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Living With The White Cube: An Interview With EMA
John Freeman , March 17th, 2014 07:02

Erika Anderson tells John Freeman about the "taboo" themes on her new album, The Future's Void, and just why she came close to quitting her EMA project

Back in 2011, EMA released her debut album Past Life Martyred Saints. It was a magnificent record – fuelled by a rare intensity and a visceral desire to explore lyrical subject matters such as domestic violence (on 'Marked') and self-harm ('Butterfly Knife'), and fired by a soundscape of brutal guitars.

EMA is South Dakotan native Erika M. Anderson, once of experimental noise-rockers Gowns and the even more abstract Amps For Christ. Next month she will release a second album, The Future's Void. Sonically, it's more ambitious than her debut, adding jagged electronica to tracks such as the pulsing lead single 'Satellites' and the metallic crunch of 'Neuromancer'.

Lyrically, much of the record explores the impact of the internet on the way we communicate. The standout track '3Jane', a beautiful but portentous ballad, contains the lines "It feels like I blew my soul out across the interweb / It left a hole so big inside of me / And I get terrified that I will never get back to me" – words which I will subsequently come to realise are hugely illuminating.

I've met Erika several occasions. The first time was for an interview on the disused top-floor of Islington Mill in Salford. The vast room seemed to act as a communal storage facility, with debris strewn across the floor. Erika and I were sat across a lone table, and the devilish cartoon graffiti that adorned the crumbling walls and the broken windows had us both spooked. As the sun dipped below the horizon, we told each other jokes to combat the ominous weirdness.

But, even when spooked, Erika cuts an imposing figure. She is six feet tall and of formidable Viking stock. And contrary to how, for example, Past Life Martyred Saints may have superficially portrayed her, Erika is not miserable, neurotic or hard work. She is in fact a delightfully engaging interviewee; all of our previous chats had been punctuated with garrulous laughter.

Six months after the Islington Mill experience, I interviewed EMA again, along with Zola Jesus, for tQ. Erika had been touring relentlessly and, as she chatted with Zola Jesus about their common childhood experiences, I thought she seemed weary and lacking her previous spark.

Fast-forward two-and-a-bit years and I find out I was right. This time, we are talking across a Skype video link. Erika tells me she is feeling "grumpy" and needs to clean her house before packing for SXSW. As I begin my clumsy questioning about the themes behind The Future's Void, it becomes apparent that Erika is struggling to explain herself to a level she's happy with. For a few minutes, things get a little difficult and uncomfortable. But, 'difficult' and 'uncomfortable' are at the heart of what makes EMA's art so engaging.

You toured Past Life Martyred Saints for a long time. How was that experience for you?

Erika M Anderson: I've had ups and downs. Before EMA I was doing experimental noise-based music and I learned a number of things about performance. I was playing small shows – sometimes without a PA - where people couldn't really hear me so I relied a lot on physicality and a sense of discomfort and risk. I was trying to take this noise act – things I had learned with Gowns where equipment would break and the set would end in a nuclear meltdown - and use that mentality with EMA, in places where it didn't quite work. I realised that people had my record and they wanted to hear me perform it. I'd been used to this idea of destructive performance art instead of a slick, good-sounding show. So, I became frustrated as I felt I'd been doing the shows wrong. That sucked.

I'm guessing a number of aspects have changed for you since the release of Past Life Martyred Saints?

EMA: Yes. It was really bizarre for me to go from being a very private and obscure person and then to be in any way on the internet - like having my picture or videos online. I know it wasn't a huge presence compared to many people but it was more than I was used to. It was really strange and I had a lot of ambivalent feelings about it. At the time, I didn't really feel like I could express some of my more negative feelings because I was worried I would sound ungrateful.

What were these ambivalent feelings?

