"I think it's really important to hit rock bottom," says South Dakota native Erika Anderson, aka noise-folk upstart EMA, on her formula for success. Based on her music as a solo artist and former member of experimental duo Gowns, it's safe to say she's familiar with the concept of "the nadir." A brackish mix of grainy drones and momentary pop release, her debut solo album Past Life Martyred Saints explores the grimmer moments of human experience while acknowledging the instants of tenderness humans create in spite of it all. Critics, who have hailed her album one of the year's best, consider her work part of both a general lo-fi revival as well as a convincing nod to some of riot grrrl's core values. Anderson's personal style, improvised and unabashedly grungy, follows suit.
"I grew up listening to Babes in Toyland, Hole, Bikini Kill; I watched 120 minutes," she says, recalling her youth in a small South Dakota town. "I remember being THAT kid wearing a Sonic Youth tee to middle school." At 18, Anderson moved to California out of boredom; rock myth postulates that she was simply enticed by the wild fantasies promised by the likes of “Welcome To The Jungle” and "L.A. Woman." She confirms the meme: "That's actually true. But also: New York was too scary." But she also found that the type of "wild" life on the grittier side of L.A. wasn't necesssarily what she bargained for.
"I went to school for awhile, and that was just whatever," she recalls. "There was culture shock." After studying, she met Ezra Buchla and formed drone unit Gowns, who recorded one album, awed people with their shambolic live set, and broke up dramatically last year. "And then there were some hard times," Anderson continues, describing her "rock bottom" phase. "Sleeping on a mattress in a band practice room; being surrounded by trash and cigarette butts, being homeless. I felt like I was about to quit."
But within that low point, she ultimately found liberation, solo inspiration, and drafted a great debut record. Now everyone from Pitchfork to fashion bible WWD is paying attention. "I should have quit earlier," she jokes.
It's odd but encouraging to see the fashion world take note of a lo-fi musician's style. Does it feel strange to you?
I'm figuring it out. I am paying more attention to fashion. I think fit is important. [Laughs.] I don't know the vocabulary to use. I'm being asked to do stuff for fashion sites, so I'm trying to learn how to negotiate it. I've been on to some style blogs and see how other musicians are so specific about their likes and dislikes; they know the designers. And, I'm like, "um, I like red?" Ha!
Well, ultimately having a grasp on what you like is more important than dropping the right names.
Yeah. Well, I do know that I like understated things, I love holes in things. In everything, I love the evidence of a life lived.
Can you talk about the custom tees you make? Some have caused quite a stir.
I made a tee with “Empti-ness” on a computer screen; that one has been photographed a lot. In the Gowns' days, I had really negative ones: a popular tee said “You Can't Win." Also, I made a “Born Defeated” tee with an American flag on it. They were all kind of dark, but then again, in high school, I was wearing "The End Is Near" shirts and loving it. I've noticed people mimic my shirts at shows, so I might start offering custom tees when I play. I'll draw a different one every night. Charge a little extra for it.
Are you a tomboy?
Well, I'm six feet tall; I like to wear masculine clothes. I wish I could have the budget for high fashion, so I'd maybe have some cool options for my height, as I'm sure they exist. But if I'm in Portland or wherever, I'll go to JC Penney's men section to find stuff for me.
What are some unusual things that influence your look?
I am inspired by the kids I teach by day at my substituting job; they wear very colorful outfits and layer their outfits cool.
Obviously, most of the attention you're receiving is from the blogosphere as well as print media. Is it a surprise for you?
It's kind of weird. I don't have a clue what it means; I really don't think of myself as an “underground artist” or some noiser who plays in basements or sleeps on floors. I don't know if my concept of myself has changed. I've always thought the record had a lot of pop elements – it's the poppiest thing I've ever done! But I know a lot of people might not agree and will find it challenging. But it's cool mainstream outlets are giving it a spin.
You're compared a lot to PJ Harvey. And other female artists.
Yeah, it's funny how it's inevitable. Patti Smith, PJ Harvey, Cat Power, Liz Phair – I get all those comparisons. I kind of laugh and say, "Well, you might be a little more accurate if you brought, say, Lou Reed, into that mix." I see myself as something of a "digital Velvet Underground."
How did you hone the lo-fi hybrid sound? Was it a conscious production process or something that developed over time?
It was pretty organic. I play around a lot. I might say: "I want the bass to be like Kanye, but I want the vocals to be like Banarama." It's not super methodical. I did know I wanted a sonic reference to grunge demos, like early Nirvana or an Elliot Smith vibe. So, I used 4-tracks for that. But, really, I just play.
"Milkman" seems like the best example of a song that combines true pop nous with that murkier sensibility.
[Laughs.] That song has a story behind it. My great-great grandfather was a milkman, so I have this idea of him in northern Minnesota with his milk truck. Milkman comes from him; and a few other songs have grandparent themes, actually. Anyway, it started as a 15-minute drone piece with a spoken word piece in the beginning. Then there was an acoustic version, before we finally "put it on the grid" and made it more rhythmic.
Is that beat-driven production something you'd like to take further?
Next, I want to experiment with poppier, electronic elements, and yeah, incorporate more beat-driven production into my work. That partially comes from living in Oakland, where I sometimes teach, and I'll be exposed to whatever the kids are listening to. There is so much around, so much coming out of every car. Mainly hip-hop and electronica; a lot of what's on the radio inspired me. Drake and Kanye for sure, inspire me production-wise. I hadn't listened to pop radio for 15 years, so it's fascinating to catch up!
You have been on the road the whole year, essentially. Do you enjoy performing?
Yeah, I do. But there was a phase where I was not having any fun performing, and I was really afraid that would happen again this time. But it hasn't! I love it again, which is great. And I have a band full of very dear people; my little sister is playing drums and singing; two really good friends are playing bass and keyboards. It's keeping me sane.
If you hadn't recorded this album, or it hadn't attracted this attention, what would you be doing creatively?
I always was creative, so probably. I even did little performances for my peers as a kid. But I settled on music because I still think it's the best way to get an idea across. Which is really the point for me. But maybe I'll do a novel next. Or a film. Who knows!
Watch EMA's "Milkman," directed by William Rahilly, below: