Spanning the three albums Erika M. Anderson made under her moniker EMA, the consistent thing about her work is its bold intrusiveness. Past Life Martyred Saints rapidly made Anderson a critical darling, constructing a powerful lament of a Midwesterner residing on the West Coast. In its essence, Past Life is a classic American folk record, one where Anderson embraces all the experimental whims that typified her days performing as noise duo Gowns with then-boyfriend Ezra Buchla.
As a result of the album's sudden pervasive attention, follow-up The Future’s Void found Anderson turning inward. “I had this weird psychedelic experience where I felt like there was an AI in my brain,” she recollects. “This calcification of data that summed up everything you could find about me online. A digitized version of all the information about me. I felt like it was inside my brain, in the shape of a white cube, very William Gibson. It was a terrifying experience. That’s kind of what happened with The Future’s Void. I write about things to either get rid of them, or understand them and heal from them. ”
EMA’s forthcoming album Exile In The Outer Ring once again reaches out to the world in typically wayward fashion. First single ‘Aryan Nation’ is a noise-laden chronicle of the jilted ‘white trash’ Midwest, stuck in a vicious cycle of crime, poverty, and dejection. The title alone is bound to raise a few eyebrows. Anderson is an altruistic, sensitive soul, albeit one who acknowledges that a certain shock factor is needed to break down noxious belief systems, no matter what side they’re coming from. As we’re discussing another song off the album, ‘Receive Love’ – a track that addresses a conflicting situation with the “casual misogyny” of “small town nihilists” Anderson used to hang out with as a teenager – she cringes a bit at the idea of being a role model type who bridges some sort of divide.
Thoughtfully and considerately, she backpedals a lot of her musings as she links to Drowned In Sound via Skype. “Wait, don’t use that word (referring to ‘role model’)! Let me rephrase. Here’s the thing: people who are living in the cities now, if they look at the rest of the country as “out of sight, out of mind”-- [sudden pause] Oh my God, what was I going to say? I’m trying to think. This is my first interview about Exile In The Outer Ring, so I haven’t thought through yet how I’m to phrase all this stuff! Aw, shit. Sometimes when I’m on the verge of discovering something, my mind will totally blank out! Walk me back, what was your question again?”
DiS: I’m struggling a bit with the phrasing myself, actually. The question is whether creating a dialogue is more important than being a role model? Outta sight, outta mind...
Erika M. Anderson: Right. If you’re not willing to converse with these people and just dismiss them as 'outta sight, outta mind', and you’re not willing to talk about the economics of these places, and you’re not willing to talk about race, gender, or religious relations, you’re going to create this vacuum. And in time people will exploit that vacuum, and that’s really what I’m seeing. I just want to come in and try and be a voice in there, so that people don’t feel as if the only voices they’re hearing are the ones on racist Subreddits. That’s why it’s important to not turn your back.
What did you set out to do once the touring for The Future’s Void was over? Last time we spoke, you told me The Future’s Void was the Dark Second Chapter, and the next record was going to be The Redemption.
I was so wrecked at the end of the Past Life touring cycle, I was just in this weird exile. I feel I make better art when I’m a little bit off the radar for a minute and having the possibility open to try various sorts of mediums and shows. My touring for The Future’s Void wasn’t as crazy as it was during Past Life Martyred Saints. But then I also got to do these different type of shows that really helped my artistic process, if that makes any sense. These hybrid installation performances… I did one at the Barbican and another one at PS1 MoMa. These shows were insanely helpful for my writing because I didn’t have to go ‘be a band’ and play a bunch of new songs. I was happy doing only weird shows. Which is also the environment I came from before I released Past Life Martyred Saints. Shows that had an element of improvisation, I don’t know, ‘art stuff’ – oh my God, that’s not going to look good in print – let’s just say, a more free-form show than a regular rock set.
What kind of shows or installations are we talking about?