EMA: I don't quite know how to put it into words. I'm a Scandinavian Midwest girl who doesn't always know what's going on in herself emotionally, which is why I make music in order to figure it out. So, I had these mixed feelings and I got really pissed. I got mad and I couldn't really explain why. I was in denial.

Were you angry about being the focus of attention on the internet, or was it more about dealing with any negative comments you might have had?

EMA: Actually, I've been really lucky. People have been nice to me on the internet. That's another reason why I couldn't figure out what was wrong with me. Why would I feel weird and frustrated? I still don't have an answer for it but I tried to explore some of it on the record, I think. I do know that I like connecting to people who really resonate with the music. I guess I almost wish I could just connect with the people who really need it. To have to do all these things to try and 'broaden your audience' just doesn't feel, um, I don't know. [Long pause]. Give me a moment.

Don't worry. Take your time. I feel like I'm asking you the wrong questions.

EMA: I'm grumpy today. If we were in the same room together now I might bite you or throw a chip at you.

I try to have a 'no biting' rule when I'm interviewing.

EMA: Ha. There is some angst coming out today. I don't want to be in my 'interview zone' mode. I've been doing a lot of interviews and I'm very self-aware of how I'm coming across.

And how are you coming across?

EMA: Um. [Pause]. What I can tell you is that I've figured out that I don't want to spend all of my spare time trying to make money. But, with things like fame or internet presence – things you cannot cash in at the bank – there is still a sense that more is better and that your career should be following a certain trajectory. I don't know if that is right for everybody. I don't know how comfortable I am with that. Maybe some people are better off in obscurity than trying to keep on expanding.

Something I really struggled with was that Past Life Martyred Saints got all this critical attention but there would be days where I was more worried that I didn't have as many Facebook 'likes' as another musician. You can almost feel like a failure if you aren't building your fame in that way. I've made choices in my life to be somewhat broke to do art and I think it is going to be the same thing with online exposure. You have to be able to make the choices that can make you happy or it will make you crazy.

I think I understand what you are saying. Is this reaction against your 'internet presence' the inspiration for The Future's Void?

EMA: It wasn't totally about the internet presence [pause]. John, I feel like I'm failing at this interview. Let me try and tell you this story. Towards the end of the tour for the first record, I'd been on the road for a long time and had gotten worn down. It was the end of 2011 and all the 'year-end' lists came out. I was on a lot of those lists and in some ways that was really, really wonderful but in other ways it freaked me out and was really stressful. So, I took a little bit of time out and I wanted to relax hard. One night I had a semi-positive and semi-bad psychedelic experience. Have you read the Neuromancer books by William Gibson?

I haven't, no.

EMA: They are really good and foretell a lot of stuff even though they were written in 1984. One of the characters in the book is this white cube. It is an artificial intelligence that is trying to become 'alive' and gain self-sufficiency. So, during the psychedelic experience I had this vision that I had this really bright white cube inside of my brain and it was full of everything that was EMA. It was full of all the pictures and videos and words and live shows. It was in my brain and it felt awful. It was really stressful to have that all in there. It felt separate from me. This is hard for me because it is a really weird story for me to tell as it sounds crazy, but it felt awful at the time.

That sounds pretty grim. What happened after that?

EMA: By the end of the night, I'd gotten myself into a better situation and I listened to Past Life Martyred Saints for the first time in a really long time. Once again, it felt like I was divorced from myself, like I was listening to it but didn't know who made it – but I was stoked. By the end of the night I liked the weird, crazy shit I had heard. But, that was a momentary respite from this feeling of super-stress. After that I cut off all my hair and dyed it dark. I finished the shows and then came home to Portland. I didn't go out and got off the internet and stayed that way for a while.

Did you write The Future's Void during that time?

EMA: I was writing some of the new album but I was mostly walking around my neighbourhood in sweat pants.

I'm sorry to keep digging on this but, as opposed to being just about online exposure, were you struggling with the image that was being created about EMA?

