Epitonic sat down with ex-Gowns member Erika M. Anderson (now recording as EMA) to discuss lofty expectations, her new album Past Life Martyred Saints, the state of the music industry, and the perils of being the new face of experimental folk.
Rolling Stone has listed you as an "artist to watch in 2011" and Yahoo! News has stated you were among the most blogged about artists last
month. Do you feel pressure because of that level of publicity and those
In some ways I don't think they have
sunk in with me. I think what's really important is I just try to put
one foot in front of the other. I just try to remember if my guitar
needs strings, you know? I have this thought that when people practice
tightrope walking they do it six inches off the ground to get good at
that. I think if I thought too much about my internet presence I would
probably freak the fuck out. Right now I'm just like okay, well, am I
gonna have fun? Did I remember to eat? How are we playing? I'm trying to
just block that out in some ways, but I am stoked on it, it's great.
music has been classified as drone pop, noise rock, and a hundred other
things. What do you think your artistic aesthetic is? Do you feel like
you've been put in an inaccurate box, so to speak?
I think if
people want to define a musical precedent sometimes they look in the
wrong places. They have a tendency to generalize me towards other women.
They'll be like, "She doesn't sound that much like PJ Harvey, but she
kind of does." I think what I do
sonically sounds possibly more like Velvet Underground where there are
some more long, drawn-out pieces but also some Lou Reed type ballads
dealing with different fidelities. In some ways I've listened to more
Gil Scott-Heron than I have Patti Smith. I think one of the reasons
this record has been so exciting to critics is because there is almost
an eternal conversation about music that is happening through the
record. I am excited about fidelity, technology, genre, sonic signifiers
and all these things. I feel like other people can grasp what I am
getting at here. I think that's what critics are into. They are probably
excited that someone wants to create a dialogue about all these things.
You can tell you really like making music, and it
seems like you've put a lot of thought into your artistic process. How
has that process changed going from Gowns to being on your own?
a double-edged sword. In some ways it feels cool to not have to
represent to anyone else. Certain things I say can be polarizing. The
way I phrase lyrics, and what I talk about can be polarizing. If I
am going to do it, I can stick my neck out and be like "this is me." On
the other hand, Ezra [former Gowns band mate] was a really good diviner
for me. For a long time he was like, "you should go be solo, you should
go out on
your own." I appreciated his input a ton, and for a while I thought I
needed it. I kind of got shoved out the door. It was a little bit
frightening because if I was saying extreme things [with Gowns] I
had this smart dude to back me up; I wasn't just the crazy lady all
alone just saying weird shit.
Do you feel you've evolved since Gowns?
One of the things that happened that was in some ways good (even
though it didn't feel good) was having a feeling that I failed and that
I hit the bottom. Gowns was done, and I was working on experimental,
conceptual work that was way too in between noise and folk for people to
make heads or tails of it, and that felt like failing. But right now I
feel happy, I feel blessed. Some people might be nervous or freaking
out [like], what if I fuck up? What is my status? How am I
perceived? Well, I already failed. I already failed and came back, so
now everything feels like a second chance. It's much easier to be calm,
thankful for it, and to just have fun.
You mentioned your affinity for combining experimental aspects and folk. Past Life Martyred Saints
has a really distinct sound. Do you think going forward that sound will
continue to be who you are, or is your next album going to be
The thing is, all the music I have been
making for years [is] just expanding on my sonic palette. I know what I have liked forever; that's not a problem for me.
But putting it out there can be the problem.
The reason I choose [to go] by my initials instead of going by a band name
is because I want to be flexible. I want to fuck with
genre, I want to fuck with production, I want to do so many different
things...but I'll probably end up in some ways going too far at some
point. I am sure people will be like "What the fuck is she trying? What
is that?" If I see a rule, I am drawn to breaking
it -- which is why what I was working on in the past was too in between
folk and noise.
It's certainly hard to figure out what will work in today's
music market and what won't. As an artist in the midst of it, where do
you see the industry, as shaky as it is, going in the near future?
The economy for music has moved from an actual monetary economy to an
attention economy. People have this idea that you are somehow sustained
as an artist by blog hits.
It's pretty hard to monetize blog hits.
Exactly. It's cool to be respected, and it's cool to have a reputation
and sometimes you can or cannot monetize that reputation. I got an
email the other day that said, "I downloaded your record, do you have
the time to do an interview with me?" And I'm like "No. How much time
and energy do you want to take from me?" It's the sort of thing where
people think they took the time and energy to pay attention to you, and
that should be good enough.
Beyond wanting people to understand that digital chatter
doesn't necessarily equate to actual sustainability, is there anything
else you wish people understood or knew about you?
that I have a sense of humor about myself. I think people don't
understand a lot of stuff about the record sometimes; they think that
everything is really straightforward. I hope that people can take away
that I have a sense of humor and a lot of self-awareness about what I am
Knowing where you are now, where do you think EMA is ultimately going to be?
I'm keeping blinders on right now as far as where I'm at, so I don't
really know where I'm going to be. Honestly, at this point I'm just
working to be grateful for every day.
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