Most musicians come out kicking and screaming on the first show of a new tour. Most artists get motivated by the excitement of starting a fresh chapter, seeking a wider audience. But Erika M. Anderson, known as EMA, is exceptionally unconventional, as she proved at her Seattle concert Friday night. The kick-off of her new tour was more a deconstruction of a traditional rock show than it was a joyous kick-out-the-jams. That doesn't mean it wasn't riveting, but at every turn it was unusual.
Anderson came onstage without an introduction and launched into the bleak "Marked." Some lines she sang, and others she spoke, but all painted a desperately dark landscape. "I wish that every time he touched me left a mark," she murmured. After that, the audience hardly knew whether to applaud or dial a suicide prevention hotline.
When she did address the crowd, it was to seek direction. "Should it be louder?" she asked. "Can I talk now, or should I rock?" These were words spoken to herself more than anyone in the rather sparse crowd. Mostly, she rocked. Backed by a three-piece band that included her younger sister on drums, Anderson presented a taut assault of pure noise-pop. While her previous band Gowns touched upon folk, EMA is all rock, albeit left-of-center indie rock. Guitars swirled, drumbeats stopped and started, a keyboard added bits of texture, and nothing resembled verse-chorus-verse.
And if her stage patter hinted at Cat Power (during her freak-out years), EMA's musical aim was true dissonance (her T-shirt had the word "TRUE" emblazoned on it). She's often compared to the Velvet Underground because of her drone-y tempos, but in Seattle, Sonic Youth appeared to be a bigger influence.
Before playing "Anteroom," she joked that the song was her attempt at "grunge," when it was anything but. "I was hoping that people would be yelling out, 'Slower!' " she said. The audience was silent on that front, and all others as well. Most of the movement in the room came from Anderson throwing around her blonde bob as if it were another instrument. She got looser as the show progressed, and by "Butterfly Knife," she was on her knees pleading out the lyrics. It was part James Brown and part Karen O, though Anderson's lyrics are decidedly her own. "Butterfly Knife" only suggests suicide, but the self-mutilation is perfectly clear, as is the despair. She sang it with the confidence of someone who knows darkness, and doesn't need to act the part.
She closed her set with "California," the song off her album that has generated the most buzz, Past Life Martyred Saints. For this, she put down the guitar and bounced over the stage. It was the one moment when her uncompromising aesthetic was dropped in favor of connection with the audience, and the crowd finally melted.
But even on her almost-"hit," Anderson wasn't about to be conventional. Less than a minute into "California," she had already wrapped the microphone cord around her neck and begun to close the noose. Would she even survive the first show of her tour? The tension and doubt help explain why EMA is a young star worth watching.