Touch the void
The far corner of the back room in the Sebright Arms is the place EMA – or Erika Michelle Anderson to the State Legislature of South Dakota – decides it would be best to talk. Its sole advantage: at 6:30pm on a brisk Tuesday evening, the room, its yellowing walls overcrowded with anonymous jumble-sale photographs in gilt-edge frames, is dimly lit and totally empty. One gets the impression that’s just the way Anderson likes it.
For while she acknowledges that she isn’t famous in the eyes of the general public – “I don’t want to say famous,” she winces even as she says the f-word, “so let’s say ‘more known’” – Anderson has already felt the need to retreat: in the three years that have passed since she released her remarkably candid debut, ‘Past Life Martyred Saints’, she has felt unexpectedly exposed. “Initially, it wasn’t as if I was planning for anyone to hear those songs,” she explains of her first solo record, which took in themes of domestic abuse, self-harm and premature death over alternating blasts of strategically catastrophic guitar and quiet resignation. “And all the subsequent discussion of them left me feeling very ambivalent about being known, about having people know what I look like and having people read about me. I started feeling very dissociated.”
That’s not to say she’s the withdrawing type at all – in our hour together, plenty of topics and tangents are cheerfully examined and discussed with heartfelt candour – but simply that she’s learned not to overshare: several times during the interview she halts mid-sentence and begins an entirely new train of thought without missing a beat, as if her brain is thirty seconds ahead of her mouth and has already encountered a fenced-off area. She gracefully evades questions about any specifics of her life, preferring to talk more about ideas and hypotheticals. The most she gives away is an admission of regret about the ‘Past Life Martyred Saints’ tour: “If I’d have had more ability to express myself while things were happening, rather than just keep going and be strong, things might’ve been different,” she says. “There were moments on that tour where if I’d said, ‘hang on, I need a minute, this is fucking with me’ it might have been better for me than trying to be all stiff-upper-lip.” Within five seconds of this, though, Anderson has changed the subject.
But the conversational wariness doesn’t come across as diva-ish. It feels more a symptom of an overwhelming desire on Anderson’s part not to make a fuss or become self-indulgent, an innate stoicism derived from growing up in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, geographically dead centre of the US and cheerfully referred to by locals as The Great Empty Heart of America. There, in the belly of the mid-west, says Anderson, “wanting certain things – wanting money, wanting power – is really frowned upon. Individuality is frowned upon, standing out from the crowd or ambition is frowned upon, and you’ve got to just be happy with the simple things in life.” And despite, on the face of it, appearing to be a fairly non-conformist citizen of Sioux Falls – rock singer, independently minded, excitingly mouthy, escaped to LA and latterly to Portland, Oregon – Anderson’s hard-wired instinct for Doing What People Think She Should has deep roots. “All I know is that becoming better known made me uncomfortable, and I didn’t feel like I could express that at the time,” she says, running her index finger around the bass of her glass, “because everything was going great – this is what people want, isn’t it? They want to be known!”
Of course, just because it’s what people want, it’s not necessarily what Anderson wants. “Well, y’know, I’m just figuring that out now!” she smiles, warmly. “And that’s probably in some ways why the sound on this new record is a little bit more aggressive: it’s a little bit fuck-you, a little bit like leave-me-alone.”
That new record is ‘The Future’s Void’, deliberately ambiguous in title (“the sort of thing you’d say if you wanted to sound cool,” explains Anderson playfully, “or you could spray-paint on the side of a wall”) but otherwise admirably direct: a sense of fractured, apocalyptic fragility hangs over its ten tracks via overdriven guitar, squally electronics and quietly desperate torch songs, all united by Anderson’s vocals, which alternate between uncomfortably unadorned addresses and blown-out guttural purges. Lyrically, too, the record pulls few punches. Anderson’s new-found pre-occupation with what people know about her spills into meditations on the internet and how its tentacles are encroaching ever further into our lives, and angry-sad think-pieces on the ever-more-digital future and how the media deals with celebrity deaths.