The Outer Ring: A look into EMA's universe

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ema the future void

Poised beneath a huge cross at Austin's Central Presbyterian Church, Erika M. Anderson looked as much like a preacher forecasting doomsday as she did a rock singer. She was guzzling DayQuil all through SXSW, but you'd never be able to tell she was sick by the way her voice rang from the altar. Along with her band, EMA lurched through a good stretch of her forthcoming album, The Future's Void, mixed with a few choice cuts from 2011's Past Life Martyred Saints, the album that turned ears across the world her way. The new album is grander and heavier than EMA's solo debut; like the title suggests, it's not quite optimistic, either.

Anderson answers my phone call at her home in Portland, Oregon, where she's currently working up to her album's release and subsequent international tour. She's casual in conversation the way you might expect from her music's endearing slacker-fi, but work your way onto the right topic and she'll boil over. She consumes and creates art with a rare fervor. She binges on books the way some people binge on Breaking Bad. A restless polymath, she'll talk about how frustrated she is that she doesn't have the time to learn all the software she needs to make all the art she wants to make. She's a video artist and photographer as well as a guitarist and singer, and like anyone who wants to create everything all at once, she usually has to shelve one kind of work in favor of another.

Rife with references to science fiction and horror novels, The Future's Void orbits something smaller and closer to home than the impending apocalypse. It wrestles with digital depersonalization, urban isolation, and the kind of loneliness that only hides in the quietest suburbs. It is about flipping rapidly between looking at culture from the inside and looking at it from far, far away. It's a little about the strange affect of selfies spliced into Second Life erotica, too. I spoke to Anderson a few weeks before the album's release about the weather inside the world that gave rise to The Future's Void.

It's fitting that you're releasing a record called The Future's Void right after NASA announces that human civilization only has 15 years left to go. Do you think that's true? In your opinion, how much longer do we have?

Ah, geeze. I don't know if I'm the person to answer that. I really liked their take on it, though, how they were like, “Look, this isn't just an ecological problem, this is an economic problem. The elites are going to keep saying that there's nothing wrong.” I read it as being a slightly anti-capitalist breakdown. It's funny. I haven't read Marx. All I know is that I'm constantly seeing things now that make it seem like things are coming back to this problem of placing a premium on capitalism at the expense of so many other things. It keeps popping up to me in this way that's kind of shocking.

On a lighter note, this album has a lot more variety in its instrumentation than your last one. But you still have that gritty, lo-fi texture that is very much you. How did you balance the expansion of your palette with that sound that you've kept for a while?

I worked with Leif Shackelford. He helped do some mixing on the last record. We just do it ourselves in a studio in the basement. I really prize the feeling or emotion of a take over it being played perfectly. If I get the emotion right, if I get the intention right, that's a better take than if I get the pitch right and the lyrics right. Or say I accidentally had the preamp up too hot; I'm just like, “Who cares, it doesn't matter, let's keep it in because it feels better.” I also try and have humans play it as much as possible, whether that be getting into analog modular synths and playing the resonance filter as you would play a guitar solo, or having the drummer hit the drum even if it's triggering a sound.

I think what makes musicians unique is their internal rhythms, or the cadence of their voice, or the way they speak or the way they sing. I try to get things to follow the voice, or follow the phrasing, follow the breath, the breathing. I'll base my rhythms around that. But it makes it hard to play with other people. I can always tell when the changes are going to come because it's my natural rhythm, but trying to get someone else to overdub or redo a part, they're just like, “I don't fucking get this. This makes no sense to me.”

How do you end up communicating what you want to musicians that collaborate with you?

Through different sorts of trial and error. I use strange words. Billy, my drummer, he's also not classically trained. He's self-taught. So I would give him weird homework. He's really into Game of Thrones. He'll watch Game of Thrones episodes over and over. I'll be like, “Next time you rewatch your Game of Thrones episode, I want you to do a live score using your drum.” Or I'll give him a folk song that's a cappella and I'll be like, “Play along to this.” Just to help break his mind open. But then he's gotten me to be like, “Yo, we should have some of these songs we're playing live on a click.” Because if we eat a ton of pizza beforehand, everything's going to be really slow, or if we're really nervous, everything's going to be really fast. At first I was like, “No, we can't! Just watch me for the changes!” And that doesn't always work. So it's a compromise. I try to learn and teach at the same time.

