EMA interview: "It's the feeling of rage that you have inside you, but you're not yelling, you're just staring off into space."
Erika M. Anderson has been making music as EMA since the dissolution of her DIY duo Gowns. She garnered immediate praise for her confessional debut solo album Past Life Martyred Saints, and that only pushed her to experiment further and test her audience on follow-up The Future's Void.
This week EMA releases her third album, Exile In The Outer Ring, an album that flickers between the deeply personal and the intensely psychotic - all over beds of deliciously deep analog synthesizers. We had a chance to catch up with Erika when she was in London over the summer, to discuss how this album came to be, theoretically and practically.
Let's talk about the title of your new album, Exile In The Outer Ring - in which the "Outer Ring" refers to the suburbs - was that a term you came up with yourself?
Yeah. It was me and a friend were driving around - he probably said it actually - the suburbs of Portland. Kind of in search of culture actually.
What kind of culture were you hoping to find?
Something that’s not the cutesy things you see now in the city centre. It was like “let's go out here and check out where real people live.”
Judging from the lyrics on this record, what you discovered very pleasant?
Well I was already writing these songs before I thought of what the term “the outer ring” is. The songs are personal; it's not like I'm trying to write in characters. I mean, a little bit, but it's not a concept record where there’s [an overarching narrative].
Coming from South Dakota originally, do you still feel like a suburban person or a small town person?
You know, I'm ambivalent, because on the one hand I'm like “ooh you got a kale smoothie that sounds great,” and on the other hand I'm like “I hate it when fancy coffee shops take over everywhere.” There's definitely a part of me that feels more at home in suburban places. I think the thing is that they're kind of aesthetically neutral; they have chain stores, things like that. I definitely feel at home there.
And why “Exile”?
I mean that's a question that I don't even know the answer to! I just kind of like self-exiled for a while. I think part of it was I'd been really active in a community in Oakland, kind of like a noise, experimental, warehouse, DIY stuff, and then kind of the success of [the debut EMA album] Past Life Martyred Saints and moving to Portland threw me out of balance I guess. Then yeah, I dunno, I just kind of hermited away as a recluse for a little while.
The spot that I was living was not really built up. The city has kind of grown up around where I live. It wasn't far out, but it wasn't a desirable neighbourhood. And since I've been living there there's been fancy grocery stores that have moved in. But the apartment itself still feels very what I would consider “outer ring.” You know I'm just making all this stuff up, and I'm just exploring it myself, so it's not like there's these rules. So I'm figuring it out through the process of making the record and then talking to people about it. So this interview is definitely part of the process.
Cool! Let's go back to the start of the process. Was the 'I Wanna Destroy' art installation at MoMA PS1 in 2015 where this started?
I think kind of. I mean, I wrote 'Aryan Nation' three years ago, and then I kinda had 'I Wanna Destroy' just in my mind, but being asked to do these art installations was really really helpful for me and it made me put it all together. It was just a great way of writing. The first time I did it I was performing for like four hours, so I had a lot of time to fill and it didn't have to be as action-packed as a show the whole time, so I could improvise. I was playing solo so I could feel the mood or energy of the crowd, and make decisions based on that. Yeah it was great, it was really really helpful.
Did that help you towards the concept of the album, or did that come later?
It was just a step, I wasn't really thinking about the next record, which was nice y’know? Because that's in some ways what my old process was [before the success]. Like having to write The Future's Void but not being able to go out and play many low-profile shows - I don't think it was helpful, I don't think that process is good for me. I think the process that's good for me is being able to do new things. So I had a bunch of material because I did the PS1 show, I did this show at New Museum, so I was learning all this technology, I was learning how to play it by myself. For the New Museum one there was like a 40-minute piano piece and some vocals that came out of that. So I had some stuff to choose from.
Do you think you'll be able to do that kind of thing in your upcoming live shows?
I don't know! I'd like to do that! I think this first time around I'm gonna do a proper club tour, but I would also love to be able to do some weirder artier shows. Someone told me "you can't do that, it's a terrible idea." I'm like "don't you wanna go see a different sort of show?" I do, anyway.
Let's talk about the individual songs on the album. It starts with '7 Years', is this kind of a resurrection?
Yeah I think so. I played it for a friend and she was like "this sounds so healing," and I was like "yeah, I think it is." Someone pointed out to me that all my records start with static or noise, which I didn't realise, but I feel like it's comforting. I don't know why but I think it coming up slowly and just washing over you is a nice introduction.
'Breathalyzer' is next, I think it's my favourite song. You've made such a distinct atmosphere with the production, did you know it was always going to sound so big or did it develop?
Thank you! I love that song too. The only thing I had at first was the melody and the lyrics, [sings] "he wanted me to blow the breathalyzer." I think originally when I was doing it for these museum shows it was all soft synths, and I don't think it had the synth solos. I was playing with the delay on there, that I think you can kind of hear in the final version, but basically once we got the analogue synths and the modular in there, that's when it really elevated. And I wanted those drums too! I worked on the drums, then I had soft synth of the drone and kind of like a narrative. Yeah then putting the modular synth - that was sick! I have a 30-minute version of it that's just like the modular solos going, and I could just listen to that!
