop to talk about that album and her current tour.
How’s the tour going?
The tour has been really fun. We’re with Spoon right now and we’re mostly playing theaters. It’s really nice. I really like it.
Tell me a little about your upbringing. What was it like growing up in South Dakota?
Right now we’re staying at one of my bandmate’s family’s house. I haven’ been in the Midwest for the fall in a while. It made me feel like I was a teenager. There’s something about the way the light hits. Whatever it is, it feels different here than anywhere else. I’ve been living on the West Coast. It brought back some crazy feelings. For me growing up there, there were these thing about creating your own meaning. It was kind of arbitrary. Now, I don’t know if everyone is moving toward this mono culture thing where it’s all the same and everyone can have this collective experience on the Internet. I guess it will change and the only thing that will be different is how the sun hits the earth.
You must have grown up at the time that you had access to the Internet.
In South Dakota that wasn’t the way it worked then. I remember people going online, but it wasn’t part of the culture there. It was mix tapes and word-of-mouth. I would hear about a band and then go buy their stuff. People didn’t even have cell phones. For the first ten years, you were considered an asshole if you had one. I grew up more without it. It wasn’t part of our lives.
At what point did you learn to play guitar and what inspired you to pick up the instrument?
I took lessons on an acoustic first. I got some shitty electric and then got a nicer electric at some point. I asked for a four-track and got a four-track for Christmas. My mom kept telling me to record on the computer but I told her that was lame. I would have had a huge jump on digital recording if I had just listened to mom. I wanted to sing and play guitar. That was a position I wanted but at the time I felt like I couldn’t be the singer. There were no girls in the scene.
You started playing in Amps for Christ and then formed Gowns. Talk about those experiences.
I had been in bands in high school too but these were the first cool bands. Amps for Christ was great. Their records are really unique and amazing and super underappreciated. They’re these cult things now. Circuits is one of my most influential and favorite records. That’s when I realized you could have your own sound or own language on a record. I just started hanging around with Henry [Barnes] and Tara [Tikki Tavi]. She was one of my best friends. Henry was living in a massive storage unit and he had all these organs and all this crazy gear. There were little pathways through it. I would bring over a six-pack of Sierra Nevada. We would jam out on his homemade instrument. It was really cool and fun times. Gowns was formed because some noisers wanted Ezra [Buchla] to go on a tour with them. I remember one of the first nights we hung out and made music. I think we started dating first actually. I didn’t want him to listen to my vocal part and then he laid down a vocals part over it. That’s how we wrote “Feathers.” Anyway, some noisers wanted Ezra to tour. They were assuming he would bring his synths and bring some drones and harshness and instead he brings his girlfriend and her crazy poetry written on T-shirts. Some people were into it and some people were pissed. That’s how it started and someone asked us to make a release and I got super tweaky and insane with Pro Tools. I used them before but I didn’t have the plugins that Ezra had connections to getting.
How did all of that shape what you’ve ended up doing as EMA?
Gowns was completely nuts. It was an untenable venture. The story from that nice harmonious point in the bedroom to complete and utter destruction is something I don’t want to go into detail about. I was left high and dry, but I still had some songs. I was going to move back to my parents’ house and I got an email from the label who asked for solo stuff. It happened from there.
Is the title of your first album Little Sketches on Tape meant to be taken literally?
It’s like a noise tape. I was driving around L.A. doing transcriptions. It was so miserable and terrible. I had this voice recorder and it made the craziest sounds. I was improvising with that and put that out through a friend’s label.
Was Past Life Martyred Saints done in a real studio?
It was half me recording with Pro Tools. Then some was done in a practice space in L.A. and some was in Oakland, which was a cross between Pro and home.
I thought you weren’t serious when you sang about how California ruined you in “California.”
I went through some times there. That could be anybody’s summing up. You get to an age and a lot of the choices you make aren’t good. People tell you what not to do and at a certain point, they all compact in your late twenties.
Talk about The Future’s Void and what you tried to do differently this time around.
On this one I was doing more stuff with electronics. Trying to write in the old ways didn’t seem very productive. I couldn’t fake it. There was some diversity of sounds and songs on the previous record and I wanted to keep that going. Almost every song has a different instrumentation and different vibe. That’s cool. That’s a challenge. That’s fun.
Does the concept of the void informs the songs?
That’s just after. You had to name it something. I wanted to call it something else. I still think I should have. It was supposed to be funny in the tradition of sci-fi, good and bad.
Talk about “3Jane.” Did “Sweet Jane” inspire it?
Oh, no, not really. That’s like one of the characters from Neuromancer. It got named afterward.
There’s even a song called “Neuromancer.”
I know. What a dork. I felt like I had a weird Neuromancer inside my brain for a while. That’s the West Coast crazy. That’s that version, different from the total void.
And you’ve said “So Blonde” is about Kurt and Courtney.
There’s a bit of it. It could be any blonde.
From Kurt’s perspective?
Just from anybody’s perspective. I think it’s from the perspective of someone who would have seen them in the scene and thought they were the coolest couple before the tragedies engulfed everything. And thinking about me and what it means for me. All the rocker babes are blonde, even today. What does it mean that I do that too?
Except for Chrissie Hynde.
She’s not blonde. Joan Jett’s not blonde. PJ Harvey’s not blonde. There are a few non-blonders out there.
I like the early PJ Harvey albums when she screeches.
I like her screech too.
Is the live show less eclectic than the album?
It’s not super jarring. We’re using a lot of electronics so it does sound a bit like the record. We’re using some of the samples that are there. One of the hardest thing is the vocals. I can’t always sing like I’m whispering into a condenser microphone. Other than that, it sounds like the record. We play older songs as well.
I like the way even the quieter songs on the album have an intensity to them.
Yeah. I try to keep it that way.
It must be difficult to pull that off.
I don’t know. I guess it’s just my nature.
Upcoming 2014 Tour Dates
Chicago Theater, Chicago IL
Riverside Theatre, Milwaukee WI
Orpheum Theatre, Madison WI
State Theatre, Minneapolis MN
Pageant, St Louis MO
Liberty Hall, Lawrence KS
Cain’s Ballroom, Tulsa OK
Bar and Arcade, Springfield MO
Pygmalion Music Festival, Champaign IL
MidPoint Music Festival, Cincinnati OH
Beachland Tavern, Cleveland, OH
Drake Hotel, Toronto ON, Canada
Le Divan Orange, Montreal QC, Canada
The Space, Hamden CT
Boot & Saddle, Philadelphia PA
Bowery Ballroom, New York NY
Barboza, Seattle WA
Electric Owl, Vancouver BC, Canada
Mississippi Studios, Portland OR