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New Red Star: An Interview with EMA

Corey Beasley
Photo: Willian Rahilly

Adored by critics even as she continues to figure out which ProTools plug-in works best for her. This is the story of EMA ...


Past Life Martyred Saints

Label: Souterrain Transmissions
US Release Date: 2011-05-10
UK Release Date: 2011-05-09

EMA (née Erika M. Anderson -- no fancy pen names here) finds recording under her own name liberating.

She first made waves with GOWNS, who delivered just one tantalizing album and a furious live show that could singe your eyebrows if you stood too close to the stage. Now, her debut album under her new moniker, Past Life Martyred Saints, has been getting slam-dunk reviews and all the acres of hype that come with them, but she didn't let high expectations give her vertigo while recording. "In many ways," she explains, "recording this solo album felt like less pressure than working with the band.  Even though GOWNS was always really supportive of what I wanted to do musically and lyrically, it still sometimes felt weird to represent the other members with the statements like in 'Marked' or 'California'." Her point makes sense -- much of the material on Saints sounds extremely personal, with Anderson exploring notions of self-abuse, death, and deeply felt regret.

Of course, the writing of Saints somewhat overlapped with that of GOWNS' material. "Some of these songs are really old," Anderson says, "recorded years ago when I was just learning how to use ProTools.  However, at the time I felt like they were too 'weird' or personal to be released.  A couple were set to be on a GOWNS album that was never finished." Anderson does miss recording with her former GOWNS co-writers, Ezra Buchla and Corey Fogel, calling them "fantastic musicians with a really unique set of skills," neither of whom have any problem with the crossover of some GOWNS material into EMA territory: "I think they're happy that they're being finally released.  It would have been disrespectful to re-record their parts after they put in the work."

If GOWNS serves as something of a musical reference point in Anderson's solo work, she credits broader, more abstract concepts as her primary influences on Saints: "Really, I just wanted to make the sounds that were in my head, a combination of drones and static that felt like the weather on the Great Plains.  Crackling, oldies radio driving through a thunderstorm." Her conception of the record's sonic atmosphere comes through clearly from track to track, and Anderson's attention to production makes all the difference in Saints' cohesive sound. Much has been made of the shift in opener "The Grey Ship" from lo-fi strumming to a bass-heavy throb, and that moment serves as only the first example in Anderson's sonic experiments here. She recorded the album in her own space, with the help of a friend's ProTools HD software and array of plug-ins, a process she says allowed more time and freedom with her material than a commercial studio would have offered her. For like-minded home recording adventurers, Anderson recommends "getting comfortable" with some of those plug-ins and their effects, whether you're using ProTools, Logic, Reaper, or another Digital Audio Wrangler. But she'd also tell you not to be intimidated by how technical all of that sounds: "Don't worry if you don't know what all the numbers and levers represent.  Just use your ears.  Even if you do it 'wrong,' if the sound is something you like then who cares? That is the most important part: don't be afraid to play!"

Of course, none of that studio work would matter if Anderson's songs weren't so rich and fully-formed on their own. She has a clear gift for melody and natural sense for the pace of a song (check that build in "The Grey Ship", again), but her lyrical and vocal approaches take the material to the next level. "California", the song that has brought the most early attention to Saints, has Anderson exhaling her lyrics under a cloak of reverb and swirling noise, tapping into California's mythology as the American Frontier of Second Chances while also investigating whether or not her adopted home really stacks up to the story. A West Coast transplant from South Dakota, a younger Anderson found early life in The Golden State liberating as an artist: "It gave me permission to be a person I wanted to be but didn't know I could.  Growing up in the Midwest, I was somehow embarrassed for anyone who described themselves as an artist or a musician.  I just couldn't believe they would ever say that out loud.  There you are taught to believe that those people are arrogant, ambition is frowned upon, art is frivolous, and sophisticated is synonymous with pretentious."

However, she also found that the people in her new state were -- ultimately -- people, like those in South Dakota or anywhere else in the country. "When I got to California," she says, "I did think the people were too mild-mannered, and I was like, 'Why aren't we breaking beer bottles and throwing a TV out the window?'  There was a spark there that I don't see in other places.  A wildness." Now, having lived in California for a good amount of time and having found success as an artist, Anderson finds herself trying to balance her Midwestern suspicions with her Californian liberalism. As she puts it, "I've spent a lot of time learning to ride that line, trying to get over my prejudice and suspicion of 'ART' while keeping a wildness.  It's something I would never want to lose."

So far, Anderson doesn't seem in danger of losing that wildness or of compromising her artistic vision. She says that while she still writes primarily from a place of introspection and self-investigation, she sees her concerns changing. Discussing where her writing might go next, she says, "I read something once by Milan Kundera that talked about the difference between a poet and a novelist, and how when you are under 30 you are so self-obsessed that it's all you can write about.  You're a poet.  It's only once you get a little older that you can start to write about others, you can become a novelist.  I think I'm beginning that transition." It's difficult to imagine that, wherever EMA goes next as an artist, the results won't be thrilling. A songwriter of such dedication and open-faced honesty is one that deserves our attention, and EMA will have it for a good while longer.

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