With her excellent debut Past Life Martyred Saints, former Gown Erika M. Anderson (a.k.a. EMA) has been causing quite a stir for dense sonics and harshly comic narratives that haven’t been this critically acclaimed since the heyday of certain Seattlites. Or, if you let her tell it, Lou Reed. In advance of her two New York City shows, we asked her about weapons and breakfast.
How are you?
Good! I’m in the back of a tour van.
I wanted to ask you about guns.
Oh no, guns. Do your family and friends back in South Dakota own as many as “California” makes it seem?
Yeah, there are… there are a few… yeah, lots of people have guns there. But they have different guns than the ones we have on the West Coast here.
Have you had any shooting practice?
I did have to go through “gun safety” at 14. It was very strange. [laughs] I was in there with a woman who was talking about the mark of the beast, and you know, how the government’s gonna come and put bar codes on all of us and all this stuff. And I was like, that’s cool, you’re getting your gun license right now. [laughs]
You prescribe an age to “California”: “I’m 22 and I don’t mind dying.” Is the rest of the album supposed to be viewed from the perspective of a 22-year-old?
Well, that’s a line from the classic “Who Do You Love” song…
Oh dammit, right.
So it’s this big classic rock line, which you know is from this kind of innocuous song, but I mean that’s a really strong lyric. So I just kind of… stole that. But there are some songs that were definitely written when I was about 22. I mean, yeah, “Butterfly Knife” is written as a melodramatic teenager or something.
You’ve described Past Life Martyred Saints as your first attempt at a “poppy” record. What pop do you listen to?
I’ve been totally just in this past year listening to pop radio again. It’s just crazy, the production. I just dove straight back into mainstream pop after being completely immersed in kind of an experimental noise scene for years. Lil Wayne, Rihanna, Kanye, all that sort of stuff. Just whatever’s on the radio… you get Jason Derulo and just shit like that, I’m like, wooooow. It’s just mind-blowing, actually. For someone who’s been away.
Is there anyone’s songwriting in particular that you considered the model for a poppy version of this kind of drony, confessional music?
Uh, Lou Reed? Everyone stops to figure out if it’s like, PJ Harvey or the Breeders. I’m like, dude. Lou Reed, man.
Are you uncomfortable with the degree people are putting the lyrics under the magnifying glass?
There’s an element of outrageousness to them—okay, give me a second to collect my thoughts here.
People say histrionic things in pop songs all the time. For example, “I’m just 22 and I don’t mind dying.” That’s from, like, a bar-rock song. The most famous version of that is from George Thorogood. That does not come across like an extreme line in that song. For some reason, I don’t know if it’s the delivery, or what it is, the lyrics come off as extreme. People say crazy shit in pop songs, even mainstream pop, you know, “I would die without you,” and Eminem and Rihanna’s song about burning a house… so I must be doing something that’s either fucking with the language, or fucking with the delivery that’s actually making people stop and listen to the lyrics and actually contemplate what they’re saying and the extremity of things. But I don’t actually feel like they’re saying anything more extreme than any other thing in pop music. I think somehow it just comes across as barely believable. [laughs]
Does that make it easier for you to sing about intensely personal stuff, then, since it’s expected that a lot of pop music exaggerates all the time?
Even in the confessional songs there’s an element of me taking it too far. There’s a little bit of swagger, a little bit of bravado, a little bit of, like, “I’m gonna push this one step too far.” Maybe I won’t feel it at some point, but I need to push it over the top so that I can even express these things. I feel almost like a stand-up comedian: the best damn comedians are talking about things that are true, but they put it in a way that’s shocking. But you’re laughing because it’s funny because it’s true. You’re not if something’s completely made up, so there has to be a grain of truth in it. But the line switches really quick, so it’s hard to tell from one second to the other, am I winking, or am I… and that’s fine with me. A lot of singers who are successful make you feel more than one thing at once.
When I was a kid, all those bands like Korn were singing about abuse, and judging by all the happy beachy indie music of the last few years I feel like a new generation is able to be shocked by histrionic songs about abuse again.
I’ve been writing similar shit for a while so I can’t really say if it’s in complete opposition to what is going on.
One of my favorite lines on the album is “You’ve corrupted them all with your sexuality.” I feel this innate feminism in waving these taboo images in people’s faces and daring them to compare you to Courtney Love.
When people make a bigger deal about the violent darkness of the lyrics than they would… in any case, the lyrics are intriguing people and making them want to start a conversation, which is cool, because I like lyrics. I’m a lyric person. But I don’t know, maybe the “wounded woman” archetype is easier to understand than a wry, borderline sarcastic, funny… [laughs]. It’s easier to be like, “We’ve seen this before, we saw it in the ’90s, the angry, wounded lady.” And there’s some angry, wounded lady stuff on there, sure. [pause] Oh, I just killed a spider with my hand.
Not to make another ’90s comparison, but many people thought Bikini Kill were militant and dramatic but they were funny.
They were so funny! They wrote “Suck My Left One,” “Carnival.”
So what’s the best “big fat breakfast”?
Oh, when I think of that I think of a worm! A bird eating a worm.
I’m in New York right now and I just had these maple bacon beignets, and I keep thinking about them when that song [“Breakfast”] comes on. But now I’m going to think of a worm, so thanks.
Exactly, you’re going to think of a worm. Maple bacon worm.