Live: Zola Jesus and EMA at the Natural History Museum
At last week’s First Fridays series at the Natural History Museum, two young women working at the border of noise and rock music explored how harsh music can tell different kinds of stories.
Zola Jesus and EMA are both rising acts with a powerful visual presence and an interest in using distortion, electronics and vagueness to expand the palette of pop music. They used rock-friendly instruments like guitars, drums and synthesizers, but deployed them in strange and hypnotic ways that tap potent veins of hard-to-articulate emotions.
EMA is the alias of Erika M. Anderson, a tall and punk-severe singer-songwriter with roots in California and South Dakota. She made her early reputation as one half of the experimental folk act Gowns, where she honed her interest in feedback and harrowing vocal performances. Recording under her given initials, her songs grew more focused on her 2011 debut “Past Life Martyred Saints.” But she never lost her fascination with the ways in which repetition and machine-driven distortion can create devastating and strangely hopeful moods.
Performing with a drummer, a bassist-guitarist and an amplified violinist, her live set had a heavy touch of the Velvet Underground to it. That’s always a compliment when describing a rock show, but during tracks like “The Grey Ship” and “Anteroom” she took the Velvets’ specific downtown doom and warped it into a Great Plains horror show of blue-collar desperation.
She closed with her signature track “California,” a compelling breakup letter to the Golden State. While mock-choking herself with the microphone cable, Anderson delivered its opening lines in a brutal deadpan: “… California, you made me boring / I bled all my blood out, but these red pants don’t show that.” It might rank with “Sunset Boulevard” in works of art about how California can break a woman.
Zola Jesus is based in Los Angeles, but the alias of the singer-composer Nika Danilova hews closer to the noirish side of the city’s musical tradition. Her sound pulls from experimental music, goth acts like Britain's Cocteau Twins and modernist R & B balladry that led to major tours with Fever Ray and a spot at the Hollywood Bowl’s tribute to Serge Gainsbourg.
But her latest album “Conatus” is uncompromising. It’s built on chamber strings, live drums and noisemaking that draws a straight line to midcentury experimental electronic composers like Daphne Oram and Delia Derbyshire.
Joined by a standing drummer, keyboardist and an amplified violinist (interestingly, the night’s second), her band took a minimalist approach to a maximalist album, and in doing so returned the focus to Danilova’s voice. She has a vocal range and skill that could get her through the opening rounds of ‘Idol,’ but she enticingly subverted it with hazy phrasing and a commitment to atmosphere.
For a song like “Vessel,” which on record has a dense churn ala Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor, her band skimmed off the vocal loop and built an airy if not spooky foundation. The heavy drums of “Hikikomori” were leavened with pining string parts; even her most upbeat tracks like the danceable “Seekir" had an implacable fog of melancholy.
A wood-paneled hall filled with mammal dioramas is a tough room for any artist to play, and the sound of both bands suffered a bit from the space. But Danilova clearly embraced the challenge: “Thanks for coming to this beautiful space," she said, "where we can appreciate where we come from, and maybe where we’ll go back to.”
Photo: Zola Jesus at the Natural History Museum on March 2, 2012. (Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times)