5 March 2014


Photography by Eleonora C. Collini

Let me start by simply saying that Erika M. Anderson rocks. After beginning her music career as guitarist in the experimental outfit Amps for Christ, in 2006 she founded the drone-folk band Gowns with her then-boyfriend Ezra Buchla, to then disband it and start her solo project EMA 4 years later. Following the home-recorded Little Sketches on Tape, her stunning debut studio album Past Life Martyred Saints came out in 2011. Relying on poignant, provocative lyrics, caustically dense soundscapes and electronic, noise experimentation, her music reveals a constant preoccupation with the authenticity of emotional expression at all levels.

We first meet in London for a photo shoot in her hotel in Hackney, but we are both too busy to also squeeze in a proper interview, so we arrange a skype call a week later. We chat about her love for art and the urge to constantly try different things, we laugh about the fact that she didn't have a plan B in case things hadn't worked out for her, and we discuss her highly anticipated sophomore album, The Future’s Void which is coming out on the 7th April and of which she seems very proud. Erika in person is like her music: beautiful, candid, witty, authentic.

The new record was produced with the help of Leif Shackelford (who also collaborated with her on Past Life Martyred Saints) in Portland where Erika now lives. “I would go down to the studio in the basement, write the melody and the lyrics, something that usually comes pretty quickly,"she says, "then Leif and I would go through it and pick different synth tones, trying a bunch of different ideas. “ She’s quite the perfectionist so mixing usually takes her a while. “Picking out the absolute perfect mix of synthesizers, deciding what you want the drums to sound like, how much compression to put on things and what effects to throw on there, they all take a long time.”

Past Life Martyred Saints was highly praised and mainly received very positive reviews, so understandingly Erika was feeling a lot of pressure while making this new album and therefore tried to do something different, exploring other sides of her personality. “It’s hard to come back from a record like that and produce something that’s going to make everybody happy. I knew it was going to be impossible to replicate that feeling of obscurity, naivety and freedom that went into Past Life Martyred Saints, and if I had tried to do that I think it would have been very contrived and false. So I went towards other things that were interesting to me. I just tried to explore other skills as an artist and expand my palette. “ The result is something that sounds more mature, sonically richer, more melodic and less abrasive.

For this record Erika played a lot more with electronics though she tried to use them in a way that felt right for her. “Lots of electronic music is very beat-based, it’s on a grid and you can use tons of loops", she points out. "We didn’t really use any loops though, we were still on Pro Tools so we used electronics but in a way that had a bit more of human interaction. For instance I would throw a lot of different sounds like electronic drums and Leif would play the actual drums. Then sometimes we would maybe fix some of that a little, but other times we would just leave it with a bit of flaw to keep it a little more human, using soft synths, atmospheres and also working with some analog synthesizers, like an Eurorack modular synthesizer which does small things that you can touch in multiple different ways. And that was really fun!”

Lyrically The Future’s Void is still quite autobiographical, with songs such as “3jane” being very personal and intense. “I was just taking my own personal experience of being someone very private and obscure. With Past Life Martyred Saints I was feeling a bit more exposure which is weird for me and I felt a bit ambivalent about it.” But on this record Erika also sings more about universal themes such as our interaction with the world and how that has been increasingly modified by technology. “It was something I wasn’t expect people to talk about but now everybody seems to want to discuss that!”, she laughs. “When I was alone in my basement in Portland trying to stay off internet, a lot of those subjects seemed almost taboo. I didn’t intend to make this record super topical or anything, so I am still a bit surprised at how topical it actually seems now.”

Lyrics have always been very important for her. “If I am listening to a song whose lyrics are terrible I just can’t enjoy it. Sometimes I am shocked at how little thought seems to be put into lyrics or how obviously false some lyrics are. That’s a personal choice but I am more drawn towards things that are rooted in someone’s actual experience so that you can sort of believe the person who’s telling you things. Though there are also a lot of people that don’t listen to lyrics, but just music, especially people for whom English is not the first language so it’s harder for them to catch all the nuances and the double meanings. Touring around the world opened my eyes to that. That’s why I tried to make this record a little bit more musical so that people from both sides can enjoy it.”

Erika directs/co-directs her videos as well. She points out that “directing” may not be the right word as she still has a lot to learn. “My approach is usually shooting a bunch of stuff and then editing them later, creating something from it at a later stage”. The video for the first single “Satellites” is quite arty and futuristic, a sort of basement-punk take on low-budget ’80s sci-fi.  “A lot of friends collaborated to that. I have mixed feelings about it, there are some things I wish we could have done better. There are always things that I wish I had done and things I wish I hadn’t done. It’s a bit difficult for me to zoom out and see things for what they are.”
The new video for “No Blonde” has a totally different vibe, featuring her driving around Venice Beach in a Jim Morrison t-shirt. “It came together at the very last minute and was shot in just one day", she tells me. "I just had this idea of blonde celebrity, a blonde woman as the image of colonialism, and I wanted to discuss that in the video. I think it turned out much better than if I had tried to make a heavy video. You can enjoy it on multiple levels, you can just see it as a critique of things or you can just see it as something funny.”

The Future’s Void also represents a step forwards on bigger labels. Past Life Martyred Saints was released on Berlin-based Souterrain Transmissions. In Europe she’s now with City Slang but she’s still working with Krista Schmidt who ran Souterrain Transmissions and who is her manager now. “It’s still a close family, Krista has been such a supporter and such a fan. I knew her as she used to work at City Slang actually which is like a parent company of Souterrain. In Europe it doesn’t feel like things have changed as I am still working with the same people.” Things are quite different in the States though as she’s now with Matador, something very exciting for her. “That’s a great support but it’s a new thing and I am still figuring out what the differences are, but it feels great!”

