EMA: Beyond the Void
We talked to EMA about the Internet, what makes a rock band, and the freaky, complex women who inspire her.
Photo by Erika M. Anderson
Erika M. Anderson wants you to know that she is one of us. The artist, better known as EMA, is on the verge of releasing her technologically-focused second album, The Future’s Void, and she wants to make one thing clear: this is not a didactic endeavor. Despite songs about online afflictions (“3Jane”), spy satellites (“Satellites”), selfies (“Neuromancer”), and dead celebrities (er, “Dead Celebrity”), this is not a preach-and-be-wise collection; no, to Anderson, this is her way of working out what can truly be achieved with all of the new technology that pops up seemingly every day, and how we can twist its potential for good and not for the slow destruction of common decency. After the success of her debut solo album, 2011’s brooding masterpiece Past Life Martyred Saints, the electronically jarring squalls of The Future’s Void may be off-putting to fans. Fear not, however, for the confessional nature of Anderson’s lyrics and the power of her music has not faded one bit.
We caught up with Anderson over the phone while she was at her home in Portland a couple of weeks before the release of The Future’s Void to talk about electronics, the power of social media, and the (hopeful) downfall of the trolls.
Your new album seems more outward than Past Life Martyred Saints; it's talking more about how you interact with the world as opposed to yourself. How is it different coming into writing that?
Yeah, I didn’t really come in with a plan like that. People have been saying this to me, and for some reason, it makes me feel sad. I have two feelings about it. One is like, oh, that makes me feel a little bit sad because it makes me think that I probably put up some boundaries, to protect myself, but, I mean, there’s still some really personal shit on there.
Maybe as you get older, you move out of a completely singular experience to something that’s more universal, and try and position yourself with other human beings. You know, you’re not looking in the mirror quite as much or something.
It’s aboutus. You know...I don’t wanna go through a song like “Dead Celebrity” and not really position myself on either side. I’m saying we wanted something timeless in the world full of speed.
Do you see the rise of all this technology, social media, as something that’s problematic or it’s more something that we need to figure out how to make work for us?
It’s way too complicated. I’m really not trying to be didactic anywhere on the record and be like “the internet is bad!” or “the Internet is good!” “Social media is destroying us!” It’s just kind of overwhelming and it’s really fast. I think there are so many great things on the Internet, even for every amount of trolls and kind of viciousness that it reveals about human nature. I mean it’s also been so great in the kind of social justice campaigns and bringing lots of different voices, having platforms.
That’s really heartening, to see people in places that you maybe wouldn’t expect now realize that the proper way to refer to “transgender” and things like that. Like, five years ago, that concept was just something to joke about, and now there are spaces and language that’s gonna pop up on your feed. It’s gonna be a huge deal and educational, and it will bring people together.
If you can just speak truth, or try to be as truthful as possible, I still think that the Internet is a powerful thing. I told the truth, and however you want to respond to it, that's on you now, you know? I didn't do it for you.
The idea of telling the truth as it happens to you, and how you believe it, is one of the best things about social media, because it gives a voice to people that normally wouldn't have that. To go back to your example, someone who's transgender and doesn't feel like they have that freedom in their personal life can find friendships and can find platforms on the Internet.
You know, I'm hoping that somehow we are turning the corner. I don't know if it's just me personally feeling that way, but I'm hoping the trolls are going to go in decline right now. I feel like people are like, "You know what, fuck you guys. Like, we've had enough of this shit. Just get the fuck off of here, man, you're bumming out the party. We want to talk here and you're fucking yelling like a three year old."
I think when people say stupid racist shit, and stupid misogynist things, the way that the wrath of the Internet can respond can be kind of awesome. [Laughs] But maybe, you know... We can't just let the masses completely... You know, it's scary when the masses just duke it out.
So the album itself is more electronic in nature. At what point did you decide that this wasn't going to be as “guitars, and drums, and synths, and that's it” as the first album?
