Flavorwire Feature: EMA Finds a Future in the Void


It’s the first show of EMA’s new album tour, at Union Pool in Brooklyn, and things are going wrong. Her collaborator Leif Shackelford has been having trouble with his equipment all night, and about halfway through “Milkman,” something seems to fail completely. Shackelford bolts offstage, leaving three bewildered bandmates staring at where he’s supposed to be. They finish the song anyway, and Erika M. Anderson — she of the EMA acronym — gently admonishes Shackelford when he reappears. He explains what’s gone wrong, and then smiles: “C’mon, you had more fun finishing that song than anything else you’ve done tonight.” She chuckles ruefully. Speaking into the mic to make sure the whole place can hear her, she replies: “It’s true. I like it when things are all fucked up.”

For much of her career, Erika M. Anderson’s work has involved addressing things that are all fucked up. She first came to attention with Gowns, whose sole full-length release was the minor masterpiece Red State, a record that played like a sort of sonic companion piece to Larry Clark’s Tulsa, a harrowing portrait of narcotized alienation in small-town America. Gowns disintegrated in 2010, three years after Red State was released. Anderson disappeared for a while.

And then in 2011, she re-emerged as EMA. Her debut solo album, Past Life Martyred Saints, started with the unfinished remains of what would have been the second Gowns record and evolved into one of the most intensely personal pieces of work you’ll ever hear — its songs encompassed abusive relationships, self-mutilation, drug use, and depression, forming a sort of narrative that began with grey emptiness and ended in a red starburst of liberation. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about both Red State and Past Life Martyred Saints was that, despite their subject matter, their songs were never sensationalistic or overly dramatic. They just were.

The consensus on EMA’s new album, The Future’s Void, is that it’s a step away from the confessionalism of her previous work. On first listen, you can definitely understand why: the imagery of scars and butterfly knives and see-through plastic arms is gone, replaced by something more abstract. The album is, according to critics, About The Internet — something that annoys Anderson, who is at pains to tell me that “I did not want to make the whole [album] about that, and I’d like to get that straight.” And, indeed, the songs on The Future’s Void deal with a diverse range of subject matter: the end of the Cold War, the simple joy of a riot grrrl friendship, celebrity culture, the industrial revolution.

If there’s a unifying lyrical theme, it’s not the Internet so much as the experience of being alive in 2014. Cyberspace is clearly an important part of the album, but only in the respect that it’s an important part of everyone‘s life today. In particular, The Future’s Void examines issues of identity, which all of us face, to some extent — the idea that your online self is to some extent a separate being, one whose existence and behavior is something you can’t completely control. As Anderson sings in “3Jane,” “Disassociation… it’s just a modern disease.”

On the album’s cover, Anderson wears an Oculus Rift, staring into some virtual world that only she can see. It’s an image that’s very much of the now — the Rift has been in the news of late, after all — and one that’s also strikingly futuristic. Turn the album over, though, and look at the back cover. The vision is gone from the headset; we see that Anderson is sitting on a concrete floor. Her hands clutch the Oculus’s power cable like it’s some sort of lifeline. It’s suddenly a disconcerting image, because where her face should be, there’s only blackness. A void.

But then, Anderson’s music has always been about looking into the void.

Red State contains a song called “White Like Heaven.” It’s a surreal, terrifying lyric that evokes the experience of literally watching the world crack open, revealing, yes, a void beneath: “I was sitting at the table and suddenly I could see it/ And it was just like the movie and I couldn’t move/ I could see the cracks in everything/ In every little thing.” Listening is a harrowing experience, because you get the feeling it is a song that narrates a real experience for its creator; the void here isn’t so much a metaphor as it is a literal representation of fear and alienation.

Sitting in Matador Records’ offices today, Anderson seems an entirely different person from the numb, distraught narrator of that particular song. She’s smart, funny, engaging. She seems surprised that I’ve actually heard “White Like Heaven” — which, more than anything else, demonstrates that Gowns never really got the attention they deserved — and when I ask her about it, she explains that the song was alluding to “[the part] in The Neverending Story when the Nothing is coming. I really just had that feeling.” The nothing, the void.

