EMA: Keep ‘Em Guessing

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“On record I will say whatever,” says Erika M. Anderson (better known by her initials EMA). “That’s what I need to do; that’s what helps me feel better. But in real life, I’m a Scandinavian, stoic, air sign. I’m not demonstrative emotionally in person. So it will really stay down inside. I found that music is a really great way to let things out.”

It’s a surprising statement from the emotive singer/songwriter. The ex-Gowns frontwoman made a name for herself with her 2011 debut, Past Life Martyred Saints, a collection of fractured folk songs cut with blasts of punk noise and lo-fi walls of guitar. He newest release (and first for Matador Records), The Future’s Void, turns up the emotions and volume. Full of screamed lyrics, eerie ballads and references to dead celebrities, Big Brother and Lucifer, it’s a contradictory collection: Direct but not angry. Melancholy but not mopey. Haunted but not resigned. But there is one element—all but lost in the thematic and sonic layers—that Anderson hopes won’t go unnoticed.

“There’s humor and self-awareness on this record that I feel gets overshadowed by the intensity,” she says, giggling nervously, sounding miles away from her verbose musical persona. “I kinda like to keep things right in the middle, so that you’re forced to pay attention and wonder what I mean rather than relying on tropes… Like the fact that ‘So Blonde’ is a grunge song about grunge. It’s a very self-aware song. It’s funny!”

For all the most dark/daring/funny elements on The Future’s Void, perhaps few are more cutting than its vaguely sci-fi thematic through line, which will lead critics and listeners alike to draw quick conclusions about the so-called “concept album.” Anderson is quick to point out that, yes, the ramifications of technology and social media on relationships are woven throughout the collection. (Although on the flip-side, songs such as “100 years” “Cthulu” and “Smoulder” don’t even mention technology.) However, she didn’t set out to make a grand statement.

“I think it’s like, it’s here, this is it,” she says. “This is everything. The future. We’re living in it. Sci-fi. It looks different than we thought it was. That’s the thing with the record. I wanted to tackle some of these themes, but I didn’t want to use tacky space-age synths. All these ‘future trope’ types of music. This is what it sounds like! This is what it looks like. It’s probably less glamorous than you thought…the real reality is sitting in a shitty apartment with tons of trash all over, looking at a screen and interacting with that.”

Sure, it sounds dire. But an avid proponent of social media (yes, she tweets—even though she notes that being a public figure does limit the spontaneity of her transmissions), Anderson is careful to note that The Future’s Void shouldn’t be viewed as a takedown of the Internet. In fact, it wasn’t until after writing several songs that she began to notice a pattern to her thoughts about the theme.

“I’m disconnected from what I’m feeling half the time,” she admits. “Then I’ll go into jamming, or I’ll go into a trance state or something. Then when I come back, I realize this is how I’m feeling. I didn’t realize that I was having these complex emotions about my about my mother or something! I’ll be like, ‘oh fuck that makes sense. That’s probably why.’”

She references “3Jane” as an example. A gut-wrenching ballad that explores some of the same themes of privacy touched on in her Talkhouse piece on Britney Spears, the song contains the telling lines “There should a law about it, when they can’t take videos of you,” and “I feel like I blew my soul out across the interwebs and screens.” Anderson admits that the level of directness came as a surprise to her.

“I kind of knew I was feeling that way, but I didn’t totally know,” she muses. “They come out in these improvised ways. That song was written really quickly and improvised. Then I’ll craft it a little bit and go ‘oh! That’s how I feel.’ I feel like your subconscious mind writes at least half of it. Art is getting made all the time.”

Unapologetically confrontational (at least in music), Anderson admits that “3Jane” was one of the few times she chose to self-censor herself—even if it happened after the initial writing process. It’s not a decision, she notes, that she comes to often.

“I wrote all those lines in it, but there were even more that I took out,” she says. “It was a little too much; it was a little too far. But then also, with something like that, there are songs that I’m like, ‘Oh fuck, I can’t let this out in the world.’ Every time I’m scared about letting something out in the world, I have to realize that’s the kind of thing that might be the most potent. It could be at some point that I cross the line, and some people are going to be like, ‘What the fuck? This is too much.’ But I felt that way about ‘California.’ I felt that way about ‘Marked.’ I felt that way about ‘Butterfly Knife.’ I felt that way about many things. In the end, those end up being the songs where people are, ‘Wow, I can really relate to that.’”

Therein lies another of The Future’s Void’s over-reaching themes. Dark, positive, or otherwise, technology has created the kind of world where, from police states to indie rock, we’re all in it together. The future is now—and Anderson for one is ready to embrace it for better or for worse.

“I don’t feel dystopian about it,” she says emphatically. “That’s the thing with the record too. It’s not trying to be didactic about it, ‘the Internet is bad’ or anything like that. It doesn’t need to be like that at all. It’s just expressing different points. That’s the thing. Does the future even matter? Let’s stop worrying about that for a second. We’re in it. We’re in the sci-fi zone.”