“I don’t wanna throw shade on anybody, but there have definitely been times when people will suggest, or make it feel like, [my music’s] impenetrable, like it’s weird. Or kind of nudge you like, ‘you could really do this other thing if you decided to, blah blah blah.’ To me it’s, I don’t know, at this point in my career what’s the point? I feel like with this record, and the [other] things that I’ve done, I either sellout or double down.”
And double down she does. Erika Anderson, otherwise known as EMA, has never been one to compromise. She began her career in the early 2000s as the guitarist for experimental rock project Amps For Christ before forming noise-folk trio Gowns with her then-boyfriend Ezra Buchla and Corey Fogel, both of The Mae Shi. After five years Gowns decided to call it a day in 2010, having accrued a small fanbase and a reputation for staggering live shows. The announcement was made via Anderson’s blog, where she also posted a final farewell in the form of the last Gowns recording, the epic Stand And Encounter.
Her first album proper under the EMA moniker appeared in 2011 and was met with wide-spread critical acclaim. Past Life Martyred Saints was an unflinching record that dealt in tales of failed relationships, drug use and self-harm. Intimate fragility was matched by a strength apparent in both the melodies and honest production. It was brutal and beautiful. Her follow up, 2014’s The Future’s Void, took a slightly different tack as a concept album about the internet, in a loose sense, and sported slightly slicker production. Still, the shift was relative to an industry in thrall to auto-tune and character diminishing overproduction. The Future’s Void remained as unaffected as any of Anderson’s music.
After a relatively lengthy break in recording, she now returns with Exile In The Outer Ring. It’s a record that her label Matador were reportedly unwilling to put out, and there have been hints that this was a result of concerns the album was too political and not commercial enough. Anderson, of course, has a very different perspective. “I don’t think it’s non-commercial, I just think certain people can’t hear it. They don’t know how to listen. Certain people just can’t… they just think it’s so abrasive. But it’s so melodic, it’s just like these riffs,” she says, somewhat exasperatedly.
Of course, she’s right. It’s difficult to imagine anyone finding this music impenetrable given its engagement in the outside world, alongside intense intimacy and emotional heft. But then given modern production trends, her music does stand apart.
Anderson tends to record mostly at home. An approach she began for economic reasons has become an integral part of her sound and her artistic independence. “It sounds in some ways like when I started making music with Gowns,” she explains. “It’s just what I like, I like micro noises that I stick into things and make melodic, and I like narratives, and I like drums. It’s just everything that I like, I feel like it’s my language. It seems obvious to stick to that, but there are some times when people are just like ‘why don’t you just do this, why don’t you just make them all pop songs. Down And Out’s so great, why don’t you make them all like that?’ It’s just the stuff I like, and I’m really specific about it.”
Which stuff does she like, specifically? “I think that comes from the way that I work because I really like I guess what you would call non-musical noises. I don’t just mean power electronics or harsh noise. I mean, if something almost happens by accident during the recording process, if I like it I’m gonna leave it in. I don’t know if sellout is the right word, but I either be like ‘cool I’ll go in with the producer and compromise’. Or not even that, maybe just make something that’s catchier but that I don’t love – or I can make something that impresses me.”
“Anyone that feels like they’re not going to nail it, all the language and everything, won’t speak on it so then the only people that will broach these subjects are people who I do not agree with politically. You’re letting them decide what the discourse is if you don’t allow more leeway in conversation.”
That resolute independence makes Anderson’s music idiosyncratic. The unusual structures and sonic nuance have ensured an output that is both visceral and true. Her resolve also extends to the themes that run throughout Exile In The Outer Ring. She has resolved to broach controversial and difficult issues, perhaps none so more than of this latest album. “For me if this record could do anything, it would be to bridge a divide. To say, hey, yes, Middle America I see you, I believe your economic woes and drug problems are real, but also, don’t let your patriotism and your anger be exploited by con men, don’t let your values be eroded by spite.”
The contentiously titled Aryan Nation is Anderson’s address to the parts of America charged with putting Donald Trump in office. She originally hails from Middle America – South Dakota, to be specific – and consequently, Aryan Nation is less of a condemnation than it is an attempt to open up a conversation and reject outright dismissal of a certain part of the population.
“I definitely think there’s been a tendency, it’s probably not purposeful or conscious, but people say really disparaging things about poor rural people and don’t think twice about it. Now people know better than to disparage a lot of other groups there’s been a lot of ‘what the fuck, that’s not cool. Don’t do that.’ So people have, for the most part, realised that’s not OK. I don’t know what the slang terms are in the UK, but in America, people will be like ‘we had to leave this spot on the river because it was full of WT,’ and I’m like ‘what is WT?’ and they’re like ‘White Trash.’ Wow. It’s especially easy if you’re able to leave these areas if you’re from there, or you’ve never been there, it’s outta sight outta mind. Until these elections, which are a pretty big wake up call.”
What does she see happening next? “I think both sides need to do some soul searching really. When I was writing (the album) I didn’t now that politics were going to go down like this, it’s a shock to me how far to the right a lot of politics have swung, but I can tap into a lingering resentment towards the city folk. If you have a feeling that someone thinks they’re better than you, you just kinda raise… it’s like fuck you. That can even be things that intimidate you like a boutique with clothes you don’t understand, and that’s increasingly what cities are becoming. It’s these things that really don’t make sense to these different populations.”
“Hey, yes, Middle America I see you, I believe your economic woes and drug problems are real, but also, don’t let your patriotism and your anger be exploited by con men, don’t let your values be eroded by spite.”