The Nothing returned in two of the most powerful songs on Past Life Martyred Saints. “Coda,” the short intro to “Marked,” finds her recalling, “When I looked on the computer/ It was just an emptiness that made me want to throw up on the spot.” Opening track “The Grey Ship,” meanwhile, concludes with the quiet, plaintive declaration, “Great grandmother lived on the prairie / Nothing, and nothing, and nothing, and nothing/ I got that same feeling inside of me/ Nothing, and nothing, and nothing, and nothing.”

And now, here’s the void again, this time as an image so important to this record that it appears in the album title. “I didn’t know there was [a connection between this image and her previous songs] until I’d been thinking about it more,” Anderson muses. “The more I talk to people about these things, the more it comes together for me. There’s a lot of stuff that really only makes sense in hindsight, [because] when I try to record, I try to let my conscious mind get out of the way. And I try to let free associations and lyrics write themselves and come out. And I just like the word ‘void.’ I didn’t really realize that I was writing once again about the void. Or thinking about the void once again as South Dakota or the outer ring or any of those places. It’s this kind of thing that’s terrifying but also has this amazing creative potential.”

Anderson grew up in South Dakota, the part of the US map most apt to feel like a void to anyone on either coast. The locale has always been important to her songs — Red State is a concept album about a landscape of empty rooms and empty horizons, while Past Life Martyred Saints‘ best-known track, “California,” serves as both furious denunciation of the golden state (where she attended college) and an apology to the people she left behind. Both albums, to an extent, provided a window into the void of the Midwest, an insight into the lives of people whose travails don’t make the news on the coast. There’s a particularly poignant track at the end of Red State called “Advice,” wherein a lonely television plays over a dark, atonal drone, warning of the dangers of boredom: “If we don’t have something that gives us some joy, that gives us some creativity, that gives us some love… you will become an addict.”

“I think people from the coasts, people who grew up in LA or New York should have to do… not a foreign exchange, but [they] should have to spend two semesters in the middle of Kansas,” Anderson chuckles. “Just to get to know it. People would be like, ‘Oh, no!’ But there’s really beautiful stuff. I obviously have a soft spot for Midwesterners, and just the way they communicate, and their groundedness.”

Today she speaks fondly of her youth, although it clearly wasn’t all plain sailing. “We did have a community [in South Dakota] that was built by bands touring through,” she says, “and a home-grown music scene, and DIY shows, so I didn’t feel really alone. For a while it was really productive because we were on one of the main freeways going through the country, and we had a really good promoter, and he would book these bands that were coming through… I don’t know how it would happen, but you’d get 300 kids from all over, [who’d] probably drove in from all around. And they’d all pile in there and see Fugazi. I saw Marilyn Manson when I was 13 in a 250-300 capacity room.”

Of course, these days, you’re never entirely alone, because of, yes, the Internet. It’s become a lifeline for weird kids in little towns, a place where they can talk to people with similar interests from across the world, a place for them to discover music and art and film and culture. But that’s not the role it played in Anderson’s life: “I consider myself on the cross-fade between Gen-X and millennial, whatever you want to say. And growing up in South Dakota, people are not early adopters. Honestly, I was hardly on the Internet hardly in high school. Up until really late, you were an asshole [in South Dakota] if you had a cell phone. Like, a ‘What is that?’ type of a thing. So in that way I was in a little bubble.”

In a theme that recurs throughout The Future’s Void, she’s ambivalent about the benefits of connectedness. “Sometimes these things that seem like disadvantages can actually be advantages,” she says. “When I look back I think, wow, I had these nights in the summer in South Dakota when we used to drive out on railroads and not do anything but listen to whatever tape was in the car, and it was the most free place. And so I wouldn’t trade that for being hooked in.”

If Anderson’s earlier work was about looking into the void within — the blanked-out days of addiction, the numbness of boredom, the spaces left by broken relationships and broken homes — this album is more about the space between perception and reality. Its songs seem to draw heavily on Anderson’s experiences of becoming EMA, and specifically on the disconnect between EMA and Erika M. Anderson. In “3Jane,” she sings that she feels “like I blew my soul out/ Across the interwebs and streams/ It was a million pieces of silver and I watched them gleam/ It left a hole so big inside of me/ and I get terrified that I will never get it back to me.”

