An interview with EMA

· Friday January 27, 2012

Erika M. Anderson is EMA. From the prairie town of Sioux Falls, South Dakota - pop. 153,888 - where the main industries are a meat packing plant and a prison. She moved to L.A. and became the core of a couple of amazing music things - at eighteen, she was the guitarist in the experimental Amps for Christ, and after that she and her boyfriend Ezra were Gowns, until a slow, painful implosion and a final, seventeen-minute goodbye track. She released her debut album Past Life Martyred Saints in May.

There are many points in the following interview where placing (wistful) after something she said would have contextualised it appropriately. At times (wistful) became (heavy forlorn), or even (pained pause as wrenches for most honest response) - as though the questions were helping her learn the answers. But she was also some kind of jolly joyous Midwest merry, and I… (pained pause as wrenches for most honest answer) love her album so much (heavy forlorn) that when we hung up the phone I burst into tears (wistful).


Aniqa Mannan: Could you please tell me about the guys that Past Life Martyred Saints is named after?

EMA: Yeah, they were some friends from my hometown, and one of them was the guy who made me my first punk rock mixtape, you know, when I was young, and his brother Stephen who kind of… I don’t know (sighs)… who maybe… um… got some ideas, maybe. He kind of went in and out of phases of considering if he was… He thought a lot about aliens and Reptilians and the Illuminati. And you know at some point it’s kinda weird cos you can’t really tell if that starts to become just an interest, then verges into something that's almost borderline mental illness or a paranoia type of thing. But there’s still in some ways a real beauty and a real poetry of it. And he kind of went through a phase where he was… he was really obsessed with Saint Stephen and some of the other saints. Yeah. (wistful)


So they're the ones you mention in 'California': “I'm sorry Stephen and Andrew that I ever left you, you've never seen the ocean, you've never been on a plane, schizophrenia rules the brain and it's coming to take you away… You're still my favourite past life martyred saints.”

Yeah, I mean I feel bad, like I don’t want to like totally, you know, sell them out or like trot them out as like…


No, they've become mythological heroes.

(laughs) They’re my heroes! They’re part of my mythology for sure.


Well, they're part of everyone's mythology now.

Yeah, they’re great. And it’s funny, I was reading this book of interviews recently, and it’s this book by this guy who wrote for Rolling Stone and he does this thing where he asks P.J. Harvey if she would ever, like, make a record, and even if it was great just like bury it in the ground. And you know, she was being pretty tough and she was like, “Yeah! Probably.” And he asked Lady Gaga and she was like “Nooo! Never! Never!” You know, it's kinda like to illustrate 'oh is this person a real artist or not'. You know, kind of saying P.J. Harvey is, and Lady Gaga’s an entertainer or something.

And it made me think about the people actually in my hometown, who have no kind of arts training, and there’s not like, a tradition of fine art or appreciating it there, but they’re constantly making things despite the fact that it won’t get out anywhere. And so you know, does that make them… Whenever I heard people, growing up, talking about being an artist or being a musician, I would always cringe. I was just like how could they say that, cos there’s this super kinda “anti-pretension” in South Dakota and that really affected me as to never ever take myself really that seriously as an artist or as a musician or treat it like it could be a profession in any way. But then on the other hand if you do take that standard by anything, it's like, these people do. They live art; they make things constantly and no one’s watching them, (wistful), but they’re still intrinsically motivated to do it. And I think that’s a real ethos that I kind of internalised; it’s important to make shit and it’s cool to make shit even if no-one‘s watching.


You said somewhere that growing up in South Dakota made you tough, but also that growing up in South Dakota is the reason you're friendly and like, chat to grocery store clerks and whatever. So how does that contradiction work, a place making you tough but friendly?

Yeah I was thinking about this. I guess a lot of the stuff that I put out in the music… Well, whenever people talk to me they’re really surprised. They’re like, “Oh I didn’t think you were going to be this friendly!” you know. They were expecting someone more like, morose or standoffish or something. But it's kinda like in some ways, you know, the Midwest way – which is just like, “Okay, don’t complain about stuff and be nice to people” – so I think what it is, is I take a lot of the stuff that I feel like I can’t say or is impolite or is too dramatic to maybe talk about and you know, kind of put it into the work. But I’m also pretty upbeat. I like people from all walks of life and you know, that’s another thing that you're taught - to be respectful to everybody. It’s a pretty egalitarian place in a lot of ways but it’s very also homogenous.


Right so the toughness is more like a stoicism.

Yeah, and that’s kind of it. Like, I had to be really… um… just tough, to even do anything in the first place. There were no girls making music in my town really, and that kinda made me have to be tough right away to be taken seriously. And… I was listening to a couple of other records today of people, you know, who I… like they sound really musical, you know. And you can kinda tell [that] this is somebody who had a lot of music in their life and probably took music lessons and went to choir practice and all these things. And those songs on my record, you know, it also doesn't sound musical but it also sounds almost like it's gonna be like, “WHAT. I’m gonna do this, like fuck you, I don’t care.” (sighs) I don’t know, I don’t know if I overcompensate sometimes for feeling like (sighs) I don’t know I just felt you know in some ways there were odds against me even getting out of that state and everything, and I…


So you did actually do music stuff when you were growing up? Before you left Sioux Falls?

Yeah but it was like punk bands.


I didn't know that! Did any of them have any really shonky names?

(laughs) Yes they did! (laughs) One of them was called Swamp Pussy.


…Slop Pussy?

No, SWAMP Pussy, s-w-a-m-p.


