June 30, 2011
EMA is Erika M. Anderson.
These days, thanks to a huge wave of positive press for her debut album, Past Life Martyred Saints, EMA is the latest indie music media sensation and one of the few “indie music media sensations” that deserve all that attention. Her songs layer aggressively personal lyrics on top of sound collages in a way that brings together pop and avant-garde noise music in a thoroughly unique way. We sat down with EMA when she was on a break from touring to talk about breaking rules, reading what people say about her, and her family’s reaction to her music.
You just finished up a tour, right? How was it?
EMA: It was really awesome, at the end of it, to go fishing for my grandpa’s 86th birthday. The last show we played was in Minneapolis, and I was really nervous, because not only did my parents come, so did my aunt and uncle, my nephew, their foreign exchange student, my other aunt, and her old hippie friend and her college boyfriend.
Do you get more nervous if you’re performing in front of people you know?
Yeah, for sure. It’s kind of cool cause they are supportive, but it’s very nerve-wracking to perform in front of your mother. Apparently she really likes the record, but she’s like, “I gotta ask you about some of these lyrics sometime,” and I’m like, “Noooooooo!”
Some of your lyrics are really intense.
Yeah, and she knows all of them, ‘cause the lyrics are printed in there. She also played it for my grandma and grandpa, so my 86-year-old grandpa is sitting around listening to all of these things, so that’s kind of nerve-wracking, plus my grandma, she Googles me more than anyone else. So I’m trying to hide from grandma, but she’s really hard to hide from.
She’s a good Googler?
She’s a good Googler. She probably has some sort of fake Twitter account, who knows? I’m terrified of her. But the one thing that’s nice is that my grandparents pretend that they can’t understand what I’m saying half the time. It’s like a mutually agreed-upon illusion. We both pretend that they can’t understand what I’m talking about, which takes the pressure off.
Do you think it’s accurate to describe that album as “dark,” the way a lot of people are doing?
I don’t know…there’s also a sense of humor in the record that I think people don’t get or a sense of over-drama or tongue-in-cheek-ness that I think gets lost on people. Like in a song like “Butterfly Knife,” there’s an element of camp there that I think people don’t get.
How does it feel to be well-known all of a sudden?
It’s funny, because the only people who ask me that are bloggers, you know? I feel pretty much the same, the only thing that feels different is that I have to do a lot more work, a lot more varied things. It feels almost like I’m starting to work toward my potential. I was realizing this last night—I think part of the reason Gowns broke up is because we weren’t being challenged to our potential. We were so DIY, anti-publicist, anti-booking agent, and after a while, I think we just kind of outgrew that. And when you’re not being challenged, that’s when the real self-destructive things come out, which is the story of my high school years. I have a lot of stuff to do, but I’m feeling good about it so far. I get freaked out reading stuff about myself on the internet, so I don’t really do that very much.
So you don’t ever Google yourself, see what people are saying about you? You try to avoid that kind of?
Well I did, at one point, finally look at the “California” video …
Oh, you read the YouTube comments? Oh no…
The YouTube comments! There were like, ten pages of people arguing over the definition of a hipster, and I’m like, “Oh my god, what is this?” But it was kinda funny, ‘cause there was somebody from like, Romania, being like, ”I don’t care about this deal with hipsters, this music’s great!” And then there was some curmudgeon from who knows where, probably from Park Slope, being like, “Aw, I hate this band.”
Do you feel like there’s been a backlash at all against you since you’ve been so well-reviewed?
Well, I’ve felt resistance from weird places, I’ve actually felt more acceptance from poppy people than people in the avant-garde or experimental scenes. It’s actually a really codified scene as far as what the rules are. The fact that I wanted to sing, and I had lyrics that you could understand, stuff like that, it was kind of breaking these rules. There’s something going on in avant-garde right now that’s sort of, “Make the loudest noise that you can, use math and computers to do it, or analog circuits that are complicated and old, don’t sing, don’t let people hear your lyrics, don’t be too pretty—it’s for sissys.” I think there were certain people in avant-garde that were a little afraid of me, I think.
Afraid, you said?
Yeah, because I think I represented a rule that they didn’t even know that they were strictly adhering to. Which was, don’t sing and do all this at the same time. I’m interested in figuring out where rules are and what happens if you break them. Which is how I feel about noise and singing, noise and harmony… Is there a rule that they have to be separate? Why? Let’s look at that, let’s talk about it. I don’t have any rules myself. I constantly try to think about what I have a stigma against. And I think I do it lyrically, too. Like, I can’t do this? Why? Why can’t you say that?
EMA “Past Life Martyred Saints” – Track: “Milkman”