She narrated a story to the Quietus a couple of weeks back about a psychedelic experience wherein she visualized EMA as an entirely separate entity from herself: “I had this vision that I had this really bright white cube inside of my brain and it was full of everything that was EMA. It was full of all the pictures and videos and words and live shows. It was in my brain and it felt awful. It was really stressful to have that all in there. It felt separate from me.”

The image of the cube comes from William Gibson’s Neuromancer, which is clearly a strong influence on The Future’s Void; the title of “3Jane” references one of the novel’s characters, and there’s a song that takes its name from the book’s title itself. When I ask her about Gibson, she laughs and says, “Oh God. I don’t know – maybe it just makes me sound crazy. Maybe if more people had read Neuromancer, I think it would make sense, but now it’s like, oh man, not enough people are going to get this cultural reference, and I’m just going to sound weirder than I already sound… Maybe it was me trying to compartmentalize or something. It’s not the first time that I’ve reached out to books or literature or things to try and explain something that was happening to me emotionally or psychologically.”

Still, the idea of a persona as an entirely self-contained entity with a mind of its own is particularly fascinating given the album’s focus on issues of identity and the plastic nature of reality. Clearly, cyberspace gives the opportunity to construct a persona that’s entirely separate from your real life self. I mention digital artist Molly Soda, with whom Anderson worked on the video for “So Blonde,” the second single from The Future’s Void, as an example of an persona that seems to be an entirely Internet-based construct.

Anderson raises an eyebrow. “Really?”

Yes, I say. Maybe I’m wrong, but I get the sense that the entire Molly Soda character is an online construct, as much of a performance as anything else.

“See,” she replies, “I’m not even sure if the words ‘construct’ or ‘performance’ are applicable anymore. I think it can be in shades – it’s a spectrum thing for many people, but I don’t think that those words are completely relevant. When was it ever? Was [a persona] ever completely a construct? Or completely ever a performance? I think that it’s a much more porous membrane [between self and persona].”

This is where EMA seems to diverge from the generally accepted wisdom that there’s a disconnect between your online identity and your identity away from cyberspace. There can be a total lack of overlap between the two — a void, if you will — as in the case of, say, 50-year-old men posing as teenage girls on dating sites. But more often, the two blur, with the image of yourself that you project online being a sort of idealized version of your IRL self. People you know on the Internet have never met you, so you can represent yourself in certain ways that don’t necessarily reflect the way you are in real life.

“I’m not sure,” Anderson says of this contention. “I think it depends on the person. I would hope to give as true of a window as I can [into my experience]. I’m not trying to construct an image, but I suppose what I want to share and don’t want to share — just by a process of editing, unconscious or conscious — will construct something… I don’t know if we’re saying the nature of being online will always create a third thing – will always create a separate entity, or if we’re moving towards a point where these words like ‘construct’ and ‘in real life’ and ‘online’ are becoming these kind of irrelevant distinctions. For me, even considering there’s a difference is going to be an outdated model in five years.”

The other implication of the white cube image is that a persona is something that you can lose control over, to some extent. It’s like anything you put out into the world — once it’s public, it ceases to become exclusively yours, and is open to others’ interpretations and contributions. This is especially true if you’re famous. “I think when things get out of control is when it becomes uncomfortable, at least for me,” Anderson agrees. “So I need to strike a balance between saying, ‘OK, I need to get out in front of [my image] and do something’ and also being like, ‘I don’t want to spend my entire life online.'”

She discusses a recent photo shoot as a way to reclaim her own image: “I just spent a bunch of time before I came [to New York] taking a bunch of these photos, because I knew, ‘Oh man, if I don’t do this, there are going to be other pictures that are going to go out.’” The images she came up with are striking: here’s Anderson clutching a glowing cube, and there she is against a projected background of Second Life porn. “It was important to me to try to represent myself,” she says. “Something happens when I get in front of a camera that someone else is behind, except if it’s a friend of mine. And I don’t mean for it to happen – it’s not their fault – it’s just something that happens. And so we spent quite a bit of time doing things we were happy with.”

