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Who: EMA is Erika M. Anderson, a 28-year-old South Dakota native whose solo debut, Past Life Martyred Saints, mixes up slow-boil acoustic intensity, blasts of fuzz, and stick-in-your-head alt-rock melodies. Anderson used to front dead-eyed drone-folk group Gowns, which she founded with then-boyfriend Ezra Buchla. When the band splintered in 2010 after Anderson and Buchla's breakup, she returned to South Dakota and began writing Saints (out now), which maintains all the severity of her former band, but balances the desperation with glimpses of hope.
Tension Headaches: Gowns were known for their captivating live shows, which harnessed the emotional storm at the center of Anderson and Buchla's relationship. Over time, though, the pair began to fray around the edges. "Every other show we'd be like, 'Fuck this, I hate you and I'm never doing this again,'" Anderson recalls. "We just affected each other too much – which can be great for performances, but not when it's, 'OK, I'm ready to get in a van with you for a month.'"
Sound Engineering: Anderson's songs are full of wintry layers of sound and startling left turns – which might have something to do with the fact that she developed her songwriting technique while editing avant-garde videos using Final Cut Pro. "I was taking all these weird film clips and putting them together to create a narrative from a bunch of different footage, and I think that really impacted my composition style," she says. "I think, 'Let's improvise, let's make some noises, lets get a ton of source material, and then I'm gonna put it together.'"
Pain and Suffering: One of the most arresting songs on Saints is "Marked," where Anderson, voice cracking, murmurs, "I wish that every time he touched me left a mark," over a scuffed and swollen acoustic guitar. "[That song is about] the idea of defining abuse. There are different kinds of abuse, and it's easy to see the physical kind, but there are other ways, too."
Joy Ride: Though Anderson's songs may seem bleak at first, there are glints of sun flickering up from beneath the darkness. A note of youthful optimism bursts open at the end of insistent "California," where a breathless Anderson resolves the song's turbulence by playfully singing a snatch of "Camptown Races"; the soothing "Breakfast" opens as a lullaby for the uneasy, but crests with a delighted Anderson giddily howling, "Big fat breakfast!" "I think all the songs on the record are pretty poppy, but I keep reading all these reviews that are like, 'This is dark and desperate and moody.' And I'm like, 'Oh, come on, man! There's a hook here! There's some chords!' It starts out maybe kind of bittersweet, but I always want to end on a triumphant note."