The first one’s called ‘I Wanna Destroy’, which had a virtual reality component. I did that one a few years ago, so VR-tech was pretty new back then. But I knew this guy in town who was working in it. From my end, I recreated this version of my shitty living room – I didn’t even know it was my living room at first. I was like ‘Oh, I’m just going to recreate this space; what would be a generic American space? A beige carpet, slit blinds on the windows, a couch, a coffee table. But beyond that, the room looked not really well-cared for. It’s an apartment, basically what my own apartment would look like. I’m not that big on homemaking, I don’t decorate that well, I kind of don't give a fuck. I’m a little bit nihilistic about my homemaking. Okay, I’m getting off track here… so anyway, we built a version of that into the virtual reality space as well. I did a long-form song cycle narrative and a short narrative that was the VR, in a way so they connected. I was able to sift through a lot of different ideas, explore a lot of different material. A lot of those ideas ended up becoming a song on Exile In The Outer Ring.
So it’s kind of the way you worked before Past Life as part of Gowns, right? There is one Gowns song on there, ‘Always Bleeds’.
Yeah, definitely, I find that to be very fertile ground, to be able to do these things, to have that freedom to experiment. It’s not like the museum shows had lower stakes or anything. But they were long, these were durational performances. In New York, I was performing for like four or five hours straight by myself. It was me with my computer, my microphone, and my guitar. Those are the tools at my disposal to create something interesting that’s four hours long.
That in itself has its own set of challenges, which are different from the challenges of playing a really tight 45-minute set. Because of the time I had, I was able to take more musical risks. And I really enjoyed that. I did something similar at the Barbican and I also did a four-hour durational at Moog Fest. I had to stay sober during the whole thing, although I don’t drink a lot. But it’s good for me; I do well when I get thrown into different situations where I don’t always have to be the head of a rock band.
I’m pleased to hear that you enjoy it. People often describe your music as either impactful, abrasive, topical or angst-laden. That sense of relish debunks the whole tortured artist label.
That’s the thing, though: you’ve met me before. I'm actually very playful. The big frustration is that no one understands when I’m making a joke, or realizing the sense of humor in my music. But yeah, I love doing those things, playing those shows was really fun. Sometimes, I can get a little tortured artist-y if I do too many sets in a row! (laughs)
You interviewed your hero William Gibson. He was keen to point out the things he got wrong, instead of recounting the more prescient observations. I wonder if you have that about your records too. Are their certain aspects or situations that you regret engaging with, ‘missteps’ that still brought you insight in retrospect?
Yeah, I think about The Future’s Void sometimes, how I knew I was going to get shit for some of the language that I used on it. I thought it was cool and funny, but it was either ‘too soon’ or people were like: ‘NO! Don’t put that in a song.’ So I’m wondering, should I have done that? The things I was talking about ended up being true, I felt. People have been thinking a lot about it since then. Things like Data Mining, AI, the fact that economies are collapsing and it’s extremely hard to get paid for choosing the arts. And what the limits of privacy online are. All that kind of stuff that... well, the whole record wasn’t even entirely about those things! But it kind of hijacked the conversation. At the time those things didn’t make super sense to people.
It started an elaborate conversation. Ultimately, that’s what you want to achieve with a record, right?
Yeah, I like being part of a conversation and The Future’s Void brought me around to doing digital arts stuff and that in turn veered me towards doing some of these museum shows. I can’t really hate on that, ‘cause I got to do work that was extremely important and fun for me.
Using words like ‘interwebs’ and ‘selfies’, I always enjoyed that you apply language in songs that seems feasible to everyday encounters. I hear it in spades on Exile In The Outer Ring.
You mean language that feels kind of common? Well, the best example on this record is the lyric: “I’m in the back seat of the Camry”. Do you have Toyota Camrys over there in Rotterdam? Well, it’s not exactly an awesome car. It’s like the most generic, basic car type, a suburban vehicle. It’s Japanese, it’s Toyota. It’s not a sexy amazing car, so Camry is a word that doesn’t generally end up in songs. That’s my favorite example.
Do you feel there’s a responsibility to be upheld in making art, making movies or making music? Has pop culture contributed to that landscape of disconnect? Should it be more self-aware?
I think diversity in voices is very important. I always feel I have to make work that isn’t represented enough. Whether it’s the Midwest, the Outer Ring, alienation, non-glamorous lifestyles… especially now I'm going for the non-glamorous life myself. Most of my Instagram account doesn’t feature my image. But wait... what was the question again?