EMA: To a degree. It's not even that the 'image' is not yours anymore; it's that the image of yourself can be so much more complete and is created so much more quickly than it had been in the past. All of a sudden you feel really dissociated. I was feeling these ambivalent feelings but not acknowledging them and therefore became even more divorced from what everyone else saw. It became a slippery slope.

Is this about losing control?

EMA: It probably is, yes. I am realising that I feel cool about making music and I feel secure pushing boundaries in my music. But things like videos and photos I find really difficult. I don't really like being in front of a camera – even though it is my job and I must act like I do. That whole aspect really takes a toll on me even if I know imagery is important. Plus, I know when I like a musician I want to see a picture or a video of them.

Did you ever consider quitting as EMA?

EMA: I got to a point where I wondered if I could do this anymore and whether I was the right person for it. In some ways I think I'm good at what I do, but isn't it enough that I write all the songs and record them and help to mix them?

Many of the songs on The Future's Void seem to centre on how we communicate with one another online. Having described your experiences to me, was this a very difficult album to make?

EMA: I didn't want make art about the internet at all. It's a really hard subject to take on and I did not set out to do that. But, it was real and it was what was happening. Not all of the record is about that, but that's the topical angle that people want to talk about and what I was feeling most strongly about. At the time I was writing the songs I wasn't imagining think pieces about what the internet is doing to us. It felt weird and taboo and I felt alone in writing about these things. Now, accidentally, it's become very topical.

Was writing the album in any way helpful for you? And I didn't use the word 'cathartic'!

EMA: Writing music is always really helpful for me. It always reveals to me how I am feeling. '3Jane' was written as a stream of consciousness. It kind of wells up inside and all of a sudden it all comes out. That's how 'Marked' was written too. It comes out and I'm like, "Shit, is that how I'm feeling?" So, it is helpful as it is really easy to get paralysed by trying to process stuff. For the last record it was 'California' that broke me out of a state of feeling like I couldn't get back out there. On this one it was '3Jane' that made me realise how I'd been feeling.

The album has a more electronic feel to it than Past Life Martyred Saints. Was that always going to be the case?

EMA: Well, I would sit down with just a guitar and it wasn't inspiring. It felt false and boring. I started playing around with different things and I'd make jokes on Twitter like, "Name your favourite ways to fuck up a song." I remember liking bands when I was younger and they'd make some guitar stuff and then go on to make something electronic and I'd be like, "Noooooo!" But, the new songs using electronic instruments were not on a grid. They were still a punk jam – it's just me and my drummer improvising in a basement. Also, if I was going to have electronic music and I'm going to be tackling themes of technology and the future, I really had to side-step some of the obvious tropes. I didn't want it to sound like a fake sci fi record.

Finally, just going back to maybe some positive aspects of the internet. There were songs on your debut album that tackled pretty difficult subjects, like domestic violence and self-harm. Were you ever contacted by people who were particularly affected by those songs, and, if so, how did you deal with that?

EMA: Sometimes I just couldn't deal with it. But when someone writes, "Your songs tell my story" or "Your songs gave me courage" they are great moments. They buoy my spirits and bring me back to what is important, as opposed to me worrying that my hair looked fucked up on a YouTube video. That's why when I do things that I am scared of I just try and think of someone who might need to hear what I am saying. I will try and tell my story and perhaps someone will feel less ashamed to have similar feelings.

That's a pretty amazing thought to end on. Thank you for your time Erika.

EMA: Thank you. You got me in 'a moment' – not everyone gets 'The White Cube' story. I cannot find a way to tell the story elegantly. I don't want people to think that just because Neuromancer was a sci fi book that this is a sci fi record. But, the story is relatable because it is about somebody feeling the weight of their online presence. I guess that's a theme of the new record in a way; about mostly enjoying the time being a performer, but then not totally being able to step out of the spotlight when you feel like you just can't be that performer anymore.

The album The Future's Void is out on April 7 via City Slang