Interview: EMA Wants You to Believe

03/16/2012 12:05 PM |

photo by William Rahilly
  • photo by William Rahilly

Erika M. Anderson makes ultra-personal, emotionally wrenching music. It springs from so deep a place that its source seems like a total mystery when she’s not performing. Surely, the creator of EMA’s Past Life Martyred Saints (not to mention the haunted recordings of her old band Gowns) should not be pervasively chipper? Yet, she is. A happy warrior, quick to laugh, yet slow to process the emotional toil which comes out in such arresting ways in her work. Near the end of a solid year of touring a record that made her one of the rock underground’s most promising artists, she headlines The Music Hall of Williamsburg tonight, soon to leave this set behind and finally spend some time in her new home of Portland deciding where she goes from here. (She promised there was no “Fuck Oregon” song in the works…yet.)

A few days ago, we caught up with Anderson on her day off, in a Niagara Falls’ hotel room (without a scenic view). We talked about using songwriting to figure out how she feels, her goals as a live performer, having Courtney Love as a teenage role-model, and what it means to be “dangerous” in modern rock n’ roll.

The L Magazine: How is the tour going?

Erika M. Anderson: It’s going really well, actually. It’s fun. I have a new drummer, and I think that’s taking it up a notch.

How long have you been playing with the current line up?

Since the end of January. It’s kind of been weird because there was a record before there was a band, you know? So there’s been some sense of, “Oh fuck!” (laughs) “Let’s get a band together!” But it’s feeling a lot tighter.

Is this band going to factor in to your future recordings? Is that how you are thinking about it?

Yeah, I’d like to do some. But it’s hard for me to tell what’s going to happen until it happens.

Where are you right now in terms of getting songs together for another record?

Well, I don’t think I can go out on another tour on this record. I’ve been touring a lot. I have a couple really ambitious ideas that I want to try and pull off but neither one of them is quite like…a record. (laughs) So, I don’t know. I have a lot of ideas floating around in my head. When I get back and I have time to kind of chill out, I have to see how easily they start to unfold themselves, or if I’m going to need a break, or what.

Are you glad to not be at SXSW this year? Or did you have a good time with it?

I couldn’t want to do that right now. I mean it can be fun, I don’t know. It’s strange because I feel like my musical community is in different places now. People that I have known for the longest time are people playing unofficial things, house shows, weird events.

So playing bigger rooms, headlining shows, do you feel disconnected from bands and artists you feel an affinity with?

Yeah, a little bit. That’s kind of why I brought Nu Sensae on tour with me. They are a three-piece, awesome crazy punk band from Vancouver. It’s fun. We recently played this festival in Australia, that, you know, every hip band in the world was on. Everyone was really nice, and that was really fun. That felt like the first time I’ve met a lot of people who are in a similar situation to this project right now. But after this tour there are a couple things I want to do that aren’t necessarily on the Playbook 101: Career Path to Rock Stardom. I think I might want to try to go play some really low-profile noise shows.

Do you have some good aliases lined up?

I’m thinking of a couple, but if I told you…

No, of course. I just want to know that you have them.

I’m thinking about them, yeah.

Hearing you talk about Past Life Martyred Saints, your song-writing process, for certain songs it seemed really improvisational. It came up a lot that “Marked,” was completed in one take. But you also talk about being a real perfectionist in terms of achieving the sound that you want. How do those competing interests play out when you are writing songs?

I like to improvise things because I feel like it’s easier to get to a truth or something if you are improvising. I don’t know how to explain that totally. But then I like to get crazy in the production, where I’m just like, “No, it has to sound like that.” I’ll play around with that for a really long time. I think it kind of mirrors this other duality in my music where, on the one hand there’s this completely honest and emotional side, and I try and balance that or, I don’t know, cover that or defend that with this kind of music nerd fidelity obsession. Sonic signifiers, genre type. Which also really tickles my fancy. I’m drawn to both things.

You’ve talked about song writing like wizardry or a magic trick or some process that you can’t explain.

Well, it’s not a magic trick. It’s almost like for me the best thing that happens is when I write a song where I can explain how I feel to myself.