The Future’s Void‘s obsession with disconnection and blurring of the lines between image and reality isn’t limited to personal experience, either. The focus on the virtual void has to some extent overshadowed the other lyrical themes on the record. First single “Satellites,” for instance, references the Cold War, a time in which America’s identity was largely defined in opposition to the Soviet Union, but also draws a parallel between the Eastern Bloc’s surveillance culture and that which exists in America today. (Anderson’s liner notes explain that “‘Satellites’ explores the places where everyone has equal access but is also under constant surveillance. A young Westerner imagines life in the former Soviet Bloc. We fought the wars with information. Outer space seems very cold.”)

“America has been out in front of its own image for a long time,” Anderson explains. “It’s been kind of the world leader in image creation… American culture is just like a beacon, infiltrating the entire world.” But the last few years have seen a similar fragmentation of America’s identity — there’s a disconnect, again, between the image this country projects to the world and the reality. It’s a theme echoed in a line from “3Jane,” wherein EMA observes, “Like an American superpower/ Turn on the spotlight/ And nobody cowers.” The image is flickering and cracking — look at the imperious manner in which Vladimir Putin has brushed aside the UN’s concerns over the Crimea.

And indeed, perhaps the most fascinating thing about The Future’s Void is the way its themes have presaged reality. Two days after it was released, the Oculus Rift technology was bought by Facebook for $2 billion. The whole idea of surveillance culture, a prominent theme on the album, has obviously been in the news all year because of Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations — but it turns out the songs on The Future’s Void were written before Snowden went public.

“Writing a song like ‘Neuromancer’ and wearing the Oculus Rift on the [album] cover, that didn’t really make sense until this other thing came along,” Anderson says, “this other piece. But then Facebook buys Oculus and it completes the meaning. Or writing about these Soviet satellite countries, then only recently Russia invades Crimea and it bubbles up again. And then of course the Snowden NSA thing.

“So I feel like things are completing the meaning. Which maybe came from reading sci-fi stuff. Because I think a book like Neuromancer — when it came out, I’m sure was amazing, and it won the Hugo and the Nebula, but it probably became more amazing in 1999, when people were like, ‘Holy fuck, this all is real.’ So [maybe] that was kind of the influence that reading sci-fi had: it just kind of put me in a mindset of speculation, but like stuff, you know, it’s really kind of falling into place, in a weird way.”

Are things all fucked up? Is the future all fucked up? The millennial generation gets a rough ride, but it’s the first American generation in a long time that’s had to look to the future with anything but optimism, the first generation of people who have no expectation that their lives will be better than their parents’. It’s easy to look at the future with mounting despair — the world is heating up, the ice caps are melting, the population is growing and no one seems remotely inclined to do anything about it. For all we know, in a generation’s time we could all be living in The Road. The future is, indeed, a void.

All that seems a long way away on an unseasonably balmy Brooklyn night, though. Back at Union Pool, the various technical issues get resolved, and the band romp through the rest of a set that’s heavy on new songs, finishing with a barnstorming Bikini Kill cover that catalyzes an all-girl mosh pit at the front of the stage. Afterwards, Anderson hangs out and talks to friends and fans — as far as rock stars go (and let’s be honest: Erika M. Anderson is a rock star), you’d be hard-pressed to find a more affable or engaging presence. From here, the band will head out on an extensive US tour. The album has had largely enthusiastic reviews. If the future is a void, at least it’s an exciting one.

And this gets me thinking that actually, as much as anything else, the album’s title calls to mind Joe Strummer’s famous declaration that “the future is unwritten.” Anderson agrees enthusiastically when I suggest that the void of the title is one that we have the power to fill. “That’s the thing,” she says. “It’s frightening, but it doesn’t have to be. I think there’s also space for creative potential. I write these things — whatever I’m interested in, I’m just plucking stuff out of the void or the ether or whatever. And a lot of these things are fulfilling themselves.”