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Interviewed by
Courtney Sanders
Monday 31st March, 2014 11:42AM

Erika M Anderson, under the moniker EMA, released her sophomore album Past Life Martyred Saints in 2011 after her drone-folk project Gowns disbanded in 2010. She gained the kind of media hype usually attached to breakthrough (and groundbreaking) records by alternative artists, especially stylish and attractive alternative artists from the West Coast. From Anderson’s perspective, all of this attention manifested as her being recognised (and misinterpreted) by strangers online which, quite naturally, freaked her out.

Anderson retreated to anonymity in the Pacific Northwest, read a lot of dystopian literature, and allowed the futuristic visions of George Orwell and William Gibson to inform her own interaction with the technological sphere. She wrote about all of this – as well as her love of grunge – in her new album, tellingly titled The Future’s Void, which is due out April 8 through Matador Records. Writer Courtney Sanders chatted to a bedridden-with-the-flu Anderson, via Skype, about the album and you know, data collection by the NSA.

Hey Emma, how are you - what are you up to at the moment?

I’m in bed. I’m actually feeling a little bit under the weather, so I’m just like sitting in bed, half up, half down haha.

Oh no! I guess doing interviews is a non-stressful thing to do when you’re feeling sick, right?

Yeah totally - it could be worse for sure.

You’re obviously looking forward to the release of your new album?

Yeah of course – the songs have been around for a while now so you always want it out in the world.

Cool... I wanted to start by discussing the time between when you released your last album and today. How has your perspective on the project has changed? How has your song writing changed over the past couple of years?

After Past Life Martyred Saints came out it was fantastic in many ways - things that I never really dreamed of happening, happened. But there aspects of it that were kind of strange to me - I wasn’t used to having my picture online, and I started to feel this weird reaction to it, but I didn’t know how to speak to people about it because I didn’t want to seem ungrateful. 

It peaked at one point and after that - after we got off tour - I stayed pretty low-key. I went back to Portland, where I didn’t really know that many people, and kept it low level, you know. From there I started to write the new record and used the isolation to explore the things that I had been feeling but hadn’t felt comfortable about putting into words until then.

I read on your website you described writing The Future’s Void as “shedding your old persona in a basement”. Can you elaborate on this?

Well I mean, one of the things that is new on this new record is me playing around with more electronic sounds. When I would sit down and try to write with the guitar the results were very boring to me – they didn’t feel new or exciting. I wanted to find something I didn’t know how to do, and I think this is a common thing with musicians – we seek a feeling of naivety in order to create something fresh. 

Now it’s pretty hard for me to access how I was feeling at the time because I’m in a pretty good mood and nothing feels as scary as it did, but for a while I was overwhelmed with stuff. What I was dealing with wasn’t even that huge, but it was much larger than anything I had dealt with before. It was disassociating for me because you lose control of your image, and you start to feel a disconnect from the person that people might have in their minds and the person that you actually are, and that’s weird!

When I listen to The Future’s Void I hear these two interlocking ideas. One is technology and the affect it is having on society and the other – which I guess is a sub-theme of that - is the representation of people online. Is that a fair description of the themes on the album?

Yeah. I feel like what I’ve tried to do with this record is give my personal feelings about these things but not be totally didactic by saying “technology is bad” or “technology is good” you know. I’m just laying it out and people can decide what they do and don’t connect with. Some of the lyrics feel a little bit shattered by technology, but the record itself could be seen as very pro-technology and pro-internet because it’s stylistically so varied – there are so many genres that I’ve approached.

I’m inter-meshing with technology too: I have humans playing the electronic instruments and in some ways it’s almost more of a human-technology interaction than a lot of electronic music is, because when you make electronic music you can never play an instrument – you can just drag a mouse instead. But on The Future’s Void, the drummer is playing real drums – even if they’re triggering electronic sounds – and I’m playing analog synthesizers in a very physical way.

Using the physical medium – as well as the lyrics – to communicate the message has always been important to you, right?

To be honest I didn’t even realise this was true until recently. I’ve never said what I just said to anyone until just now – until somehow we just discovered upon that point. I’m still figuring out what my approach is, and a lot of my approach has to do with keeping an element of improvisation; keeping a human element; keeping imperfections in there because to me that makes more interesting music.

You’ve explored the technological theme interestingly in your visual output too, by employing Skype and GIFs in your video clips, right? 

Yeah, I mean the videos have been created like that because those have been the opportunities that have been there. I try and do so many things in-house that the videos are a little bit ‘fly by the seat of my pants’. I don’t have a strong plan because I don’t have a lot of time to invest in the videos, they’ve just come about via what has been available to me. ‘So Blonde’ almost didn’t happen, and I’m really happy that it came together in the way that it did, but I haven’t thought that much about the visual campaign and the music videos. The visual element has been less of a priority for me even though I know a lot of people are more likely to experience that than a full record.

Was there anything else that you were inspired by when writing this record?

For sure! Different sci-fi books, or "speculative fiction" as it’s called. The description is kind of embarrassing but I’m really into cyber punk authors - so William Gibson and the other people that were writing alongside him. It’s amazing because so much of it has come true. I also went and watched all the old Terminator movies to see what had eventuated. I feel like a lot of this genre focuses on right now as the setting for their dystopian or utopian futures. It’s probably so much more exciting to read those books now than when they came out because now it’s so much more realistic. So all of this was definitely a big influence.

I’m not actually familiar with William Gibson – when was he writing?

His first book came out in 1984 I think...

That’s an appropriate release year. Dystopian literature does feel really profound right now considering the conversations we are having about surveillance, right?

Yeah totally! They try to make data piracy exciting and it is kind of exciting in the book, but I can imagine that when it came out people were like “who fucking cares, what are you talking about?”, whereas now it’s like “oh man – offshore data havens!”. You look at what Google is doing and you wonder when they’re going to go into international waters with all of their data. I don’t feel that people are that concerned about the NSA thing - I think they’re like “well we figured the government was spying on us anyway”. I’m less concerned about that than with the fact the people who are harvesting our data are these corporations with these very capitalist interests of selling us more and getting into our psychologies and subliminally trying to sell us something. That sounds far more insidious than having the government know who you called.

Especially because those corporations are providing you free services online so it’s like there’s a democratic opt-in, but on the flip side social media is becoming so inextricable from our social and professional lives that we don’t really have a choice whether we opt in or not...

Yeah. I also don’t think people realise they can’t access all of the data the internet has on you, but it would tell you your shopping patterns, your eating patterns – even when you post certain mood-related words and what that monthly, weekly daily mood fluctuation is like. You don’t even know what the picture of you looks like.

Which is where the representation theme comes into play right. Because as someone who has a public profile, you have experienced this a lot more than someone who doesn’t, right?

Yeah, and I’m still trying to deconstruct why I have this discomfort with things. I don’t know if I like the fact that people might know what I look like or recognise me. I don’t know if it’s a discomfort with fame or recognition or just kind of preferring anonymity. There’s a part of me that’s like “isn’t this what everybody wants? What’s wrong with me? This can’t be how I actually feel!” I think that’s what actually fucked me up: I was getting this thing that everybody wants but I didn’t, and denying that part of myself for so long ended up making me crazy.