It's the longest song on here at six and a half minutes, it just extends through all that modular fun...
Yeah and that was even cut down. Even [producer] Jake [Portrait] was like "maybe we should cut it down to like 3 minutes," and I'm like "hell no. Those modular synths are my babies. You can't..."
Was this album recorded in a studio?
I tracked basically all of it in my apartment, but then I took it to a studio with Jake. And there's a few more things that were recorded, but the majority of it was tracked by me at home.
How much did you do with Jake?
That's such a good question. It seemed like we just sat and bullshitted all day every day - which was great, it was really fun. No, he did a bunch, he really made the sound. I think I have good ideas and a lot of opinions on sounds, but he can make it big, like real music. It's hard for me to get it really sounding like it's not made on a computer. Then he also did stuff like he wrote the bridge on 'Blood and Chalk'. I'm sure he did a ton that I don't even totally realise. But yeah the songs' structures and ideas, I made a lot of, but then he really understands mixes and sound in a way that I don't have the experience to.
'I Wanna Destroy' is next; is this the purest essence of what the feeling on the album is? What is that feeling and where does it come from?
I think so, probably. I think it's kind of a feeling of alienation, being really stuck, not having access to things and feeling kind of nihilistic. But it's not raging, it's like at this point you know even raging won't do any good. This feels like the person who gets really quiet before they get really mad. Even though the words could be theatrical, but it actually keeps itself pretty contained. It's just like the feeling that you have inside you, but you're not yelling, you're just staring off into space.
Do you remember the impetus for 'I Wanna Destroy'?
Sometimes I'll get stuff in my head while I'm doing dishes, because I just feel like shit. Because you know like when you're an artist, you look like you're not doing anything and you can feel like you're not doing anything, and it's really a shitty feeling. It's another day of “am I wasting my life? What is going on? Is this totally stupid?” I think it's a kind of mantra of the record in a way, but it's not loud.
Tell me about 'Blood and Chalk', what is that image? What is it about?
That one I wrote when I was doing the soundtrack for #HORROR, and it was kind of different in the movie - you wouldn't be able to recognise it from the movie becuase it got a makeover. When I wrote it I thought it was about being a teenage girl, or a girl about to go into her teens. But then, Jake was like "I thought you were talking about a police shooting," and that kinda blew my mind because the lyrics actually fit completely perfectly with that. I wrote it really really fast, so I'm wondering if something like that could have been in my mind.
There are more lyrics about judgement on this one, as there are on the first track, are these judgemental forces like god and the devil big influences?
I think here it's more just judgement by your peers. Something that really affected me and I think.... It's like when you read the story of Kurt Cobain coming out of the Olympia scene and feeling so embarrassed about being this huge success. If you don't wanna care you feel like you're gonna be judged by people anyway. And I'll tell you something, a lot of times women can be even harsher judges of other women. I had a fear that I'd be judged by the community and then also online, and it's kind of dumb because I should not really give a fuck, but it's still like something that bothers me, I guess.
I guess that plays into 'Down and Out', which is the next track, and is about fighting back. Were you at one of those moments when you wrote this?
Oh yeah, not necessarily feeling judged, but just feeling like I'm not making any money. It's really hard because there's so little money in music and art, especially if you wanna do what you wanna do. I feel like I've consistently made the decision - especially with this record - to make the music I wanna make, even if it's not very commercial. But that's not always an easy thing, you're often like “should I do something else with my life?” Especially when you see all this stuff, with the city centres changing so much, it's a lot of tech stuff - and advertising is huge in Portland. So to be a person sticking to trying to write songs or something and you're broke, you just feel fucking pathetic.
I'm sure many people have said that 'Down And Out' is the poppiest song you've done?
That's what people say! It's just very bare... I thought 'Fire Water Air LSD' was the most [immediate], but I guess the lyrics are too crazy in that one.
Let's talk about 'Fire Water Air LSD', basically what I want to know is - what is going on here?
There's so many weird things going on in that song. It's kind of like a Guns'n'Roses rip off - but like several different songs, but it doesn't really sound like it. That's a secret! It's like the feeling of a county fair. I remember I was with my friend who lives in a small town in California, we were at a demolition derby, where cars just run into each other and smash each other up. I was like "'Paradise City' is gonna come on," and it did come on right after that! So there's a bit of that, and then remembering being a teenager and going to these trashy fairs is also in there. But then there's a bunch of narrative strains.
You have this cool spoken word, voice modulated part where you're saying like "sun bleached to the point of sun damage/ all vices are inherently unsustainable," and a lot more. Why did you add that to the mix?
I don't know! I just like it. I like doing spoken word stuff like that.
