Photo: Alicia Gordon

I Wanna Destroy: An Interview with EMA

EMA talks with PopMatters about her new album Exile in the Outer Ring that tackles issues like the harmful effects of gentrification and the political divisions rife in our societies.
Exile in the Outer Ring
City Slang

Urban Renewal. Urban redevelopment. Gentrification. Whatever you want to call it; there can be little doubt that cities all over the US have undergone more rapid changes in the last ten years than in the 50 years previously.

Naturally, this process of urban transformation comes inherent with its own advantages and disadvantages; however, without a doubt, one of the major detrimental effects has been ever diminishing access to affordable housing. Across America, city center properties have become unattainable pipe dreams for everyone except the wealthy. As people with lower incomes find themselves excluded from the property markets, those looking to make a profit from real estate move in, decimating formerly tight communities in return. Evidence of this is everywhere: in urban centers throughout the country, local properties and real estate have been colonized by enormous international companies. Furthermore, across America, activists rage against the rise of multinationals such as Airbnb and Uber for stripping the soul from previously vibrant communities.

As a result, more and more people are finding themselves being pushed out of the city and forced out to somewhere more economically viable. Displaced from the city that was home. Moved to the periphery. Exiled to the outer ring.

It is this idea that defines the new album by Portland based singer-songwriter, EMA (aka Erika Michelle Anderson). On her follow up to 2014’s dazzling The Future’s Void, Anderson explores this idea of the transformation of city centres and the subsequent displacement of people who live there, succinctly labelling it Exile in the Outer Ring.

When writing the album, Anderson had one underlying question in mind: “What happens when a city center does change?” She reveals, before explaining further, “It becomes unaffordable, and people have to move out and to move further away. So what you’re seeing are places out of town and the suburbs which are generally poorer and more diverse than the actual center of the city where more and more people are being forced out and not being able to afford to live.”

For Anderson, this is a contemporary, pertinent issue ripe for further exploration, as “to me nothing is really being written about that and that it’s a flat existence there, but I think there are stories out there. There are people living there that are having real experiences that have real depth to them.”

These people that she sees as inhabiting the “outer ring” are those who were traditionally on the edges of society in these big cities, as she makes clear. “So these people are having to move out, and that’s the weirdos, the economically disadvantaged and whatever matrices intersect with that. So, you have these spots that are more diverse and just kind of weirder I think.”

Anderson draws no definitive conclusions as to whether the “outer ring” is a positive or negative thing, rather its fledgling nature means that it is a place of possibilities. “The outer ring as I see it could be a kind of utopia or a dystopia in a way and I haven’t really figured it out. It kinda has aspects of both. One of the things I like about the ‘outer ring’ is that it’s aesthetically neutral. It doesn’t have the same things. It has chain stores but mixed with small businesses and restaurants started by recent immigrants next to your Best Buy and your Target. There’s the most mystery there. There aren’t really clichés for it yet. It seems like a place of common ground.”

For Anderson, the “outer ring” is a direct beneficiary of the changes happening in cities. In Anderson’s view as more people move to the “outer ring”, these new areas will take on those aspects of the big cities that are swiftly being eliminated. “I think in some ways for all the revitalization that is going on in city centers. There’s a certain aspect of vibrancy that has kind of been stripped out. So where is that going? What’s happening? It’s going to the ‘outer ring’.”

An additional thread running through the new album pre-dates the rise to power of Donald Trump and is something that, as a native of South Dakota, Anderson is all too aware of. “You do have people looking down on Middle America and what they see as ignorant, dumb people,” she notes. “In terms of empathy, there is a real blind spot for people who don’t live where you do and don’t vote like you do. There’s disdain. People who do live in Middle America do pick up on that sense of superiority, and it fucking pisses them off. Nothing pisses someone off more than someone thinking they’re better than them or looking down on them which I remember. I can still access that, and it’s still in me.”

Understandably, EMA longs for a change in attitude on both sides of the political spectrum, “People on the left who look down on middle America, I wish they would have more empathy and try not to be so dismissive, condescending or patronising and then in Middle America, I really wish people who claim they have strong values of helping people wouldn’t let themselves be consumed by resentment and be conned. They’re not supposed to be ones to fall for bullshit, and they fell for the biggest bullshit of all.”

Exile in the Outer Ring has something substantial to say and to be fully realized it required its writer to stay true to the concept without diluting her vision both artistically and musically. Nevertheless, the result could have turned out very differently had she heeded the advice of others. “This record was interesting because at some points in time before it was totally done some people who I had been working with told me I should work with a producer and what they meant by that and the names they were giving me were like pop producers,” she tells us. “You know like kinda alt-pop. Not like straight up Katy Perry but just kind of quirky but still we think you’re great, but we would still like to see your ideas run through this other sorta process. You know this is the one where I had to be ‘no actually, I don’t think I would actually enjoy that.’ I’m gonna make this decision to kinda like stick to my guns. I think my own vision is what I’m interested in.”

As a result, Anderson had to make some tough, potentially polarizing decisions, “I had to decide that ’33 Nihilistic and Female’ is interesting and that I should have a song called ‘Aryan Nation’ even though that freaks some people out. Yes, I do want ‘Breathalyzer’ to be over five minutes long at least. It’s what’s important to me.”

Nevertheless, Anderson does allow herself to ask the eternal “What if?” query. “I go back and forth like why didn’t I go with this pop producer? But in the end, this is my vision, and it’s unique. If I didn’t put this into the world, no one else is going to put this into the world. Even if it means that the opportunities and it cuts down on the people who might like it, but I think for the people that will get it, they’re going to love it more.”

By vehemently staying true to her vision and trusting her instincts, it’s unsurprising that she encountered some challenges along the way, “‘I Wanna Destroy’ was really hard and Jake was the only one who got it right to have it hit really hard at the end. That was hard. It took a long time to get ‘Where the Darkness Began’ right for whatever reason. ’33 Nihilistic and Female’, there was actually another vocal part at the beginning which I could never get right so got cut.”

In fact, it was the more straightforward songs on the album that Anderson was most unsure of: “For me, the more traditional ones, I find it harder to really like them. Like ‘I Wanna Destroy’ and ‘Aryan Nation’ were hard to get it really right. Jake [Portrait, producer, and member of Unknown Mortal Orchestra] is better at it, and he knows how to make a rock song work. For me, the easy ones are like ‘Breathalyser’. Even though it takes a long time, I can sit and manicure these modular synth solos forever.”

Despite her aptitude for manipulating synths, Anderson is refreshingly honest about her strengths as a musician, “I’m not the best singer. I’m not trained. I don’t practice and I really should. I think I am a good writer, I make interesting stuff, and I have cool ideas. What I’m actually good at are unique forms and noise and micro sounds. That’s what my strengths are. I don’t know if my skill as a singer is my strength. I can convey a lot of things and a lot of emotions with the voice, and it’s my favorite instrument.” To that end, she is an artist who is willing to extemporize. As she explains, “I’m happy to improvise with it which often people don’t do. I’ve been playing with a lot of noise musicians, and I will improvise lyrically and melodically. A lot of people just won’t fuck with that.”

That dogmatic resolution and courage are evident throughout Exile in the Outer Ring. It’s an ambitious album of real substance and one which sits as Anderson’s most cohesive and compelling album to date. It’s an apposite album for the times in which we live. Despite that, Anderson is under no illusions as to how lucky she is to find herself in the position she is in, “It is like a dream. It’s like people say ‘What would your 15-year-old self-think of you now?’ My 15-year-old self would be like ‘Fuck yeah!'”