"It's all tragedy and pain," Erika M. Anderson says of her creative process. Then she flashes a smile. "Just kidding." Anderson, who records as EMA, made one of the best albums of 2011: Past Life Martyred Saints, full of guitar noise and emotionally intense lyrics like "I wish that every time he touched me left a mark." The excellent new EMA record, The Future's Void (out April 8th), turns those destructive impulses outwards, into our modern world of technology and surveillance. "Feel like I blew my soul out across the interwebs and streams," she sings on "3Jane." Anderson lives in Portland, Oregon, and records in her basement home studio. We spoke with her on a visit to Los Angeles, where she stretched her lanky frame over patio furniture in a Silver Lake backyard.
How is The Future's Void different from Past Life Martyred Saints?
This record is more angry and more standoffish. The anger comes from the complications of success. It was so hard because I didn't want to seem ungrateful, and everything that was happening was fantastic – how could I be mad about anyone wanting to take a picture of me, or watch a video of me? I didn't process those feelings until I had to. The last record, people say, "Oh, it's so dark" – I think it was comforting. This one is angrier. Most people write a punk record and calm down on the second record.
I'd get ideas – like, I was on a bus listening to Astral Weeks and I was thinking, "I really want to make this version of 'Astral Weeks,'" the song. Then I realized that "Neuromancer" is my version of "Astral Weeks" – I guess I did do that.
It's good to set goals that include things you've already done.
That's true. It's the sophomore record, and you can figure out what mistake you choose to make on it. One of the mistakes is to repeat yourself, which I couldn't do emotionally: Every time I sat down with the guitar, something new came out. But I did say things like, "I want to try and write a meta-grunge song." On the last record, I had a sheet of paper of stuff that I would dream about, and most of it happened.
What was on the list?
Not huge things. "Find a label to put it out." "Do some tours." Now, everyone's like, "You're seeing the world!" And I'm like, "If the world is all black and smells like spilled beer, I am seeing the world."
The one thing I want to clarify about this record is that it's not a concept record. When I was writing about some of these topics, like technology and commodification of images, I realized that it's really anathema to people and I was embarrassed because it seemed like no one else was talking about it. And now it seems very topical, which freaks me out because that wasn't my intention. I wrote "Satellites" pre-NSA/Snowden, and now current events are fucking up my record.
Are you a science fiction fan?
I am, actually. I love the prescience of it: L.A.'s already in a drought and there is no more future. But I'm a huge reader. I'll pick up almost anything. The two books that maybe inspired the record are William Gibson's Neuromancer and an amazing book by Herta Müller about Cold War-era Romania called Nadirs. She won the Nobel. But even though the record is sci-fi, I didn't want to use theremin or anything that sounded like our idea of the future. It's a punk record that has a lot of analog synths.
Did these songs exist as acoustic guitar sketches first?
Most of them, I think the first take is the best take – I'm writing it right then. Like "Neuromancer," I was just hanging out with my drummer who I've known since high school, and I said, "Play a reggaeton beat," and I started playing some synth over it. The first half is just me writing it as it's going.
What are you good at that has nothing to do with music?
I was a substitute teacher for a while, and I was pretty good with that. All ages, K-12, in Berkeley and Oakland. I like to think I'm not too bad at cooking: I'm still at the phase that I'm making huge, hippie pots of soup, but they're good – it's not just lentils and cumin now.
What's your working setup?
We [Anderson and collaborator Leif Shackelford] live in a shitty, run-of-the-mill apartment. Both of us are so focused on working all the time that the idea of decorating the apartment seems frivolous. In Portland, everyone has these beautiful houses, and at some point, I said, "I'm rejecting this. I don't want this old oppression dressed up in new, organic cotton." I have pride that I can invite friends over and be like, "Did you spill a beer? Don't fucking worry about it. This house is for art and I don't care." There's a bunch of fake plants – I can't keep real plants alive. And we foster kittens and cats from the humane society, so there's always a cat around. The basement is technically an underground parking garage. It's filled with this mix of complete shit and beautiful things Leif built.
"So Blonde" has contempt towards blondes, yet you're blonde yourself.
I was born blonde and then at some point my hair became sandier, so I started bleaching it as a teenager. When I started to feel weird about having my picture as a visual reflection I was not used to, I cut my hair off and dyed it dark. I'm still processing all of it. There's such a long lineage of troubled models, actresses or rocker babes and they're all blonde. Why? What does it mean? Is the selfie a new form of feminist art or is it just coming from the patriarchal form of advertising?
The smiling white woman could be the most exploited image in the world. It's like, "Buy this and the smiling woman will…" What? Smile at you? Sleep with you? Blonde is the most natural color I could go for, but to be that close to an image that looks like advertising is a head trip. That's one of the things that drove me a little crazy when I was doing the last record and getting pictures taken. How do you convince people you're not a monster? How do you convince people you're a human being?
Who do you think your audience is?
Actually, that weirds me out. I just pretend I don't have fans.