Oh that's amazing.

Yeah That was one of them, there were other ones, y’know. I think I felt like I had to be - cos this town was full of super outrageous boys - I felt like I had to like be like “WHAT.” You know, “WHAT.” I’m gonna be tougher, I’m gonna be more extreme, and I don’t know. I worry sometimes that I rebel to a fault. I don’t know how to be any other way but tough, you know. I’m trying to kinda mellow it out a little bit but…


Well I was going to ask about that, like you said somewhere that 'Marked' and 'Butterfly Knife' were actually really old songs, composed by you during Gowns, but you felt that you could never play them for anybody and I was wondering where that doubt came from. Is it a hang up from growing up in that environment?

Um. Yeah, there's… I’m trying to think of a really good way to explain the whole… I mean, even now people that wrote something like that wouldn’t necessarily play them for other people, and I think even the reaction - like, “Oh my God, did she actually say that?!” - is still there. But that’s the thing, I feel like there's an extra vein of defiance through the whole record and it’s from maybe feeling like you can’t say much of anything, you know, so you’re gonna be like, “No, I’m really going to be really fucking honest,” or be really outrageous. And yeah, I feel like there’s kind of a defiance in it (laughs) somehow.


Well I’m so glad that you did because I mean in a Pitchfork review of Past Life Martyred Saints, the guy says something like, he feels like the album is already a crucial part of him, one of those albums you just want everyone you know to listen to so that they understand you, and it’s just exactly the same for me and I’m sure so many people feel that way, which is just ridiculous and incredible um and… [pauses to feel embarrassed]

Oh awesome.


[gulps and makes important paper shuffling sounds] It's weird, did you have any formal music training? Cos your songs have such such advanced song structure.

I mean they are and they aren’t; that’s the song structure that comes natural to me, and I even had to hang out with music school kids to learn this word but I guess they’re 'through composed', is what they’re called, which just means they have no… They just go. I feel in some ways like Grandma Moses or like the brother Henry Darger or whatever, that they’re just working obsessively and they have their own little world and it isn’t necessarily informed by learning or by things that they have learned but they still insisted on making them and devoting a lot of time to them. I mean I just play, I play around.


It's funny you said that you learnt that term from music kids because 'Butterfly Knife' and 'Coda' remind me of this thing that music teachers used to get us to do in primary school, where they would divide the class into halves or thirds or quarters and you'd all start singing the song like, staggered.

Yeah, like rounds!


Yeah! Have you ever gotten an audience to do that because I think 'Coda' or 'Butterfly Knife' would work so beautifully like that.

That’d be pretty sweet, oh, that'd be pretty cool! That’s a good idea! That’d be pretty hard for me though cos I’m not usually into like, [puts on dorky teacher voice] “Okay everybody!” (laughs) y'know. (laughs) I'll have to see if I can do that.


Okay just putting it out there. What’s the link between 'Marked' and 'Coda'?

'Coda' used to be - when Ezra and I performed it together - it was the end. We would do that part together and sing that part together so it kinda just fit on the end of the song. And 'Marked' wasn’t written at all. That recording is the same recording of me writing it at the time; it’s a completely improvised piece. I tried to kind of rerecord it to make the lyrics clearer or like clean it up or something cos it’s just me liberally late at night mumbling into a microphone and writing the song right there. But I felt like there was something you miss, it kind of takes away from it… somehow. For me I feel like there’s something really amazing about being able to… I feel like you can hear when something is being improvised and written at the time that it's happening and I really liked that and it's kind of like despite its audio flaws um…


So 'Marked' was totally improvised



Since breaking out solo after Gowns, do you miss having an other half artistically speaking?

Yeah, and I’ve been collaborating more and more with Leif [her bandmate, who also worked on Past Life Martyred Saints] on stuff and that’s been cool. I mean it’s hard for me because I’m also a control freak and I like to have the final say and I like to be the boss… But then I also know when I need help, you know. I also know when I need someone to help me out. But I like having the final say I’m not going to lie.


So this is a really basic question but how do you actually say it, like is it 'eema', or  or 'e-m-a'?

Oh I usually say 'e-m-a', I guess. Yeah I don’t know, I’m kinda bad at naming things so I just, you know, whatever. I haven’t gotten that part of “branding” down yet I guess.


Your best bit of branding is the EMA necklace you're wearing in quite a few photos, and on the album cover. Where did that come from?

Mm, mmhmm! Exactly. My bandmate Leif made me that necklace, and so then it was just like “Oh I guess we’re called this now” cos the necklace is so slamming.


On allmusic they described Red State, the only album release from Gowns, as the ideal soundtrack to Larry Clark's Tulsa. But you look so wholesome and fresh-faced! Are you healthier now or is that just, do you always just look fresh-faced?

Oh jeez not right now that’s for sure, not after three months on the road. Um I don’t know, I think I am wholesome, as well as having some real dark sides. I think, I don’t know, I think I’m wholesome - like, half the songs on the record are written about my grandparents or my childhood friends or something, and I know that there’s a lot of darkness on there but the same way that I don’t think noise and melody are mutually exclusive, I don’t know if being wholesome and being willing to confront really crazy shit [are mutually exclusive]… cos part of the reason that I wanted to put this out there is I wanted to give a voice to things I didn't feel like had a voice, which is people in the middle of nowhere, people in crazy relationships, women, my grandparents, you know, all sorts of people that had kinda been marginalised. I kind of give a different view of things and I think I've really been motivated to do that… I think that is wholesome.