In ‘Fire Water Air LSD’ there’s also the California desert vibe, there's some weird cults out there, so I'm thinking of that in some ways. There's this documentary about the Manson girls, and there's this scene in there where one of them's got a gun, and she starts singing "if you want it, here it is, come and get it," and that's just burned into my mind like “what the fuck,” and that's also in there. There's a story about the Hindu god Hanuman who's a monkey god who goes up and tries to reach the sun because he thinks it's a mango, and another god comes and smacks him down and he breaks his jaw. In most western interpretations it would be “see, you shouldn't do that," but the way I heard it was "if you're gonna go for something really big, you're gonna get little damaged," and that's something that really resonated with me. So yeah, lot of stuff in there!
In 'Receive Love', you sing "Angel, why you gotta be so tough?" - is that you talking to yourself?
I had a boyfriend that used to say that to me. And I did have to be tough, coming from South Dakota and hanging out with crazy dudes all the time. In South Dakota I didn't even know what the word "misogynist," I didn't even know what it meant until far too late. But hanging out there and putting up with a bunch of shit, and being really tough - in order to get respect you have to be tougher - so I did get really tough. So when I moved to California everyone's like "whoa." I just assumed that all guys thought women were less-than, and that the art wasn't as good, so I always felt like I had something to prove. Then later people were like "you don't have to be this hard, this tough," but it took me a while to learn that. I'm probably still too tough in certain situations, but there's a good part to being tough.
Especially in world where all your work's gonna be criticised...
Yeah, I probably wouldn't have written a song like '33, Nihilistic and Female' if I wasn't like "fuck it."
In 'Always Bleeds' you sing "take the train to San Francisco / 500 miles on Halloween…”
So half those lyrics were written by Ezra [Buchla]; this is originally a Gowns song. I went back to it because I love that guitar riff; I wrote that guitar riff and I was like "man, this song's so good. I really wanna remake the guitar riff and remake all the guitars." It's different than how we used to do it. There's maybe one really really early recording of it before we even had drums, that's just like Ezra on a mandolin through some processing and me on the guitar, and that's floating around. But then I wrote the last stanza for this version. When I asked him if I could do this he didn't really say much, he was just like "sure." It wasn't a long conversation.
So the verse about "the cave in Okinawa" you wrote. That's quite different to the rest of the album, definitely takes you out of the "outer ring."
That's about my grandfather. He was in World War II; he was just an 18 year old kid from the farm. By the time he got over to Japan the war was basically over, Japan had officially surrendered, but some people living in caves would rather have died than surrendered, so the army had to go in and deal with that. And he never really talked about it until late in life, and he took all the shit that made him feel really insane and just kinda never talked about it until he was like 70 or something.
And the album finishes with 'Where The Darkness Began', did you always know it would be a spoken word thing?
A lot of the stuff on here has musical influences, but I also read a lot. A lot of long-form journalism or current events - a wide breadth of things. This was just a... I just went down and said it all, I didn't write it, and it got a bit edited, but I just did a long spoken word piece, just improvising, after reading a piece in the Washington Post called 'American Void', which is just mind-blowing. So it just came after that. And I tried a lot of different background of how it would work. I thought it was going to be the first track on the album, but then I also really liked '7 Years', so I thought maybe 'Where The Darkness Began' wouldn't be on the record. But then Christoff [Ellinghaus], who's the City Slang head dude who's great - very honest, very good at giving feedback - was like "just put it last." And I was like, oh my god, mind-blowing idea!
What were you feeling when you were doing that improvisation?
I was just in a trance almost. I wasn't really thinking; it's the only way you can sometimes do these improvisations. I wasn't thinking of anything; I was just really in the zone. You should look up that piece, I was really just under the spell of it.
Overall Exile In The Outer Ring moves away from the themes of technology that were so big on The Future's Void; was that a conscious decision?
What happened on the last record is that I wasn't really in a space. Exile is very much in a geographical place, in a domestic space. But after Past Life Martyred Saints I had just gone through this really crazy experience of being all over the internet press, it was totally new to me. And The Future's Void was my experience from that. That's another reason why I think I wanted to take some time and do these different sorts of shows. You just get a limited experience if you're like actually doing well and touring a bunch. There's a joke about techno DJs how the only thing they talk about is airports - but that's because that's all you have.
So after The Future's Void I didn't want to tour as much, I wanted to do these different art things. And I think that's really healthy for me as an artist to have varied experiences. The experiences that went into writing The Future's Void were ones that people can't really relate to - the same with the techno DJs. I think that record people really didn't understand it as much. I think some of the stuff I was talking about then people would understand now, or if it had come out a year or two later. I mean, when I was putting it out cyber-punk wasn't back, it was a little bit pre-that.
And virtual reality hasn't been as quick on the uptake as you might have thought. I think it's definitely still the future though.
Really? I kind of don't care anymore.
Finally, you mentioned that what you read has an influence on your music, so any book recommendations?
One of the books that I really loved when I was making this record was Preparation For The Next Life by Atticus Lish. It's fiction, it's very much built like an “outer ring” story. It's really well done.
EMA's new album Exile In The Outer Ring will be released tomorrow through City Slang.
This article was originally published on The 405 - 24th August 2017.