Should pop culture, with its tremendous influence on Western society, be held more accountable for its digressions? Or have an – I hate this word – obligation? There’s not a lot of positive signals, other than the trite ‘hero saves the day’ cliché.
As I look at pop culture and the way money is distributed, what projects have the economical breadth to reach the worldwide masses, whose tastes and interest do they reflect? I feel that’s especially true in the art world. And in many ways, that’s why I keep coming back to music, because it’s more populist. But what would be an example?
Like Black Mirror. The majority of the episodes have such bleak endings, it kind of underlines the sheer cynicism, the helpless disconnect we were speaking about earlier. It’s more about plausibility, less about possibility.
I mean, I always write for a feeling of redemption in myself. And by doing so I hope a lot of listeners find it too. My work is often categorized as dystopian and harrowing and all this stuff. But there’s always redemption. There’s something redeeming about someone articulating problems that haven’t been articulated before. To look at a piece of art and recognize your own story within it. Which is maybe why I like to keep things prosaic and keep the language sort of commonplace. Because I want to reflect a common experience.
This records feels like you’re seeking people out again. Is Exile In The Outer Ring a record of empathy?
Yeah sure, I kind of kept it a little more low-key than Past Life Martyred Saints. I had a lot more time on my hands. Success can really alienate you from people. Especially for me, I don’t want to feel that alienation. I feel the experience of living, in this generic apartment, feeling broke, feeling alienated… I don’t know. I just took some time off to live a ‘normal’ life, because I feel that’s where my best art comes from. To have a time out of – I don’t want to say ‘spotlight’ – but time to be your normal self and do normal things. And that’s my main thing: I want to put out good work. If I had to choose between getting more exposure or making good art, I will always pick the latter. Because in the end, that’s what heals me.
I feel like you want to reach out to all the disconnected people with this record.
Yeah... it is so hard. I do want to reach out to those people in some ways. I mean, this material was written way before this last election cycle started, but even then I was picking up on a tension and resentment against what could be considered the “liberal elite” or the “coastal elite”. But I do get frustrated with people who still stick with Donald Trump and try to defend him somehow. It’s a challenge for me to remain empathic. But I feel it’s important to break down stereotypes; just because you live in a rural place and you don’t necessarily identify with the liberal culture it doesn’t mean you have to accept the politics that will ultimately end up being harmful to you. I want to tell them there’s another way, you can still resonate with all the themes present on this record: feeling alienated, poverty, lack of economic opportunities, distrust of authority. You can still resonate to those things, but there’s another way to announce your displeasure and voting against your best interest. Or giving in to your prejudice and feeding prejudice against other people who are different from you. You can still identify with the outer ring. But other cultures are amazing, and I want to present a different model than what the stereotypes represent. You can be both these things, they are not mutually exclusive; you can be open-minded and pissed off by the way the country is run.
About ‘I Wanna Destroy’; if you didn’t have that creative outlet, do you think you might have acted out in a different way? Music and art can be a vessel for a lot of extreme emotions and thoughts, and if someone doesn’t have that, they might instead vandalize a bus stop or break bottles or something.
Hmm. I mean, I myself have kind of acted out in different ways throughout my life! ‘I Wanna Destroy’ is just really about not caring. There’s a tension, a disconnect between the explosiveness in the lyrics and the calmness of the vocal delivery. I’ve been thinking a lot about nihilism, I sometimes think to myself: ‘Why am I so nihilistic?’ Why don’t I want to clean my house or go out, or make money? In the end, I barely care about anything besides art. I’m trying to change that because that’s not always the best way to live. But I would rather be working on music right now than clean up my house. Which is cool, but it’s also like this noise ethos, so sometimes I have this thousand yard stare. ‘I Wanna Destroy’ is really about not giving a fuck about anything around you. Staring like a thousand feet into the horizon and just be like: I don’t fucking care. There’s nothing here for me.
Does that breed empathy though, the idea that you can explore those nihilistic feelings in your work?
Well, I definitely feel that making music helped me process things and heal from things. I can identify what people in different circumstances are going through, so I imagine when you don’t have another outlet. I mean in the Midwest you break bottles out of nowhere all the time. People would throw TV’s off balconies, all that shit. People can get destructive. Sometimes out of anger but sometimes, it’s just feeling as if nothing fucking matters. There’s one thing where people get angry and break stuff but also this almost casual nihilism. ‘I Wanna Destroy’ is about the feeling we’re all arbitrary.
