EMA’s Erika M. Anderson doesn’t fuck around. The Sioux Falls, South Dakota-born songwriter, and former frontwoman for the short-lived but cultishly-adored outfit Gowns, may have flirted with expulsion from her middle school for a prank involving a dissected frog, but when it comes to her artistic life, Anderson has always maintained a zen-level focus. “If I’m going to do something,” she says, “I’m going to do it really well so that no one can fuck with me on it.”
As one of Sioux Falls’s first frontwomen, she fought both vicious remarks from her peers and encroaching boredom with a dark sense of humor. She says her reputation was notorious, even before fronting high school performance art bands Man Hater and Swamp Pussy. She never let their mixed reception break her stride; in fact, she considers Gowns and EMA an extension of those high school pursuits, and her strong sense of self radiates throughout her solo debut, Past Life Martyred Saints.
eMusic’s Marissa G. Muller tapped into EMA’s past life in Sioux Falls, her travails living in L.A., and how she copes with her grandma Googling her.
On how getting into trouble in school shaped her sense of performance:
I was always running around creating havoc. We were supposed to dissect a frog in biology and I was into these Christ albums and Christ movies, so I put this frog on these two pencils stuck together and carried it around going, “Christ the dissection!”
I look back and see it as being this kind of performance thing, but at the time I was just like, “Eh, whatever. I’m having fun.” I think I was just really bored because all of the work was very easy for me. I could put a small amount of effort into things and do totally fine.
I’ve finally found with doing music or art that I can put so much energy into it because it’s difficult and I want to do the best that I can. It’s not like a test or a job, where you perform on a certain level and things are fine; ’cause I just won’t do that. I’ll do easy things and I get bored or I cause trouble. With something like music or art, it’s a lot easier for me to be internally motivated.
On the overlap between her music and video work:
I was doing that for a while, and that’s how I learned how to run Pro Tools and how to do music stuff. The reason I ended up choosing music [over video] is because when I was in L.A. there was such a vital scene going on with [storied punk club] the Smell, and it just felt like I could reach more people. Whereas, if you do this really awesome video piece it’s kind of like, “Well, how do people get it? Who talks about it? Who sees it?” versus if you make a record, it just seems a lot easier to get your message across. I feel like I could be doing performance, video and writing. I like doing all of those things, but, to me, music has the widest distribution model.
On the music scene in Sioux Falls:
It was kind of weird; there was actually a decent music scene ’cause we were along the I-90 — which is like, if you’re going across the country, you have very few places you can stop and Sioux Falls was one of them. So I saw a lot of stuff: Gauze, Marilyn Manson, Cannibal Corpse.
When I started playing, the scene was almost entirely [made up of] these hardcore emo boys. One of the boys actually tried to start a riot grrrl band called Man Hater, but we didn’t really know what riot grrrl was. We liked Bikini Kill and Julie Ruin, but no one could play. So I was drafted into playing guitar and I kind of took over that band, because all these boys in high school already called me a dyke and shoved me up against lockers because I had a shaved head.
On Man Hater and Swamp Pussy’s reception:
There had never been a female-fronted band in Sioux Falls, pretty much ever, and I don’t know if there’s even really been one since. We were doing this thing that was kinda performance arty, but we had no concept of that at the time. It was just kind of instinctual.
I didn’t really want to be in a band called Man Hater, but when I look back it’s like, “We’re just gonna take what anyone would call me anyway and kind of own it.” Some people liked it; some people were like, “What the fuck is this?” I look back and think, “If we were playing at the Smell, this would have been perfect. People would have dug it.” I was a little notorious in the town, so I think people were more open to me doing it then maybe, like, other girls or something.
On making music out West:
In L.A. it was easier, but I still was defensive by nature a little bit, because I was used to people saying either, “Girls can’t play” or, “You’re a freak,” and constantly having to prove myself. L.A. people are really laid back, but it took me a while to realize that I wasn’t going to get fucked with.
