[Q&A] EMA talks hip hop, substitute teaching, and hitting rock bottom

With her solo debut, Past Life Martyred Saints [Souterrain Transmissions] blowing up worldwide on the crest of a tsunami of critical accolades, Erika M. Anderson, a/k/a EMA is clearly on a career high. Of course, one can't usually get to a high without having experienced at least one bottoming-out low; for Ms. Anderson, the low of the slow dissolution of her prior band, the indie-dramatists of Gowns put her in a funk that only the eureka moments of a new project could cure. P.L.M.S. is the sound of noise and guitar shriek and personal angst crammed into electro beats amidst moments of angelic beauty and wonder. We caught up with Anderson on the eve of a solo tour that brings her to T.T. The Bear's tonight in Cambridge, and had a fascinating conversation that was too sprawling to be contained within the confines of the feature on her that we ran in last week's issue-- here's the rest, enjoy!

So how did you come up with EMA from the ashes of Gowns?

Oh geez... Well, um, let me think about this here. It’s a pretty-- musically, it’s a pretty natural extension from what’s happening in Gowns. Even some of the songs, we were working on as Gowns songs, there were ones that I had written that had the possibility of going on the next Gowns record. And then when Gowns kind of, you know, imploded or whatever, Ezra wrote to me a little bit later and said that “You should never feel strange about taking anything you’ve worked on and you should be releasing this.” So yeah, stepping out solo was something that I had thought about but was kind of nervous to do or scared to do for a long time, and I was probably-- I dunno, I think everyone else around me was like “Why did it take you so long to do this, you should have been doing this a long time ago” But it came from feeling like every other option had completely fallen apart. And then once it started happening, it felt great. I think hitting rock bottom is a good thing for many people in life, myself included.

Is that how it felt when Gowns fell apart, or was it other stuff as well?

It was with a lot of things, but Gowns had fallen apart long before it was officially over. It was kind of a surprise that it kept going on. Officially or whatever, it did feel over much before that, and, um, yeah, I dunno, it’s one of those things where you know, I was trying to hold on to something that was officially or pretty much over. And that’s another lesson of, like, if you hit bottom sooner, it’s kind of like the sooner you can actually-- it’s like you know if something’s totally over, just let it go, in peace, move on to the next thing, don’t hold on forever to something that isn’t really working anymore.

Was EMA a conscious construction, or more of a natural progression?

It feels like a natural progression. I mean, one thing that I’ve been kind of blessed with in my life is a very strong sense of voice-- and even if it takes me a little while to get behind it, I can be pretty sure of myself. In terms of what I want things to sound like or what I want to do. So, um, I did have some people talk me into making things that were a little, you know, a little less noisy. Because I’m a pretty lo-fi type of person in a lot of ways, and they were like “Why don’t we make it so that you can actually understand some of the words here.” Like, “Ok, fine!” but it wasn’t that huge of a concession, really.

Your record is really interesting, because it seems really confrontational, almost, at first, but kind of changes when you listen to it more. Was that intentional at all?

Well, it’s a good question. I mean, what exactly do you mean? You sound like you have something in mind.

I guess that I mean that a song like “California”, for instance, is less in-your-face once you see it coming-- and the same could be said for the rest of the album’s sonic noisiness and whatnot. Does that seem right to you?

There’s a couple of things. There are definitely some confrontational lyrics on the record, but the point isn’t necessarily-- what I see, what motivates me in my own work, is that I’m always fairly rebellious in my work. If I see a rule, I want to break it. If there’s something that I feel like I can’t say, I want to say it. So when I wrote “Fuck California”, I thought “Oh, can I say this?” And that’s a good sign to me, it means I’m hitting up against some unspoken rule, you know? At this point I feel like it would have been less controversial to say Fuck Jesus or Fuck America. So it’s like “what is this rule about?” and that set off this trepidation in me, to say that kind of thing out loud. Also, in California, I was really liking all this west coast hip hop stuff, why can’t I make a rap ballad? I can’t-- Why? And if I can’t, let’s look into that, let’s bump up against that whole thing.

