EMA Fights the Future

Robert Ham

By Robert Ham

on 04.04.14 in Features

Erika Anderson and I are squinting under the bright neon lights of a slightly dingy salon in a mall in Portland, Oregon, trying to choose nail polish colors for our pedicures. Unlike myself, Anderson, who records as EMA, is at ease here, if a little bemused at the sparse all-white décor and the skittish demeanor of the woman who will soon be worrying over our feet.

“I get these with my mom all the time,” she says brightly, picking out an especially brilliant shade of orange to match the baggy cardigan wrapped around her lean frame. “Whenever I visit, she’s always looking for things my sister and I can do with her, and we usually end up doing this.”

Her openness is notable given that, until this moment, Anderson had struck me as oddly guarded. As we traded texts, trying to come up with the perfect place for us to hang out, (“My blind date,” as my wife kept referring to it), the tone of her messages shifted between enthusiastic and tentative. She suggested getting Chinese foot massages but worried, “Will that make me sound too yuppie?”

When we finally hit on the perfect plan — pedicures, and then dinner at Buffalo Wild Wings — she’s less concerned about how that combination of activities will make her appear than whether or not I will be documenting the event with photos. But when we meet up, she’s all smiles, and more than comfortable laughing at my oversized feet.

Still, for someone who resides in Portland, home of Stumptown Coffee and hip food carts that serve 12 varieties of poutine, Anderson settling on a mall hangout with dinner at a chain restaurant didn’t jibe — until I started connecting her past with her present.

As we have dead skin scraped from our heels and our backs mushed into complacency by massage chairs, Anderson gives me a quick version of her backstory. She’s a proud product of the Midwest, having grown up in South Dakota, where she balanced her blooming love of punk and indie rock with a quiet home life that meant a fancy family dinner was a trip to the local Bubba Gump Shrimp Company.


She relocated to the West Coast in her early 20s, landing in the Bay Area, and immediately fell in with its thriving experimental scene, playing as a member of Amps for Christ and then forming Gowns, a ghostly, clattering outfit with her then-boyfriend Ezra Buchla.
When that band (and her relationship with Buchla) collapsed in early 2010, Anderson felt lost. She confesses that she briefly considered moving back home and hiding out in her parents’ basement. Instead, she relocated to Portland and started bringing new music, wholly her own, into the world.

And then, in 2011, everything exploded. Her second album as EMA, Past Life Martyred Saints, a record she had made primarily in seclusion was, for the better part of that year, everywhere, picking up a Best New Music nod on Pitchfork and winding up on Best of 2011 lists in Mojo, SPIN and BBC Music. But with that came speculation about Anderson herself, most of it drawn from the picture she painted on the album. Her lyrics spoke of drug abuse and possible physical abuse, and registered a deep disconnect with the world around her. Needless to say, conclusions were drawn.

“When everyone’s end-of-the-year list was coming out and there was a lot of stuff being written about me, it just welled up inside me,” she remembers. “I had this psychedelic moment, I would say. I don’t want to give too many details, but I had this vision of the white cube, inside my head, made up of everything that was part of the EMA project. I had to make it separate from myself a little bit.”

‘The Future’s Void feels like a phrase that stoner skate punks in a sci-fi move could say,’ she says. She affects a loving SoCal Jeff Spicoli voice. ‘The future’s void, brah!’ It feels like graffiti that would be in an apocalyptic movie set in the year now.’’

It’s clear, then, why she picked these spots for our time together. After a day of phone interviews, coupled with the grueling preparation for her upcoming appearances at South By Southwest, I think she knew that the experience of talking about herself might be easier with the comforts of home close at hand.

As we gorge on chicken wings in the mall food court and fight to be heard over the din of a dozen TVs, Anderson discusses the themes of her new record. The Future’s Void is obsessed with the overload of the information age, and how we feed that beast with every tweet, Instagram snapshot and status update.

“I’m not trying to be preachy or didactic,” Anderson says, picking suspiciously at salad covered with limp bits of mandarin orange and chicken, “but when I was writing this record, I didn’t feel like anyone was talking about that. It felt a little nerdy or forbidden. Now it’s fucking everywhere.”

Try as she might, Future’s does have, at times, a moralizing tone. At one point, she asks listeners, “When you found out it was over/ Tell me what you wanna see/ When you click on the link of the dead celebrity?” or “Making a living on taking selfies/ is that way you wanna be?”