There are a couple things. First of all, it's like the two guitars, bass, and drums - like traditional thing - why is that even a thing? Like why is that the default mode? It's just like, "Why are we trying to sound like the Beatles for again? Like why are we using this setup?" You know, just 'cause bands 50 years ago, 40 years ago, decided that that's what rock bands did? And then I also just think a lot of people right now are just finding the guitar inadequate, for creating sounds that feel contemporary.
And then another thing I realized is even though I didn't think of myself really as an electronic musician, a lot of the music I've been making is electronic, it's just not quote unquote traditional electronic music. Like if you go back to Gowns, "White Like Heaven" is an electronic song. A lot of the stuff on there uses electronics. So once I kind of realized that, I was like, "Oh wait, I actually have been using electronics for awhile, I just didn't think of myself as one." And then I was like, "Oh, well fuck it, then."
You recorded this at home again, right? The same as the first album?
Yeah, with Leif Shackelford helping with engineer-ish and helping with production.
But mostly what happens is I go down and turn on the computer, and write a song. Or there's a couple that me and my drummer, Billy, we would just kind of jam in the basement. It's recorded in the basement. A windowless basement in Portland, that's actually kind of a soul-sucking place.
You're signed to Matador. Do you have a favorite Matador artist? Or someone in general you'd want to collaborate with?
One of the things that also really drew me towards working with Matador is just how they've been really supportive of career female artists that are rad and weird.
I've been listening to Liz Phair’s records. I didn't really listen to them when they came out as much, but I listen to them now, I'm like, "This is fucking amazing!" And I was a huge Cat Power fan in high school, and I just loved Body/Head record that they just put out, that Kim Gordon record? And I'm kind of like, "Oh, this is awesome. They're used to dealing with freaky, complex women." You know, they have a proven track record of being supportive of that, which I think is pretty fucking cool.
Visual art is a big part of your work. Have you thought about maybe pursuing art separately from the music more?
I get fed off of art, you know? If I go to a museum, I go to a place where I see something that inspires me. I am energized, and my brain is alive, and I'm in love with it, you know? And so yeah, of course, sometimes I'm like, "Oh, I totally want to. I totally wanna do this." Whenever I go to a museum, I'm like, "I really just wish--I just want to be doing art. I want to be doing this. I want to be doing conceptual art, and I have all this stuff with it."
And then, on other hand... At this point, I can be just a complete fan, you know? I can look at stuff, and I can take it in, and I can let it nourish me, and feed me, and give me like a whole body buzz, you know? It's hard to be a huge fan and have something be your job.
I saw Gowns once and it was crazy; is any of that making it into the EMA shows for this new record?
Well, depending on your perspective, this is either good or bad news, you know? But it's gonna be tighter, and it's gonna be hopefully slightly less chaotic. You know, the stuff with Gowns. Sometimes it would really work and it would be this amazing, moving experience, and sometimes it was complete fucking chaos failure.
And I mean, that's the thing, it was like the risks we were taking were real. You know? And that's why it couldn't be perfect every night. Because if it's perfect every night, you aren't really taking a risk, you know?
I came up on this noise scene, this aesthetic of improvisation and the importance of taking risks on stage, and flirting with destruction, and all this stuff. And I try to take that with me to some of these nicer venues, some of these bigger places, and it just didn't work. It was just feeling like I was not doing a good job playing live, because I was just trying to fit this chaotic sort of punk, sort of instinctual, destructive, primitive thing, and I was trying to play it in places where people were like, "Dude, we just kinda wanna hear your songs, and can you sound good?"
Which Gowns show did you see, by the way? I wonder if it's a good one or a terrible one.
I thought that it was a good one. It was CMJ 2007. One of those shows.
I think it was just that one show. I think I remember that being a good show. The night before that show, we played, I think, in New Jersey, and we slept in this trash dump room. Like I was literally on this mattress on the floor in a room surrounded by trash with a hole in the wall in the middle of winter, that was covered by a piece of plywood. This kid was really sick. Ezra [Buchla from Gowns] was going to sleep on this futon, and this kid just walked over, falls asleep on this futon, and puked on it.
Luis Paez-Pumar is probably puking on a futon somewhere. He's on Twitter - @paezpumarL