Erika M. Anderson, who on stage uses her initials EMA as her moniker, released her debut solo album Past Life Martyred Saints earlier this summer. The heartbreaking album struggles with reidentification and the idea of home, both important issues to Anderson after the flame-out of her last band, the long-running but relatively unheralded Gowns. We sat down to speak with Erika before her set Pitchfork Music Fest yesterday.
So, when you were with Gowns it was a slower rise. Now, you’ve done one album as EMA and it’s blown up. Do you feel vindicated by going solo? Do you feel like people should have been paying more attention to Gowns?
Erika M. Anderson: I do feel like there could have been more support for Gowns. I feel like at some point we kind of outgrew the things we were doing. But we also had an anti-success thing going on. We didn’t work with booking agents, publicists, whatever. We didn’t hustle at all, but we put on great shows. [Pause] Sometimes. Towards the end there was… So people did notice, but they didn’t notice early. The record grew from word of mouth, and I think there were people who were appreciative of what I was doing and now there’s a lot of “Welcome back” and “Thank you for coming back.” There might be some people who are like “Oh, where’d she come from? There’s a lot of press all of a sudden” and there is, but a lot of these people have been waiting for something. Waiting to write about something new for awhile.
The new record is Past Life Martyred Saints. What does that mean to you and what was your inspiration for it?
EMA: It’s a line from “California.” It’s about a friend of mine who went through a phase of possibly thinking he was a reincarnation of a saint. He was going through some different things, had some different preoccupations: UFOs, reptilians, religion. I like to think of these freaks stuck in the middle of nowhere, like, what if they were past life martyred saints. I like to bring these people into my own personal mythology.
You’re originally from South Dakota, right?
I think you get a lot of those people in the Midwest, where their personalities have to fit the space that’s not occupied by cities.
EMA: It’s kind of hard figure out the meaning of life in the Midwest. It can be hard anywhere, I’m sure. But in urban spaces you have at least a lot of ideas put out there of what it might be. For some people it’s fame, money, career, family, party, good times, whatever. In the Midwest you kind of look around like, “Wait, what the fuck is going on?” I feel about Sioux Falls [South Dakota], it’s so arbitrary of a place. I think it freaks people out. “I don’t understand what I’m supposed to be doing here.”
The album is obviously very personal. Is it difficult, live, occupying that head space night in and night out?
EMA: The record’s personal, but the one thing about the lyrics that maybe comes across, maybe doesn’t… a lot of things are taken one step too far. Even for me to express these things, I need to blow them up a little bit bigger to stand behind them. I can make them slightly, almost… I don’t want to use the word “ridiculous,” but something…
EMA: Something like that. It takes the situation something beyond what it is. And that’s the way I can stand behind it. I’ve been thinking a lot lately that in some ways it’s like stand-up comedy. How people do want to talk about things that are true, but they make it just slightly hyperbolic, but they cut as close to the bone as possible. They can kind of hide behind it, or the reason they can talk about this is that they make it funny. I feel like, in some ways, that’s what I’ve been doing. Like, the reason I can talk about any of these things is that there’s a slight element of humor to it, and a slight element of being blown up and outrageous.
You’ve been compared a lot to Courtney Love, Kim Gordon. It seems that there’s a propensity to compare female artists to other female artists. Do you feel like there are other male artists that are more closely analogous to what you’re doing?
EMA: Yeah. I think that a lot of the shit that I’m doing is Lou Reed, or Velvet Underground. It’s these drone pieces with lots of different textural stuff. I am lucky enough that it’s not one over and over and over. I’ve had everybody. I’ve had Liz Phair, the Breeders, Courtney, Kim Gordon, Patti Smith, Cat Power. I think it’d be a lot harder if it was just one. Some female folk singers… “Sounds like Cat Power. Sounds like Cat Power. Sounds like Cat Power.” I do think that I’m lucky in that regard. When people get it right, they do open it up a little bit. “California,” I feel like the closest thing to it is like a Gil Scott-Heron song, like “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” or something like that. Maybe if we bring it up, people will be like, “Oh yeah.”
Your lyrical style is definitely more conversational, especially on “California.” Does that influence the music?
EMA: Yeah. There’s hardly any real rhythm [on the record]. There are on some songs, but some songs it’s just… “Follow the voice, and this is where it changes.” Like, “Marked” has a small number of chords, but where do the changes happen? The changes happen when I say this, and then again when I say this. And the same with “California.” That is how I write, a lot. It’s through composed, writing [music and lyrics] at the same time. They do get a little more rhythmic in playing live. “California” I thought, “Oh it’s cool, you barely have to play anything! Here are the chords!” and [my band] is like, “This song is impossible.”
This is your first major tour as EMA. Before that, with Gowns, you had one band you toured with for a longer time. What are some of the growing pains of dealing with a new set of musicians.
EMA: I mean, being on the road is actually difficult. I have this tendency to want to surround myself with people that I really like. My little sister is playing, you know. So I want to bring in people that are close to me. But it’s hard. Like, “Can you handle months on the road?” It’s actually a very difficult thing, especially when you get to the amount of touring that we’re going to be doing. It’s beyond even making a record, which is long and hard. But most people who have an interest in music have already chosen having a couch and a bed over going on tour. So even when you get people who are interested in possibly going, it’s like, “Are you able to go on tour for this long.” It’s actually harder than you would think to drag people to Europe with you.
How has the live show evolved, then?
EMA: The thing’s that crazy is that we had this bassist who was with us on this last tour. He was like, “I can’t do this,” only a week before [Pitchfork Music Festival]. So we brought in a new guitar player, had four days of practice. “Well, okay, I guess we’re going to go play this festival now. It’s possible there might be an iPhone video of it on YouTube later, I guess we should try to do a good job.” But I really like having the element of chaos in it. It’s important to me. We were getting tight the other way. Instead of weeping, when I found out that an integral part of the project was going to be gone in a real clutch situation, I was like, “Alright, let’s bring back the chaos. Let’s keep it a little bit scary.”
One thing I identified with on the record was the sense of rediscovering yourself. Like, in moving to new locations. If you could, talk about the emotions that run through those kind of life situations.
EMA: Well, there’s a theme of homesteading throught the record in different parts. It was weird moving from South Dakota, to L.A. of course, but I also spent five years in West Oakland, which is a complete other trip. It’s a neighborhood that was really affected by the crack epidemic in the ’80s and never recovered. And another thing on the record is a theme of having nothing to lose and coming back. When I lived in West Oakland and the band dissolved and I was living in a shitty room that was messy all the time and there were drive-bys happening around me, I hit a bottom. But it was actually really good, because now I can come back.