People have no reason to trust authority with the news of police brutality and fatal shootings, subjects you yourself addressed on ‘Active Shooter’. They distrust that idea too.
That’s an interesting point about trust. Some people feel anger, but some people simply don’t care; they think it’s all funny. The Outer Ring represents this feeling of disconnect, it’s kind of like an estuary between what would be city centres. I don’t know what’s going on in Europe right now, but in America, the city centres are being quote-unquote ‘revitalized’, which really means they are becoming less affordable. So you’re pushing all the people who are economically marginalized out. Of course, race is a big factor in that. In the suburbs, there’s this idea that things used to be about white America, right now they’re much more diverse and much poorer. That brushing up to people who live in rural America who have a factory job, and those factories are closing, they had to move in closer to the city. So what does that look like? When you use the term ‘inner city’, they used to mean a poor neighborhood. Nowadays it means: 'I’ll never be able to afford an apartment there.' And I think the reason why I can empathize, is because I still have a little bit of that resentment towards wealth or ostentatious things.
When I walk around certain cities past some cute boutique clothing store or overpriced brunch spot, I’m still the Midwesterner that thinks: ‘Fuck that place.’ So I can understand the rage. But what I struggle to understand is voting for someone who is transparently a con man, a misogynist, racist… I don’t even want to use those words because they get thrown around so much that they’ve become almost meaningless. I think there’s a lot of anger towards what they would call “coastal elites”; people posting their lunch on Instagram are as much to blame for what’s happening politically as anything else. People who are not even thinking about it, like: ‘Look at my beautiful life, look at this money, look at my clothes, look at what I eat…” and on the other side, people are starving, they don't have jobs, we don’t have that kind of money. “I’m voting for Trump, fuck you.” It’s full of class resentment, but then again, that also gets twisted. People blame stuff on other people who have a lot in common with them, even though they don’t look like them.
When Past Life Martyred Saintswas released, you were still used to playing house shows. It was a shock to perform what you’d call a ‘professional set’. You told stories about inadvertently hurling guitars at people's heads and feeling like you’d failed. Do you now own up to situations where you can be open and honest as a performer, instead of catering to general expectations and keep that shock factor in check?
This time I want to put together a three-piece band, which is what Gowns was as well. It’s hard to say because I’ve been playing these experimental museum shows and doing whatever I want the past two years. By now, I kind of feel like putting together a tight band again to play club shows. But of course, I want to keep the possibility open to perform these non-traditional gigs. That’s the thing: I have a lot of flexibility! There are so many different types of venues. I can deal with fucked up punk club sound systems, I can play on the floor at a gallery. I can play for four fucking hours solo. I can do a spoken word ambient set. The other year I even a fronted a band for a friend’s wedding. So I can do all this shit! I realize the nature of touring, and I realize I’m not always going to be able to change completely and do what people expect.
Well, for one, your confidence in yourself as a performer has changed. I’m happy to hear that.
It just wasn’t the culture I had been in the ten years prior. I’ve played DIY spaces and warehouses. The concept of doing club shows was almost alien to me. Now I know what to do, we’re gonna be tight this time. I want to be tight! But they should book me doing weird shit as well.
Compared to the other two EMA records, the songs on Exile In The Outer Ring sound sonically cohesive, as if they’re part of the same anatomy.
Part of that is having Jake (Portrait, co-producer, ed.) from Unknown Mortal Orchestra rangle all the sounds together, running everything through his board and equipment. The songs do fit together and tell a story. I’m really proud of this record. To be perfectly honest, Past Life Martyred Saints did better than The Future’s Void… but for me artistically, having that time off, that diversity of experiences and performances, all those things I got to do. Sometimes when your ego wants the fame or recognition, it doesn’t always mean you’re going to be in a better place to make art. You’re not always going to be as grounded. And being a weird exile, without as much high expectation to follow up Past Life, that’s better for me as an artist. So yeah, I’m feeling stoked!
Exile In The Outer Ring will be released 25 August via City Slang. You can listen to all episodes of Erika M. Anderson's radio show Mystery Language here.