The other thing is that-- it’s really strange, but I’m trying to put complex statements out there about sound and melody and genre and technology, and even the sociopolitical things of geography, race and gender. But my bottom line is also kind of like I have so much faith in people that they can get it. I don’t have anything that’s like “Oh, I’m making a record that’s too complicated for people to understand.” It’s like the song “Marked”, how it’s kind of like produced in a way that sounds a little Girl group. And the amazing thing about music is that when everyone is surrounded by pop music, they get these references whether they know it or not, it’s a media language that everyone can understand, and that’s why it’s really exciting to me.

When you came up with EMA, was it kind of like “Oh, now I have this project to express all these ideas outside of the constraints of Gowns”? Because in a sense, it almost feels like now, like 2011, is a time when a project like EMA just kind of makes sense.

It’s really weird because a lot of the things that I wrote about, the influences, are really old. “Butterflies” is old, when I wrote it the idea of goth was not on anyone’s radar at all, and now it’s coming back as this thing that’s timely. Or the girl group thing on “Marked”, that was 2005, so it was kind of pre--- I dunno, there are a lot of things on the record that make it kind of timely, in a way. On the one hand, critics are excited about it because they think “Oh, these are things that we think about all the time, it’s cool that someone is engaging in these ideas.” But that’s one side of it, the other side is this very-- it’s some honesty, I guess.

Did you feel like EMA was a way to kind of merge all of these ideas, outside of the constraint of a band?

Well, I mean, another interesting thing is that I spent the past, like-- before this record was made, a lot of influences definitely came from these subconscious or unspoken rules. I felt like I was running into a lot of them in the experimental and noise world. And I dunno, it was really shocking to me, and it felt like more rebellious to admit that liked melody, songs, vocals. And make a record that has all that! Is that what you meant, kind of?

Totally, that makes sense! I mean, the album is really interesting, even the way it’s sequenced, like the way that “The Grey Ship” opens the record up and kind of throws down this weird kind of sonic gauntlet.

I mean, it was one of the first tracks done, and then I got used to listening to it in that order. And I also kind of felt like if people could get through this song, they would realize that there was going to be a lot of,uh, a lot of diversity in the record. Because, I dunno, I don’t know what else I would have started with. What else should I have started with? “Marked”?

I don’t know what song is representative of the sound of the record. I feel like I started with something and-- I don’t know, I don’t have a clue. I like the way it flowed into “California”, a lot, and if you start with “California”, it wouldn’t-- I dunno, each song has their own production elements, and starting anywhere-- if you aren’t gonna listen to the whole thing, starting anywhere sounds weird.

I assume that place is really important to your music and your songwriting, especially with EMA.

Oh yeah, definitely. That’s the one thing with the Gowns records-- we recorded a lot in LA but we were influenced by South Dakota. And you get huge-- the sky is huge here, you get huge drums, you get huge thunderstorms and lightning. And with this record, you get me starting on some sort of electronic percussion. And living in West Oakland definitely had an effect of what I was listening to, what made sense. Before I lived there, it’s really weird-- you know how people say when they hear noise music “It’s just noise!” You know, you can’t really hear it but if you practice you can hear it I had the same thing with hip hop: I’m a white girl from South Dakota and it didn’t make sense to me, I could hear it but I didn’t get it, couldn’t penetrate it. And living in Oakland and substitute teaching and hip hop is coming out of every window and every car, and I could hear it for the first time and it started to make more sense to me and kind of, you know, industrial electronic sounds vs more pastoral-- it’s a mish-mash and geography has a big effect on me, for sure.

Have you tried rapping, even for just your own purposes? Because even a song like “California” is almost rap-y, kinda sorta, if that makes sense.

[laughs] I still haven’t like really tried-- I can do a little flow in my head but if I try to say anything out loud to a beat it sounds like Fresh Prince, it doesn’t sound the same! And it’s a huge taboo, you know, Midwest white girl from a noise background doing anything that has to with hip hop, touching it with a ten foot pole. And what’s at play here, there’s geography, there’s race, there’s all sorts of stuff at play, and that’s why I’m interested in it. But I also know well enough that, you know, I know when I’m gonna sound like a complete and utter fool. But we’ll see if I get there, who knows?

