EMA talks new record, emotional rollercoasters and giving the middle finger to California
Neurotic poetry, emotional scarring, slash-and-burn distortion and a raspy whisper with the weight of a roar — this is how EMA does pop music. Hidden behnd a curtain of blond bangs, the eyes of this 6-foot, South-Dakota-born songwriter — born Erika M. Anderson — have seen throttling ups and downs in her music career since the implosion of her highly touted experimental noise duo, Gowns, in early 2010.
After Gowns' demise, EMA frenetically toiled to maintain her music career after the band broke up, but it seemed to bury Anderson further into the emotional quicksand. Little response from labels over her early solo efforts and a frustrating, overly ambitious attempt at recording a 16-minute Robert Johnson cover of "Kind Hearted Woman Blues" (titled simply "Kind Heart") left her feeling pretty low.
But before Anderson decided to leave West Oakland, her second hometown, and return to live in her parents' basement in South Dakota, an opportunity knocked. The unexpected offer from Berlin-based indie label Souterrain Transmissions to release a solo album gave EMA an outlet for pent-up grief. Now on tour with her album "Past Life, Martyred Saints," EMA has distilled her noise-rock roots into a provocative record that opens up the pages of a tortured diary that gives a middle finger to pop convention.
Pop & Hiss: Between the 2010 release “Little Sketches on Tape” to your new album, “Past Life of Martyred Saints,” what are some key points of growth you’ve encountered in your song structures?
EMA: “Little Sketches on Tape” was pretty much a conceptual work. It was based on improvisation and using the tape player as an instrument. “Past Life of Martyred Saints” was more like a pop record, or my best attempt at a pop record. It’s the first time I’ve ever written anything with a conventional verse-chorus-verse type of thing. My songs tend to be “through-composed,” as in I write something and never repeat it. It’s so hard for me to come back into a chorus, I don’t know why. Even though I love pop music, I never do it.
In a way you’ve taken elements of what Gowns was and made it more accessible. What was your process in identifying a sound for this solo effort?
I feel like I’ve always had a really strong sense of what my sound palate is. With Gowns, I was just starting and just teaching myself how to use Pro Tools and just playing around. So some of those songs were really old. “Butterfly Knife” and “Marked” were the first time I was playing around with the computer and just putting things in random order. This time, I kind of just had more tools. I had a nicer studio and nicer stuff. But I’ve always had a sound signature that I’ve tried to mix my stuff into, so if anyone else tries to mix my songs I’m always like no, it’s not right, it doesn’t sound right.
Ezra Buchla [formerly of Gowns] has vocal and guitar parts on several songs on this EMA record. Is that what you mean by some of the songs were “older”?
Yeah, we were working on a Gowns record before we just kind of imploded and I was doing most of the work in West Oakland, but he definitely put down some stuff and some of the songs are older. And then we kind of imploded and didn’t talk for a while, but he wrote me an email saying: "You should use whatever you want from the record. You should put out these songs you’ve been working on. Please put them out.” So I took that as a blessing. And I think it would’ve seemed almost disrespectful if I had taken out his parts just because we weren’t in a band anymore.
Describe what kind of place you were in when you decided to put this album out and put the first new songs together.
I put some of the first few songs together shortly after Gowns broke up. I don’t think I’d even really processed that yet. I was like, “OK, I guess I’ll try to put these out. I just wanna put out an EP or something.” I sent them to people and for a while, there wasn’t a huge response to it. And at some point I just got really low and I was like done doing music. I felt like a failure. I didn’t want to do it anymore. And I was ready to move home back to South Dakota to my parents' basement. But someone from [record label] Souterrain [Transmissions] got ahold of me and asked if I had any solo stuff I wanted to put out. It took me a while to realize what I was being asked. I had just emotionally detached myself. I didn’t know if I wanted to do it anymore. It’s a lot of commitment. I was like maybe I should just move back to the Midwest and have a couch and TV and live a normal life. It wasn’t a decision I made instantly, but I kind of rallied myself and said I’d give it one more shot.
In songs like “California,” your hopeless predicament with music at that time really comes across pretty explicitly.
I felt a lot better after I wrote that song. It was one of those freeing songs to do, and I love to perform it. When I wrote that first line, I was like, “Can I say this? Can I say … California?” It seemed more scandalous than saying … Jesus. Then I thought that’s a good thing if you’re wondering if it’s too scandalous. But I mean, it’s just a state, it’s just a place. But it seemed taboo. There was also some different California-based music that is coming out right now, and I figured this was just a zeitgeist and I was repping the dark side of the zeitgeist.
What has it been like to perform this album live with a mix of songs from different periods in your career?
I have a great band. It’s my little sister playing drums, my friend Aaron Davis who does electronic and drum stuff under the name “Acre” and my friend Leif Shackleford who runs East Nile, the performance and recording studio up in Oakland. We’re just having a lot of fun. There was a time when I didn’t know if I wanted to perform anymore. I really wasn’t happy performing, but I’m having fun again. I hope I don’t come to that point where I’m drinking a bottle of whiskey and breaking down in tears on stage. I kind of hope I don’t go back to that. But we’re a really young band still. In Gowns we played so much compared to how many people had heard the record. And now many more people have heard [EMA] than have actually seen us play. So I feel a little bit like playing catch-up. We’re cutting our teeth still, but it’s a fun time.
EMA performs with Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. and Oregon Bike Trails Friday at the Echo. $10 advanced, $12 day of show. 8:30 p.m. 18+. www.attheecho.com
— Nate Jackson
Photo: "Past Life, Martyred Saints" cover artwork. Credit: Souterrain Transmissions.