EMA, or Erika M. Anderson, draws inspiration for her punk sounds not from the U.K. or dingy 1970s New York but from dusty South Dakota and the self-perpetuating myth of California. When she was barely out of high school, Anderson moved to Oakland and got her start with the critically acclaimed experimental outfit Gowns. After some creative differences with her bandmates a few years down the road, Anderson switched gears and went solo. Her debut album, Past Life Martyred Saints, is a combination of moody compositions, fast-paced rock songs and sounds absolutely nothing like Gowns.
CMJ spoke to Anderson in a hole-in-the-wall coffee shop in Brooklyn about leaving Gowns, going solo and Zen nihilism.
What are you doing with Past Life Martyred Saints that you couldn’t really do with Gowns?
In between Gowns dissolving and Past Life Martyred Saints coming into fruition I was working on a more conceptual piece that was more experimental and thematic. At some point though, I feel like I took what I needed from the experimental and noise scene. I also ran into a lot of limitations. I think this record is about recognizing what some of those unspoken limitations were and just saying “Fuck it, I’m going to make a four-minute pop song.”
Is there any meaning behind the album title, Past Life Martyred Saints?
Yeah, it’s a friend of mine from South Dakota who went through a phase where he thought he might be a reincarnated saint.
You’re from South Dakota. How does being from a very sparsely populated part of the Midwest influence your music?
Sonically, it came through more with Gowns. South Dakota is just very big, wide open spaces. So that’s just why I was drawn to drones and static because I’m used to the sky going on forever, the horizon going on forever and really crazy weather. You could hear that sonically in Gowns. There’s also this feeling of arbitrariness in my hometown. South Dakota is in the middle of nowhere, and it’s like one big existential crisis because you don’t know why you’re there. When you’re in a city you feel like you’re part of a larger purpose, but not in South Dakota. You just look around and it’s completely empty and the weather is really harsh. You’re just kind of like “Am I supposed to be here? Why am I here?” So, there’s this kind of Zen nihilism in South Dakota that I bring into things like “Fuck it, let’s throw a full beer bottle into the sky and watch it come down and break” type of thing. Also, South Dakota was about being tough. There were no women that played in that scene, and the men that played there were pretty rough and tumble. So, I had to be extra tough, extra outrageous. With this new record though, I feel like you can hear a bit of West Oakland. A little bit of L.A. and a little bit of West Oakland. You know, “California,” that song, wouldn’t have sounded the same if I hadn’t lived there.
Are there any specific themes or influences you want to explore with EMA?
I feel like the last Gowns record is about the Midwest, and this one is the next step in the saga of “Coming To The West” and emigrating somewhere. I thought a lot about grandparents on the record. Actually, “Milkman” was about my great-grandparents on the prairie. I thought about old-time people coming out to South Dakota and homesteading for years in this horrible, locust, blizzard plague or whatever was going on then. Then, I thought about me going out to the West and did I do right by them? Did I boom and bust or what? Did I totally fuck it up?
What prompted you to go to the West Coast as opposed to the East Coast?
California has this really good self-perpetuating myth. People in the Midwest kind of understand why you would want to go to California. They still think you’re kind of crazy, but at least there’s sunshine and palm trees. With New York, they’re like “New York City! They’ll slit your throat for a nickel there! You’ll end up dead in the gutter eaten by cockroaches!” Even though New York is safer than Disneyland these days. It’s still in people’s heads where moving to California—that’s crazy—but moving to New York City—you’re legally insane and we should intervene.
A lot of people are comparing you to Courtney Love. How do you feel about that comparison?
Courtney Love is a real inspiration for me but also a cautionary tale. She’s definitely, definitely someone whose reputation and antics completely superseded her music. I love her music, it’s awesome. Those are big scary shoes to fill though. I don’t know if I’m ready to become the world’s punching bag yet.
What comes next for EMA?
A lot of touring. I’m not sure. I’m just trying to get through these next months. Right now I’m just trying to put one foot in front of the other. There’s so much craziness on the daily. I’m just kind of trying to survive the transition between being an unknown person to someone whose picture can be on the Internet. I used to be really scared of that, but I’m trying not to be scared anymore.