The Style Issue: EMA
Leaving behind a busted band and a busted relationship, Erika M. Anderson put together one of the year's most astonishing debuts.
After her band imploded, Erika Anderson was ready to give up on music. then she made one of the year’s unexpectedly great albums.
TMI: Erika M. Anderson is usually okay with things that make other people squeamish, like blasting out scrap-metal guitar sounds and singing about self-mutilation, but worms — those are a problem. Taking a break from fishing near her grandparents’ Minnesota cabin, Anderson, 29, chats about EMA, the project she started last year. But the nightcrawlers she’s using for bait are too big for the hook, so she has to split them in half. “It’s really gross,” she says, “but I make myself do it.” She’s that kind of person.
DNA: A fan of PJ Harvey, the Misfits, and John Cage, Anderson moved to Los Angeles after high school. There, she blared proudly as part of experimental outfit Amps for Christ. In 2005 she opened for fellow fuzzniks the Mae-Shi. She saw that band’s Ezra Buchla walk into the club and the two fell in a wild kind of love, and started Gowns. He made keyboards groan; she played violent guitar, sang in her disarmingly pretty voice, and would put out so much energy during performances that she’d be shaking backstage afterward. They strictly avoided publicists and managers and booking agents. The vein of fraught, feedback-laden music opened by the volatile couple finally bled dry at an early 2010 gig in West Hollywood. “It’d be tawdry to go into what happened that night or why we’re not together anymore,” says Anderson, who admits things were flying around and breaking at the last show. But not long after, she moved home to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and thought hard about giving waitressing a try.
TBD: Hearing Gowns was dead, German indie Souterrain Transmissions contacted Anderson to ask if she was working on anything. She was, but the music was different: less abrasive, though no less intense, and with as many softly incantatory moments (“Breakfast”) as bursting, epic ones (“The Grey Ship”). It was also better, more free in its willingness to do things other than sting. That openness was reflected in her more playful look — red lipstick, hand-decorated T-shirts, and a nameplate necklace. (She almost always hides her eyes behind rock-star shades or under her blonde bangs. I ask why. She answers, “Don’t I expose enough?”) In May the label released the sly, gripping Past Life Martyred Saints. Playing live as a quartet, EMA undertook their first headlining tour in July. In September they will play Europe. “I’ve learned,” says Anderson, “that punk rock doesn’t have to be a synonym for self-sabotage.”