For most of us, the entry point for the legend of EMA began with single ‘California’ and its devastated, drawn-out, you-don’t-understand-me-so-don’t-even-try video.

Photography by Guillermo Hernandez

For most of us, the entry point for the legend of EMA began with single ‘California’ and its devastated, drawn-out, you-don’t-understand-me-so-don’t-even-try video. The world watched as the woman born Erika M. Anderson unravelled herself through crucial poetry, we all fell in love because we’ve never seen it articulated so well – her issues, her struggles, and her angst became shared with her listeners, and so the cult was born.

Of course, sitting across from me on a bench outside a soon-to-be-closed Austin club, she couldn’t really be bothered about that stuff. The fact that people care, the fact that people who write for magazines want to talk to her leaves her casually conversational – perhaps she’s used to the blitzkrieg, but it earnestly feels like she hasn’t been paying much attention.

Ms. Anderson is who she is, a skinny blonde girl from South Dakota with limbs a little too long for her body and a few stories to tell. She almost looks embarrassed when I mention the lyrics, or even call it “poetry”. She never holds eye contact for long.

“I’ve had a great 2011,” she says. “I mean, the record came out, that was big, and I’ve been travelling a ton and everything still feels new and fresh.”

She doesn’t mention the acclaim; in fact throughout our entire talk she scarcely even acknowledges success. When I ask her about how this tour compares to her previous excursions, she doesn’t talk about it like it’s a revolution.

“It’s cool to have sound,” she says. “It’s cool to be pretty sure you’re going to get paid, but y’know, you miss the warehouse show community. We played a show in San Francisco and the noise kids didn’t show up, which was a shame.”

EMA is a child of house-show egalitarianism – the way she talks about her days as a DIY staple (in drone folk band Gowns), she almost feels guilty for leaving it behind. She talks about learning how to set up amps in a forgotten floorspace like an all-important moment of musical adaptability. She likes where it is, but 2011 might be the year where she left a life behind.

“The record was intrinsically motivated,” she says, after a deep breath. “I was making it for myself, I didn’t have anything to lose, I always thought that it could be good. It’s definitely different to a lot of music that gets popular. I didn’t know for sure. I just wanted to make the record that I wanted to make.”

That simple truth is what elevates ‘Past Life Martyred Saints’ to something beautifully rich. The songs – the dark, depressing, soul-shuttering songs – are bled into the tape. A psychotic rant, a soothsaying suicide, a hopeless lullaby, a mantra of relationship abuse, an original story – these are the days of the life of Erika M. Anderson. By the time the final track, ‘Red Star’, runs its course with an earth-quaking “If you don’t love me someone will” she’s already loaded ballsier, emotional gravitas into 37 minutes than most artists can hope for in a career. The record she wanted to make turned out to be the record the world needed to hear. It created a narrative. We find a surrogate life in her plights and triumphs from a small-town beginning.

“It was weird when I moved away in the first place because I was separating myself, but I’ve been back there last summer, and I do have a picture of Steven and Andrew [both name-check in ‘California’] outside of a bar. I don’t think they really care or understand.”

I ask her if South Dakota is really that isolated.

“In a lot of ways, yeah.”

South Dakota is located at the tip-top of the American Midwest, predominately known for being one of the least populous states in the union and far away from any leftist chic. Not exactly the place for rock music.

“It used to really trip me out when I’d return from California. There’s a much bigger class difference – I have something like an existential crisis.”

California is the place where Erika became EMA and came up with the now legendary “Fuck California /you made me boring” on a bike-ride home, somewhere in Oakland. It’s where a lot of the germs for these songs emerged, at that place in America were the continent ends and dreams are allegedly born.

But none of those ragged sentiments were with her in the daytime. Erika is a remarkably well-adjusted person for what she often sings about.

“I come from the Scandinavian Midwest, people don’t talk about deep shit,” she says with a smile. “But we do get drunk and get wild. You think of us as really mild-mannered people, and what’s our primary musical export? Black Metal!”

The catharsis we feel in lines like “I wish that every time he touched me left a mark” intrigue Anderson just as much.

“Sometimes I write things and think, ‘oh my god, can I say this?’, but I think that’s a good reaction to have.”

Revealing herself is something that seems to come quite naturally. Erika is willing to explain the tiniest curiosities behind her songs. If the EMA project hasn’t responded to the scrutiny, it’s certainly responded to the interest. She’s in a peculiar place, offering an unabashed, unafraid glimpse into her dark sides, and dealing with the obvious ramifications.

“Oh god, my mom, she told me we needed to talk about some things – that’s not going to happen. My grandma just pretends she can’t understand what I’m saying.”

Towards the end of our chat Erika tells me how she thinks there’s some humour to ‘Past Life Martyred Saints’, how the darkness she’s assigned isn’t exactly intentional. We get onto the topic of image and character and she mentions that there always might be a division between who she is on stage and who she is in a conversation. “There’s always going to be part of me that wants to get into something a little scary,” she says. “I’m gonna be nice when I meet people, but I also want to break this fucking guitar.”

I don’t think Anderson herself has quite comprehended her place in all this, the cultural penetration of EMA. You could say she might be misunderstood. A record like ‘Past Life…’ has a certain finite feel to it, a self-contained exploration of a vast story for a character more than a human. Even after a half-hour chat with the woman, it’s clear she’s not comfortable with this notion. 2011 seems to not be the year of EMA, but rather the beginning of Erika M. Anderson.

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