An Interview with EMA: 'Any Time You Say Something That Shocks Even You ... That's a Good Sign'
Erika M. Anderson
You could call the sound recordings that Erika M. Anderson makes "music" -- they bear a fair resemblance to some of the more creative strains of indie rock -- but even she's not sure that's what her sound art is. And that disregard for the rules of pop music may be the best thing about it.
After fronting the respected (albeit short-lived) L.A. drone-folk band Gowns, Anderson moved to West Oakland and began working on a solo project under the name EMA. The result was this year's Past Life Martyred Saints, an album of nine tracks that vary from coherent songs to sonic collages arranged out of decaying guitars, groaning synthesizers, and her own sweet crackle of a voice.
Though the instruments are raw and grimly atmospheric, Anderson's sung and spoken words are what make Past Life Martyred Saints one of the year's most haunting listens. They are blunt: "Fuck California, you made me boring," begins the second track on the record. They also notably candid, especially about drugs, depression, and what seems like self-abuse. In "Marked" -- song that was recorded as it was being improvised for the first time -- Anderson moans, "I wish every time you touched me left a mark" in a rheumy slur. It has to be one of the most chilling moments released on any record this year -- all the more so because it feels like she's being completely honest.
EMA plays Wednesday, Oct. 12, at the Independent -- the biggest headlining Bay Area show for an artist that long called this place home. Before the gig, we spoke with an upbeat, talkative Anderson about her spat with California, whether her art is music or something else, and why it's good to say things that shock you.
Where do you call home these days?
I'm temporarily in Portland. I can't tell if it's going to be forever or not. I have lived in the Bay for like five years, but the thing is that I've been touring so much that it really makes sense right now to have a place that's very cheap for rent. The cheap places are there, West Oakland -- that's where I lived for five years. But I was like, you know, maybe I'd like to try like some other cheap place that doesn't have quite the psychic cost.
With the song "California," maybe you should live outside of the state now.
Oh, at least for a little while, right?
What do you mean by it made you boring, and is that a temporary thing? Or is that a strong conviction?
It's not a longstanding thing. We had a little spat, me and Cali did, I suppose. But it's not like long-term hate for it.
What was the spat over?
Oh, boys, probably.
You said somewhere that there was too much positive thinking about California -- that you had to tell the other side of the story.
That's true. The thing about California that's interesting, [is] it's always been tremendously great at marketing itself. I wanted to tell the other side of the story. Because my favorite California songs are things like, "Under the Bridge," not necessarily "California Dreamin'." For a while in music, it felt like there was this continuation of this California self-promotion, and I kind of wanted to be like, 'Let me tell you something else.'
With that song and a couple of others on the album, the way that you deliver the lyrics really reminds me of spoken-word poetry. Is that a conscious influence of yours, or did it just happen?
That's one of those genres that can be either so amazing or so terrible. I do like some of it -- stuff like Gil Scott Heron. That's fantastic. Or even some of Laurie Anderson's stuff, I really dig that. But I've never done a slam poetry night or anything. I like the way you can kind of tell stories. With using things that are more spoken-word, you're more free from a 'Okay, let's do a verse-chorus-verse' type of thing. You can rhyme, but you can change some of the rhyme scheme. It's just a very natural thing.
It's got to free you up melodically, too. You like to use sonic elements, rather than song-like elements, in your music. It must be easier to put words over that when you speak them.
A lot of the songs that I do ... the words kind of dictate the musical changes, which I think is probably opposite from the way that a lot of songs get written.
So you start with the words usually?
I start with a melody or words.
And when you say melody, are we talking a melody on a guitar, or a keyboard?
Sometimes it's just in my head. I'm not necessarily the type of person that sits around -- I'm not classically trained in anything -- I don't even know if I consider myself a musician. In some ways, it's just the way that music is distributed is a really good way to get ideas out there. I just want to tell stories, and if that's going to be through video, or if that's going to be through music, whatever.
When you're putting these songs together, farther along in the process, do you do it with other people? A lot of your stuff seems so production-based, I wonder how it actually comes together as a song.
I know, it's so weird -- I don't even have a good answer for that. Maybe sometimes we'll start with a melody. A lot of the songs are actually written based on improvisation. "Marked" was completely improvised, and that track that you hear, the main guitar and vocal, you're hearing the moment it's being written, and then there were production choices later. "Red Star" was based off of improvisation. I try and get these kind of lyrics to come out in a subconscious way, and sometimes I'll rework them a little bit, but I don't necessarily rework them very much. Then, I have some ideas of what I want sonically, but I almost have a visual representation. In "The Grey Ship" I'm like, 'Okay, I see this beginning part, and I see these kind of strum-y chords.' It's almost like painting -- 'And then I want like a big bold stroke of this deep purple bass to drop.'