Another thing that I read about that record was that a lot of what you were writing about was old experiences, 5 or 6 years old. Have you gotten any better at processing things in real time? Or do you think there will always be sort of a lag?

(laughs) I think there will always be sort of a lag. I don’t think I process experiences right away. Especially really scary ones. I think I put them away. It’s like those people who eat hair or something. It becomes a weird animal inside their stomach. It takes me a while.

All this time later, when you are out playing these songs every night, do you find it hard sometimes to slip back into what you were feeling while you were extemporaneously expressing it at the writing stage? Does it ever feel like you’re an actress, playing yourself in a movie?

For whatever reason, that rarely happens to me. I can get pretty emotional and worked up about performing. My problems with touring and performing are not that it’s boring. It’s that it kind of takes a lot out of me. It’s kind of like an emotional rollercoaster to do.

Sometimes if things are being kind of stressful, strange or bad, I might have the opposite of the Cat Power breakdown. My frustration comes out in a different way, and it’s more brutal and violent or something. I try not to make the situation overwhelm me, I’ll try to take control of it, and I dunno, beat it up or something? (laughs) I don’t know what I’m trying to say.

I saw you play when you were here for CMJ.

(downcast) Oh. Yeah? (laughs)

You sound sad, but I thought it was a good show. It struck me that, as intense as you could be in the songs, you seemed in fairly good cheer shortly thereafter. I was kind of impressed by the switch.

Yeah, I’m the sort of person that if you meet me, I’m a very conversational, nice person. (laughs) I’m not like a diva that’s having a breakdown backstage or anything, ever.

Just because of the music I think there’s a certain assumption that you’re really intense, but it doesn’t seem in interviews or on stage that it carries over much.

No, I think it’s either compartmentalized, or maybe that’s the reason that I can go so deep or be so honest in the songs, is I just don’t talk to people that much about those parts of me.

How do you feel after a show typically? Exhausted? Excited?

If it goes well, I feel so great. What I mean by going well is just connecting with the audience. Some people say the music is dark or it’s intense, but the ultimate goal after a show…I want to uplift the audience. And that does happen. That’s when I feel good, when I feel life I’ve shown strength, shown grace. When I’ve been a vessel for that for people.

And if you don’t feel like you connected?

Yeah, I can get pretty depressed or bummed if I can’t make that connection.

I saw on Twitter that you covered “Miss World” by Hole in Cleveland?

In Cleveland it was this tiny bar, half full, but everyone was so into it. It was so fun. You feel so free. I was like, “maybe I’ll do covers.” The first one we did, someone wanted to hear “Whole Wide World” by Wreckless Eric. So we did that. Daniel from Nu Sensae came up and sang. And then it was hilarious, he runs to the back of the bar and yells out “Miss World!” as if someone else was requesting it, and then said, “Oh, I’ll come up and help you sing it.” (laughs) I think he just wanted to get on stage to sing “Miss World.”

People assume that Courtney Love would have been a hero of yours. Was she?

Yeah, she was.

Do you find yourself going back to that music a lot now?

Every once and a while. I found this bootleg I had as a teenager of a live show, and I really, I like a lot of it, and I like the earlier stuff too, because it’s really fucking noisy. I think she’s really funny too, one of those people who’s really ironic and funny at the same time of being really revealing.

At that CMJ show, and sorry if it’s painful for you for me to bring it up again, I was struck by something you said, which was that you thought “rock n’ roll should be about danger.”

I do think that.

Would you say that your own music is “dangerous”? Is that something that you think, or that you strive for?

Maybe. Yeah. I think I’m calmer now, but in the midst of that tour I wanted to be Iggy Pop on stage. I wanted broken bottles. I wanted things smashed. I get that urge and I don’t really understand it. I hope that doesn’t happen again, because I don’t really like it when that happens. I can’t really fight it when it does. I think that’s maybe what I was talking about.

What are you looking for when you are watching a band that would be dangerous, that would put you on edge?

I can like so many things about a band. The thing is, at some point you have to believe in a band. You have to believe what the person singing is telling you. You just have to believe. That for me…you hear the vocal and you can hear within like three seconds whether you believe in this person or you don’t.

Follow Jeff on Twitter @jeff_klingman, follow EMA on Twitter @emathorstar.