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.
Particularly noticeable is ‘The Future’s Void’’s sense of communality, compared to Anderson’s debut. Where ‘Past Life Martyred Saints’’s introspective confessionals occasionally made for uncomfortable listening (“I wish that every time he touched me left a mark,” went that record’s most coruscating line), Anderson is now in full rabble-rousing mode: the darker recesses of her psyche have been reined back to occasional spatters rather than broad strokes, and state-of-the-nation style manifestos are front and centre. “‘Past Life…’ was very much ‘I-I-I, you-you-you,’ and with this one, it’s ‘we’ and ‘us’,” explains Anderson when it’s suggested that there’s less of herself in the new album. “So I’m not totally writing about myself directly, sure, but I’m still there. If you listen to ‘Past Life…’, though, I’m saying whatever the fuck I like because I’m totally anonymous. But the more well known you are,” she reiterates, “the less free you can be.”
The one thing that is consistent across the two records, though, is Anderson’s unfaltering ear for a simple, almost folky melody. No matter how ravaged the production becomes on ‘The Future’s Void’ – and at points, where percussion is provided by the scraping of metal on metal and rattling of chains, it’s an intense listen – Anderson is always on hand with an earworm to soften the assault. Alongside the stoicism, it’s another element of her music forged in Sioux Falls: “In South Dakota, when I was growing up, there was constant classic-rock radio and oldies radio, so that’s where my thing for total melody comes in,” she confesses. “I’m sure I could name obscurer or cooler or punker things, which all did come, but really, one of my favourite things is just to turn on the radio and drive my car along these long, straight gravel roads.”
For all its underlying classicism, though, EMA’s new record is a brazenly and rather confrontationally modern album, with lines directly about computer usage cropping up in several songs, deliberately to disconcert. “It’s completely common language now, sure, but ‘click on a link’ or whatever still feels slightly taboo to put into a rock song,” Anderson reflects with a grin. “I’ve always been interested in rules and boundaries that people push up against – like, that shouldn’t be in a song, wait!” It’s a technique that adds to the uneasiness of the record, a sense that’s further augmented by the album’s general theme of runaway digital surveillance and social web mistrust. And although Anderson wrote the bulk of the songs before any revelations about the National Security Agency surfaced last summer, she acknowledges the eerie timing. “I didn’t start out trying to write a topical record about the Internet or whatever – that was just what I was thinking about at the time,” she explains of her initial writing sessions. “I had this feeling that there are all these photos of me and articles about me online. There was an exorbitant amount of data that anyone could have access to and all these things computers can do to parse your data that we can’t, and I just wanted to address that feeling.”
Again, Anderson stops and checks herself, as if worried that all of sudden she’s going to paint herself into some hermit Luddite corner. “But I’m not trying to have some sort of didactic thing where I’m like ‘ooh, the Internet is bad’ or ‘technology is bad’,” she insists. “I’m just trying to remind myself and other people that there’s a choice with how much you can engage with it. When I first read about the whole NSA thing, the main thing that got me is that people don’t realise how it’s going to affect them until after it does.”
That idea of not knowing the reality of something until you’re experiencing it first hand is a recurring trend for Anderson, and lends a strong flavour to her music: for all the meaty, carefully planned production on ‘The Future’s Void’, there’s also a frequent and often disarmingly intimate sense of the present. Anderson again puts that down to her no-nonsense upbringing: “Because I have this whole mid-western stoic thing, I don’t always know how I’m feeling until the moment I’m over my limit,” she admits. “And with songwriting, I won’t know how I’m feeling until I write or even sing a song. I try and preserve as many improvised lyrics as possible and do it in one take – if you can have it be coherent, I think that’s really beautiful. You can hear an immediacy in the tone of the voice, someone really telling you something rather than acting or performing,” she says, ever the honest realist, pro-spontaneity, anti-artifice. “It’s just me telling you how I’m feeling.”
The potential drawback to this approach is that it can be frustrating for Anderson to have to wait to see if she’s in the zone. “There are just some days when I feel like I can do it, and others where I just want to hide, but that’s how it is,” she says, pragmatically. “Some days I’ll be like ‘yeah, fuck yeah, bring it on, I’m gonna do this!’, and then some days where it’s like, ‘oh my god I’m going to cry’. But overcoming that anxiety was one of the reasons I moved Portland: because nobody knew me. When I was in LA and Oakland, I went to shows all the time and was part of a scene, but now I feel like there’s a freedom in obscurity.”
There’s that thought again: the desire to disappear, or at least retreat, to maintain a distance and be alone. It feels totally interwoven not just in Anderson’s music, but also in her mind. Her ingrained stoicism stops her from stopping herself, and so she compensates by taking occasional but decisive steps out of the arena. Is she okay with that, as a personality trait, given that she’s also trying to be a performer and a public voice? As the room starts to fill up with post-work drinkers she visibly appears more aware of her own speech, hunching into the tape recorder to talk more quietly. “I’m just trying to emotionally process it all, I guess,” she says, tentatively. “Here’s an example: I tweet less the more followers I get. I just like the idea of being cult, keeping things cult. I don’t want world domination. I just want to be an artist.”
And therein, it seems, lies the paradox of being EMA: the instinct for solitude and creative purity increases in direct correlation with her popularity. Then again, muses Anderson with a chuckle, this could just be a dark patch. “At the moment, I’m thinking about the albums more like a trilogy – the third one hasn’t been written yet – and this current one’s the dark sequel. It’s like The Empire Strikes Back, or The Godfather II.” She pauses, enjoying the conceit. “The dark one. This is the one where all the shit goes down.” By extension, then, does that mean the next EMA album will suffer from an overlong gestation period and feature a disappointingly half-arsed blast at populism? “Who knows?” Anderson laughs, although there’s a feeling that she’s telling the truth: given her current feeling towards wider recognition, perhaps a third EMA album of any flavour will be an achievement. Anderson, of all people, seems least likely to know what’s about to emerge from her own void.