EMA’s music has been classified as many different things from drone pop to noise rock, punk and experimental folk, but in fact it doesn’t really fall into any proper genre. “I am terrible at classifying my music", she reveals. "When people ask me what kind of music I do it’s very difficult for me. I like it when there is a sort of socio-political history behind things that makes it feels as if it was a sort of movement, like UK punk, Pacific North West DIY, West Coast hip-hop, and that speaks a lot about conditions, origins and the people that were there, which is pretty interesting. But to me just saying 'punk' in a purely aesthetic way is not something that works very well for the music I am making. I do like the fact that people understand genres though. You can take genres, play with them, mash them up and get a kind of different political meaning."

I ask her if she can pick an album that changed her life and she tells me that’s probably the first John Frusciante's solo record, Niandra LaDes and Usually Just a T-shirt. “It’s funny as I don’t listen to it that often, but the things he did on it like playing a version of one song that would stop and then another version of the same song would come just after, that completely broke down the rules of composition, and I think that had a great impact on me.”

But there is so much more that inspires Erika than just music. Especially for this record she was way more influenced by literature and art. “I have never studied the history of art but have been trying to teach myself about it. Painting is such a limited medium, it’s 2D, only visual, but there have been so many movements with their manifestos saying what to do and not to do, which is awesome and I feel the same about music too. So yeah in some abstract way I think the history of painting is so interesting and inspiring.” She believes that today people are excited to hear new different things especially from women. “A lot of critics have been very supportive of a woman that is really interested in production, history, art and in building her own world. But at the same time I think that in general women as musicians should keep up on technology more so that they can soft produce to open up more and create a new sonic palette.”

Erika is originally from South Dakota, something that somehow has had an impact on her music. “It’s a very Scandinavian heritage type of place, though we never ended up getting all the oil wealth that Scandinavia countries got", she explains. "But it’s not judgmental, people there are actually quite open-minded. It kind of discourages a lust for things such as money, ambition, power, fame which other places have accepted as goals, so you have to make your idea of what the meaning of life is. And there isn’t a lot around, it’s just a flat land with huge sky! So you keep asking yourself what is the purpose of your life, it’s a like a big long existential crisis! But that also encourages a lot of great stuff to come out of it.”

A few years ago Erika relocated to California Bay area with her then-boyfriend and Gowns bandmate Ezra Buchla, to then move to Los Angeles and finally Portland where she still is at the moment. I like to think of cities as people with distinctive personalities, so I ask her if out of all the places she has lived in there is one she has felt the most connected to or if there is any other she believes that could be more suitable for her. “For some reason I tend to be into the second biggest city, not necessarily the capital. For instance instead of Amsterdam I would live in Rotterdam, instead of Berlin I would go to Leipzig. And it’s the same even with neighbours within the city, like when I was in Los Angeles I wasn’t in Hollywood or the West Side, and when I moved to the Bay area I was in Oakland.” She seems to like the idea of moving around a lot and picking up as many different cultures as possible. “I think I can be pretty adaptable. Every time I go to a new place I am open to the geography of it. With this record for instance I’ve been able to understand a lot of the Pacific North West mentality. It’s easy for me to pick up influences but also stay true to myself. “

EMA is still surprised that she stuck with making music for such a long amount of time. She doesn’t seem hungry for fame or recognition as much as she’s hungry to make statements and to make art that’s inspiring to her. “That’s what keeps me motivated. There is always something more I want to do or say.” She was a substitute teacher for years and right before Past Life Martyred Saints came out, she was pretty much ready to quit music, thinking that she had failed at that and had to do something new though she didn’t exactly know what, but she was just going to move back into her parents’ basement. “ I didn’t have a plan B", she candidly admits. "I think it’s a very difficult time right now for people to make a plan, it used to be that people had a plan like going to a law school and become a lawyer, but now in the States in many cases you would end up without a job and with a big debt. It’s very hard to pick a winning situation and security these days, as it doesn’t exist in the same fashion. The other option for me would have probably been going to grad school but I saw a lot of people coming out of that with thousands of dollars of debt”. We are glad things have worked out for her! “For now yes but maybe at some point I will have to go back and do something else!”.

Touring for Past Life Martyred Saints was kind of stressful for Erika as she didn’t have the time to put a
band together before the album took off. “I had come from a very different background of shows which were more DIY, you know when the sound isn’t that good, you are in a small space, so it’s a sort of physical performance that has to do with a lot of risk taking, energy, interplay between members and maybe even some destructions. I tried to take that kind of punk rock experimental underground background to some places where it didn’t feel right. If you are on a big stage where people are away from you the same thing doesn’t work as they just want to hear the song and you have to play it well." So for a while touring was a bit frustrating because she knew what she could do and how to throw a show, make it bizarre and even risk failure, but that wasn’t always what the audience wanted. “It’s very hard when you can only take some of what you have learnt with you but most of it is wrong. So I had to go back and work on sounding actually good. I am working on it now and I think the next tour is going to be a lot stronger musically than it was when we came out with the last record." That sounds quite promising and exciting!

Next week she’s heading to SXSW, before embarking on a quite extensive tour. She’s playing the following dates in UK:

03.06 London, UK - The Garage
04.06 Manchester, UK - Deaf Institute
05.06 Leeds, UK - Brudnell Social Club
06.06 Bristol, UK - The Lantern

Originally published on The 405

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