On grandma the Googler and mom’s secret Man Hater tapes:
My parents say they’re proud but, with something like Man Hater, I tried to keep that from them completely. My mom snuck into Man Hater and Swamp Pussy shows with a hoodie and a video camera to videotape us; she thought some of it was weird, but at the same time she’d crash our shows if we were playing anywhere.
I know they’re going to hear EMA, but I’m terrified of it. My grandma’s the one who Googles me. My parents aren’t that Internet savvy, so I feel like they find me in some places, but my grandma is always trying to friend me on Facebook, and I tried to block her. They’re the people that I’m terrified of hearing any of it. It’s almost like I don’t want to tell them about any of the interviews or anything because I’m just like, “How are you going to take this?” There’s just things I don’t really want to explain to them.
I think my grandma just kind of filters some stuff out. They’re Republican and she had [Gowns'] Red State — which is a lot of drugs and politics — and I think she’s just like, “Oh well, you can’t understand what she’s saying half the time anyway.” That’s her way of being like, “I’m going to purposefully pretend that I’m not hearing things that I might not be okay with.”
On EMA’s live show:
EMA has actually been a little less performative, and maybe that’s just been because we haven’t had a lot of time to work stuff out, but when I look at, like, Gowns or something, I was basically doing an extension of what I had been doing as a teenager. And, also to an extent with EMA — doing something like “California,” which is almost like a rap ballad or spoken word thing — that’s kind of performative. I feel like I’ve always had this aesthetic which is kind of convocational, kind of weird, half-funny, but also really emotional.
We’re just starting. I have my little sister on drums and singing harmonies, and I bet it’s cool for people to see us playing together. And then we have keyboard and strings and the bass player toured with us. But it’s more somber, and hopefully things won’t break as often or go haywire, which is what made people like Gowns. To me, it was incredibly painful to be on edge all the time like, “What’s going to break?” The adversity of that — not knowing how to get through a set — made me a front person who had to rely on energy to kind of get through things. Growing up in a small town and having this adversity makes you have to deal with things and makes you stronger.
On the origin of “California,” and her beat-down lyrics:
In “California,” there’s a Stephen Foster lyric: “I bet my money on the bobtail nag/ Somebody bet on the bay.” He’s considered the first great American songwriter, and he totally died penniless at 37 at a shitty hotel or something. And I’m like, “Okay, seems accurate. Not much has changed.”
[There's also] a Bo Diddley lyric from “Who Do You Love?” I think it’s really great because when you are 22, you’re kind of like, “Yeah, I’m 22, I don’t mind dying.” You don’t know what’s going on. It’s an old lyric, but I think it’s still apt for today.
Most of the lyrics come from a place that I’m trying to almost exorcise or get out of me. Sometimes it’s the confident part of me, and sometimes it’s the place where I let myself say certain things. ‘Cause growing up in the Midwest and Scandinavian, you keep a lot of things in. People have to be, in some ways, reserved and solemn and then there’s that classic Viking thing where it’s like you can go berserk or whatever. And I think that’s what comes out in performance — the more berserk side.
Some of the songs on the EMA record are old. I wrote “Butterfly Knife” and “Marked” when I was 22 and at the time I was like, “I can’t release this. I can’t say this because it’s too extreme.” None of those songs got rewritten but I was just too scared of them to come out.
On now making music independently, versus with a band:
In some ways, it’s something that I could have done a lot earlier. And even though I do have a fairly healthy amount of confidence — you could say “swagger” #&8212; when I started in L.A. and wanted to do something bizarre, I almost needed someone else to vouch for me or tell me it was okay. I’d like to say, “I knew it was cool from the beginning,” but it took a second to actually say the things that I wanted to say.
I am in my late 20s now. What I did when I was a teenager was kind of instinctual, but I feel like the same person that I’ve always been, still liking what I’ve always liked and just doing what I’ve always done. I don’t know how, but I feel like I’ve always had a strong sense of self.