But I am interested in the division of it and the taboo of it, especially because, you know, if you look at something like Kanye inviting Bon Iver into the studio, Odd Future being really into skateboarding. I mean, the young black kids growing up in East Oakland have pink mohawks and skateboarding, but can it go the other way? Why is white people’s interest in hip hop, why does that come across as distasteful, what are the taboos, what are they based on? I don’t know how to answer that question, but I’m inspired to make work that asks the question.

It sounds like your teaching experience really influenced your music.

Well... I mean, it’s hard to know, musically-- I think musically, it’s kind of an interesting culture clashing thing, or not clashing so much as cultures interested in each other. The thing about substitute teaching is that it’s this crazy six hour improv performance to a possible hostile audience. It was horrible and it also really thrilling because it was one of the most punishing things that I’d ever done. And I think being in an experimental band that like, a lot of times, would have, you know, border on technical meltdowns on stage and just have to roll with it, I think that experience was helpful, to me, to be comfortable with other people and situations. I taught K-12, and with the younger classes I could do weird shit: I was subbing once when there were no lesson plans for this 3rd grade class, and I found a piece of paper that had the 4’3”, the John Cage piece, the hashmarks and all. So I thought “Ok, I’m going to do this John Cage piece with 20 Oakland 9 year olds”. Just stuff really cool like that. Like I was in Berkeley and I had this projector and I just was like “Ok, we’re doing handwriting analysis!” And isn’t wasn’t just about music and art, it was about participation and improvising, improvising interactive performative art pieces. And it was cool! I wish I had been documenting it, because I was doing weird shit with kids all the time! It was cool, it was fun.

Yeah, teaching is interesting-- it’s such a great experience, but it can be so punishing as well.

You could definitely be demoralized really hard, but it was a real growing humanity experience. My empathy just grew for all sorts of people, and conflict management: what do people want in life, how do you talk to them and be fair, how do you be respectful of where they’re coming from? All these amazing things!

What has it been like to come up with a solo thing, and then attempt to translate that to a live touring entity?

It’s definitely difficult, it’s a challenge. And it’s also one of those things where the record was made and now I’ve got to make the band. So it’s not like “oh cool we’ve been playing around for three years together”. It’s more like “Ok, now we’ve been playing for 6 months, are you ready to go to Europe?” I also wanted to surround myself with friends, and my little sister is playing drums and stuff, and it’s cool to do that. But also trying to figure it out, everyone’s getting thrown into this lifestyle, like “are you ready to be on the road for the next 6 months”. And you have people who are your friends that you want to help, like “I want to show you the world”, but then it’s like “You know, I don’t know if I’m a touring musician” kind of thing.

Also, I thought that I wanted a tight rock band, because in Gowns everything was so up in the air. Like it was cool, but really stressful, like the difference between being a teacher with a lesson plan who knows their kids and being like “hey kids good morning!” But I dunno, now I kind of feel like I want to get it weird again. Right now we’re like a fun loud rock band, and it’s cool.

Do you find it tough to now be a solo artist, to have to front the band and have the whole thing about you?

Umm, you know, I was scared for a long time. I wanted to find someone else to-- when I first started doing stuff I was really experimenting, lyrically, etc., and it was important to have someone to have someone like Ezra be there to vouch for it. Like “Hey I’m here too, it’s not just this one crazy chick.” And let’s be honest, it’s easy to discredit solo females, you know? I don’t wanna say that, but it can be easy to write people off. And at the time, I didn’t know how to produce, I didn’t really know how to play live, like really professionally. It was important to me and I was really scared! But everyone else was like “Why aren’t you doing this solo yet?” And, you know, it’s going pretty good. I get different people to come in and do different things, collaborating on mixes, bringing things in. But I think the timing was good because now I feel a lot more confident and chilled out.

And also too, everything now feels like a blessing. Because I already gave up and came back. You know what I mean? I already felt the heartbreak and the failure and had to come to terms with that, and so now it’s like I’m ambitious because I like to work and I’m excited about working, but I don’t-- I don’t know, I don’t have a lot of jealousy or disappointment and I’m happy to work and it feels like a blessing.
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