But the recipient of most of Anderson’s criticism is herself. She didn’t react well to having so many spotlights pointed in her direction, all of them seemingly illuminated at once.

“I didn’t even have that bad of an experience,” she says. “I had good album reviews. People were nice. I tried to talk myself out of these feelings for a long time. I thought, ‘Why am I conflicted? I must be not being honest with myself.’ I sublimated those feelings for a really long time, and they just kind of exploded.”

Void‘s prevailing emotion, though, is fear. It reverberates through “3Jane,” a nod to Phil Spector-style pop that seems to be melting and pooling up at your feet as it moves forward. The song takes its name from a character in William Gibson’s pioneering dystopian sci-fi novel Neuromancer. In the book, 3Jane is a clone who holds a musical key that allows access to superintelligence in cyberspace. In the song, Anderson shakily voices her paranoia at watching her words and image get turned into online fodder.

“Feel 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.”

“On the one hand, everything’s great,” Anderson says. “You’re getting attention that you never had before. I mean, I was ready to quit music and move into my parents’ basement when it happened. It’s this weird thing you feel like you can’t talk about, because most people will kill for that kind of attention. But I think I kept a lot of that inside even though it was bothering me. And then it kind of came out. And that’s what this record is about.”

At this point in the evening, we’re joined by Anderson’s boyfriend Leif Shackelford. The erstwhile software engineer helped write the music on the last two EMA albums but tonight, before coming to the restaurant, he was trying to suss out the intricacies of the LED programming that will be part of the band’s light show for their upcoming tour. His work will create yet another technologically-based refraction of Anderson, this one using Microsoft Kinect to create an avatar of her that will mirror her onstage movements. In talking with them about songwriting, it’s apparent that the two are a perfect balance for each other. Shackelford is classically trained where Anderson is mostly self-taught.

“I went to conservatory and all that,” he says. “Working with Erika, though, all that really works against me. She’s got a very simple, intuitive style in music theory terms.”

Anderson seems slightly taken aback: “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means you don’t do what you’re supposed to. You use too many notes, or if you do things like voice leading or complete chords, you’re not over-thinking it. It comes out naturally.”

As much fun as Anderson seemed like she was having earlier in the evening, she really opens up when Shackelford is with us. Her answers have a bit more bite, as when we started talking about the album title.

The Future’s Void feels like a phrase that stoner skate punks in a sci-fi move could say,” she says. She affects a loving SoCal Jeff Spicoli voice. “‘The future’s void, brah!’ It feels like graffiti that would be in an apocalyptic movie set in the year now.”


Anderson seems to pull Shackelford out of his shell, and his plainspoken, good-humored manner provides a calming presence for Anderson, allowing her to get a little silly. That same dynamic is audible in the music the two create in their shared townhouse.

“We’ll kind of combine efforts,” Shackelford says. “She’ll have the framework down already, and I’ll select a palette of synths and tools, zoning in on the tone of her vocals. She’ll veto the things that don’t go.” What’s left is a bunch of songs that spin off on their own internal flight paths. That can mean an overdriven guitar rocker like “So Blonde,” the bruised synthpop of “Smoulder” or the ethereal wandering-on-a-foggy-moor that is “100 Years.”

That last song was the one I had the hardest time shaking when listening to The Future’s Void. Besides the fact that it is the quietest moment on the record, it felt like it was written by someone on their deathbed, marveling at man’s technological advances over the course of their lifetime (“Who’d have thought that we’d have/ phonographs, machines that can fly,” goes one particularly evocative lyric.)

When I mention this to Anderson, she brushes aside my interpretation. “I guess I wanted to balance out the topical newness with being really aware that it’s all perspective. It’s great to be reminded that the world has always been spinning fast and the last revolution — the industrial revolution — was as off-putting and discomforting to people as anything that’s happening now,” She leans forward, raising her voice to be heard above the din of the restaurant. “I mean, name me a decade where crazy shit wasn’t happening. But now seems less impressive to me in some ways. You think about us moving into cities, and the Civil Rights Movement. It seems like those kinds of greater changes are almost…”

She stops herself and laughs. “I wanted to say, ‘They’re impossible,’ but I didn’t want people looking back on this in 20 years and going, ‘What an idiot!’”