You're also a visual artist, right?

I was. I like to do that when I get the chance. I missed a few upgrades to Final Cut, so now I'm trying to catch up. That's the thing that's difficult. I like to do everything myself. I don't have time to do everything myself. For this record, I had to learn how to work with a new version of Pro Tools. I picked up Photoshop. I picked up Adobe Premiere. I'm working with Lightroom. All of these programs, you can't be the best at all of them. Sometimes you have to give it to someone else who's a pro. But there's something charming about demos, right? For anything. So I feel like the more the music expands its palette and maybe becomes less dirty and lo-fi, I'm hoping that I can keep that demo spirit with visual art if I have time. Like, this is my fucked up selfie, it's not perfect or I didn't color process it correctly. These things still have a charm to them. But then sometimes I feel like I fuck up and I'm like, no one got this or this just looks sloppy or it's in between two genres or two fidelities and it's confusing.

I just started putting these things up on Tumblr that were like “sad Second Life” shots, a series of visuals. I did these sad Second Life things and for some reason I spent all night until 6am fucking with them and putting them on the blog. The next day, Pitchfork had written this thing about being a woman on the internet. I was like, oh, that's weird. I guess I'm glad that I stayed up, because I felt like it really was this moment of synchronicity. I would love to have the time to do all that. I like doing all of it. I love the idea of signing off on every aspect of my work. If I had the time, I would do it all. I would teach myself every program and do all of it. It's so hard and it's so uncomfortable. Something that really can fuck with me is having my image represented by other people. I find it stressful. Having a photo taken of me . . . the thing is, I don't know how to pose right. It ends up fashiony or too sexy or too pretty or something. So I'd like to be able to do it all myself, but fuck, man. There's only so much time.

On the album, you reference the anxiety of putting your art out online, putting parts of yourself out into the world. Do you think it's possible to find a balance between self-publication and self-preservation?

That's what I'm looking for. There's . . . I don't want to say “viral”, but there's this exponential nature of the internet, which can be really amazing. You put out a bunch of stuff, and then you're like, cool, I'm really happy about everything I put up. But then sometimes it just grows beyond what you wanted it to be. You're just like, oh, can we stop now? Can we put a cap on this? And the answer is no, you can't put a cap on it. I was terrified of the internet, and now I'm just like, if something terrifies you, you've got to go back in and face it. I don't know. It's fun now. I like being part of a conversation with music. Putting out new ideas, talking with people, having discussions, I like that aspect. But some of the other things, when it just becomes about number counts or pictures or fame, I just want to be like, okay, I'm done. Thanks, bye. I have these fantasies of going out to a trailer in the desert and making an acoustic punk album.

What's the weirdest response to your music that you've seen online?

I don't look very often. I like putting stuff out there, but reading any response to it, I don't like. I will say this: one time when I was super tired, super jetlagged, and super PMS-y, which is a really bad combination to look at anything online, I looked at comments on a YouTube video and someone was like, “this person totally sucks. She should get ready to spend her life working at McDonald's.” Just something really mean. Someone else wrote back, “why would you say that?” And she's like, “LOL, I was just having fun.” As if that's just what you do on the internet. You just bash people. I never do this, but I was in this insanely grumpy mode, so I clicked on her profile and saw this really shitty video of her singing some pop song. She's like, “here's me trying to do this, don't be mean!” There was a moment where I just wanted to fucking post her shit and be like, this is the bitch that thinks I should work at McDonald's. I had that moment, and then I was like, whoa, I just need to go to bed. So I went to bed and it was okay. I woke up the next morning like, why the fuck did I care about that again?

The internet makes it easy to forget that other people exist on the other end.

Right. I exist. I could have clicked on her. I could have tweeted a link and been mean. But that's not good. I don't need to do that. There's some sort of unwritten rule that if you're someone bigger on the internet, you never go after anyone who is mean to you. There's a temptation to be like, why? Why don't you? I want somebody to do it. I'm too scared to do it, but I would love to see somebody just tweet all of the lame links to all their haters.