Her empathetic approach is refreshing in the face of constant mud slinging from both sides, but with that in mind, is she ever fearful of jumping into the fray? “Yeah, of course. Especially with some songs, there are few things that I feel, what’s the word? trepidation [about]. Of course, Aryan Nation is one. There were definitely people who were like ‘are you sure you wanna do this?’ and this was before everything had unfolded politically in the US and the UK. But I still had a feeling that something was really going on.
“One of the things with people on the left – which I definitely am – I think people get really afraid of speaking on different subjects because it feels like it’s a minefield, it feels like it’s really easy to say the wrong thing, or be misconstrued. All of a sudden you fuck up and everyone’s, I mean, it very much a call-out-culture where we hold people to such a specific standard of language that it becomes stifling. It’s constrictive, and also my other problem is that it creates a vacuum. Because anyone that feels like they’re not going to nail it, all the language and everything, won’t speak on it so then the only people that will broach these subjects are people who I do not agree with politically. You’re letting them decide what the discourse is if you don’t allow more leeway in conversation.”
Another of the tracks that she was a little apprehensive about was 33 Nihilistic And Female, which was very nearly left off the record. It’s a barnstorming track that squares up to misogyny dazzlingly and defiantly. Its omission would have been a great shame, and her anxiety about putting out such a message surprising. But as Anderson explains: “It’s like you’re not supposed to admit that you’re over 30 if you’re a woman and making music. So that was one that was even more… I mean I felt like this is important. I think people will get it; I’m over 30, a woman, I’m making music, I’m not a pop star, and I’m not rich.” But nevertheless, she adds, “I’m still like ‘should I have done that?’ Shouldn’t I just play along like I’m still, I don’t know… But that’s another thing that I think I had to connect to my brave part of myself. A lot of women, I’ve been hearing, love that song.”
One of the most satisfying elements of the record is that it avoids sloganeering, “Yeah, there’s no sloganeering, there is the mantra of I Want To Destroy [laughs] anyone can get with that. It feels like it can still last as a piece of music and hopefully, it will last longer, and feel less shallow.” She also refuses to make judgements. Breathalyser’s a perfect case in point. It’s woozy soundscape frames a tale of intoxication without a moralising conclusion.
“America’s having another huge drug epidemic. It’s the type that they’ve never seen before because huge swathes of areas that have been economically decimated now have these huge prescription medication problems, and now whole towns are getting addicted to heroin in the US. It’s really bad, and they’re finding a certain segment of the population where the life expectancy is going down for the first time. And they’re calling it ‘deaths of despair,’ which is drugs, drink and suicide.
“Also, taking it out of a super-politicised context, I wanted to… I think it’s non-judgemental, especially for a woman to be like ‘yeah, I’m getting in this car, I’m gonna get fucked up’. The video as well doesn’t go with the narrative ‘girl gets in a car takes drugs then something terrible happens’. Even in the lyrics of that song, it seems like there are two characters, the male voice seems coarse and frightening, but then at a certain point in the song it says, “down by the park I thought that I was ready/but when we start he wasn’t walking steady,” so he’s the one, it’s her choice right then, she’s handling it better than this fool. I like that story.”
The same is true of Aryan Nation, Anderson agrees, “Even that one isn’t trying to be moralising – ‘oh these people are bad and fucked up’. All these different circumstances are mining to create something that is unhealthy and not a good situation, so it’s not like these people are bad. I feel for people who were trying to drop a dance album in January, it’s like ooh, that’s gonna be hard to spin. The circumstances are changing so fast it’s hard to be completely current. I think one of the things with Exile is that I feel like it does do a good job of trying to be empathic, it’s not this didactic, you know ‘kill Trump!’ or ‘all the governments are awful,’ because I wasn’t really thinking in those terms, I was actually making a really personal record, and it just sort of became political because the world became more politicised.”
You could be forgiven for thinking that EMA’s latest will be a heavy and difficult listen, hard work even, but nothing could be further from the truth. The character of her music never distracts, and only enhances a slew of fantastic hooks, beautiful melodies and a sense of redemption.
“It just sort of became political because the world became more politicised.”
It’s a thread she’s keen to impress. “I’m glad you feel that way and picked that up because I know when people read about the record it’s gonna be ‘stark, desperate, harrowing’ all that stuff, and people are always really surprised when they meet me to because I like to tell jokes and I like to talk.” And it’s true; Anderson up close and in conversation is warm, engaging and funny.
The grind of a press tour does little to dampen her spirits. Instead she enthuses over how feeding difficult subject matter through her playful musical filter has a cathartic effect. “There’s always redemption, making these songs is healing for me, and in someways too the more crazy the subject matter the more melodic you can make it, like Always Bleeds the end of that, [sings] ‘I always bleed’ it’s kinda poppy. Also the subject matter is just what a lot of people are going through. Also not talking about it, why? Stigmatising it is negative. The happy club track is just not my life, that feels way more depressing, sitting with your friends drinking cheap booze out of plastic cups – not in a good way – and then listening to really happy pop music that’s taking place in some city far away, a galaxy long ago or whatever. I think it feels better to listen to something like Down And Out and be like, ‘cool, thank god I’m not the only one that feels this way’.”
She may deal in nihilistic narratives, but the resulting record reveals itself as a lesson in empathy and redemption. “The music is also happy,” shge emphasises. “The thing is, with this, I don’t really write in character, but if there is a female voice in it, it’s a survivor’s voice. There’s a calmness because I already felt of those things. There’s no one getting hysterical. It’s almost like you can live through some shit, but I think this record gives you a blueprint to still come out the other side of it. Feel the feelings but also look back and be like, ‘alright man.’ Just kind of nod and smile and say ‘alright, I did that.’”
EMA’s Exile In The Outer Ring is out on 25 August 2017 through City Slang, and EMA plays the Oslo, Hackney on 3 October. Tour dates and further information can be found here..