I think Zomby's done that.

Probably someone's done it. Even writing about all this stuff, I'm just like, am I risking the wrath of the internet by talking about the internet? It's possible. I also feel like at some point, hopefully, truth wins out. If I write something and it's like, look, this is how I feel, this is an honest thing, if you want to be juvenile about shit and attack me, that's on you. At some point, truth should be able to win out.

Some of my favorite parts of this album are when you make lyrical or melodic references to children's folk songs. What role do you think nostalgia plays in the way young people grapple with their reality?

People have said, “I feel like you're such an American writer. You're such an American voice.” I do have this love of folk music and I think it's really cool that music has such a long and rich history to pull from. I'm not sure about nostalgia. People are saying maybe nostalgia is going to collapse upon itself, which is possible. I'm not sure.

It'll go down with capitalism, maybe.

You can add digital filters to anything to make it either sound or look like any time period, but when you do that, it instantly also looks like 2013 Instagram.

I feel like a lot of people are countering digital anxiety with those gestures, making things look older or look like tangible objects.

They do. That's the thing: that's come so far that now everyone has the ability to throw those filters on, so now they look trendy and new. When something's supposed to look like Super 8 film, it looks instead like the latest iPhone filter.

Is there anything musically that you draw upon in the album that people might not expect?

“Smoulder” has kind of got this West Coast hip-hop thing going on, the piano in the beginning. I wanted it to sound like an amazing Snoop and Dre song. “Neuromancer” was written after a friend's wedding in Costa Rica. She's Costa Rican, so she plays all these Nicaraguan hip-hop and reggaeton songs that were big hits over there. I came back and I was like, “Okay, Billy, play a reggaeton beat.” Even though it sounds like the most industrial song, it's got this weird reggaeton backing. “So Blonde” is obviously just meta-grunge. A lot of things come from visual art or literature, too.

Do you have any specific examples? Obviously there's William Gibson and H.P. Lovecraft in there.

There's this woman Herta Müller. She won the Nobel Prize in literature a few years ago. Some of the stuff about coming up on the east side of the wall is from her. I just read everything. I'll pick up trash. There are three libraries in Portland and I'll just pick up whatever and read it.

What are you reading right now?

I'm not allowed to read right now. You know people who get a show on Netflix and they just watch the whole thing? I'm like that with books, and I have too much work to do. If I pick up a book, I will just read it. I'm almost physically incapable of putting it down. I have to finish it.

What was the last one you read, then?

The last thing I read? I'm just going to pick up the book that is on my floor right now.

That works.

It's this book called Petrichor by David Scott Ewers. It was really fucking good. Someone gave it to me. I think it might be a small press item. It was really cool, even though I still don't totally understand what all happened at the end. That was also read in jetlag land. I constantly have books overdue at the library. I've probably paid the library a hundred dollars in late fees this year. It's terrible. Another book that was kind of cool was this book called Bury Me Standing, which is about the Roma people, commonly known as gypsies. It's an Eastern European thing as well. That probably ended up making it into the record in some weird way. I just moved to the Pacific Northwest. I live in Portland right now. Its history kind of made it in. I feel like it's a very West Coast record. It's got West Coast noise, like the weird noise shows I used to go to in Oakland and LA.

Another concept I'm really interested in but don't know how to delve into is this idea of the outer ring suburbs. What sort of culture comes in and out of there? You have these new, identical condos next to houses that were built 50 years ago when it was mostly farmland, and then there'll be a brand new Lowes and a brand new In N Out. What is their identity in terms of community versus these rural places where I grew up? At least in Sioux Falls, it was like, oh, it's Sioux Falls, it's a city. But if you're in Portland and you're from Gresham, do you identify with your outer ring suburb, or do you identify as a lesser bit of this larger metropolis? The new record makes sense in some relation to the outer ring. That's all I can say. I don't know how to explain it, but that's my trip right now. That's my new trip.


EMA's The Future's Void is out on April 8 through Matador.