A rising star that came outta nowhere: EMA

I often say that musically, I was born 10 years too late, because I missed out on the eighties and seventies when bands such as Joy Division, Black Sabbath, Bauhaus, U2, The Smiths, Echo & The Bunnymen, The Connells, REM, Sex Pistols, The Damned, etc rose and created a sound so much specific to themselves alone that it sounded fresh and completely new. I am not saying that there’s no good new musicians rising, but commercialisation, influence from the web and especially the fact that a lot of bands sound too heavily influenced by an "older" band to sound totally fresh, made it hard to find new gems. But then when you dig deep enough, you will find new artists who give just that feeling: fresh and very much doing something that sounds distinctively their own.

One of the biggest new promising artists to rise this year came, as her own website cameouttanowhere.com indicates, out of one of the least likely places where you would expect it: Sioux Falls, South Dakota, USA. Granted, she spent a while in California where she aspired a musical career, but as she said on her own website/blog: "SFSD for life". The name: Erika M Anderson, or as she uses her initials for her solo project, EMA. She came to my attention thanks to reviews on some Dutch language music websites. All very much full of praise, and the fact that terms such as "noise rock" and "dark lyrics" were frequently used caught my attention and triggered my interest. It didn’t take more than a few listens on the web and I made sure the CD became part of my collection. Rarely I bought a CD after just hearing a few songs a few times, but then this means it reached for the emotions and made a heavy impact, heavy enough that is justified purchasing the record straight away. The name of the record, which indeed is full of distorted sounds, noise structures and lengthy complex musical structures (it doesn’t make it easy for the listener, but then I am a fan of this style of music where each time you listen, a new layer of small noises and elements makes it a new discovery), is equally remarkable: "Past life martyred saints". Apparently taken from a saying from one of her friends, as I heard but obviously hard to verify.

Erika came indeed out of small town (well…) Sioux Falls, South Dakota. At a very tender age, just 18, she left the certainty of her home to go to California and chase her musical dream. This lead to her being teamed up with Ezra Buchla, and together they formed the drone/noise band Gowns. A record called "Red State" (a term in America for a state dominated politically by the Republican Party) followed to critical praise, but it couldn’t prevent the band falling apart after a while. This was in 2010, following the break-up of her own relationship with Ezra, who however encouraged her to use the unfinished songs written for Gowns to feature on later work she would release. Almost, that release never came, as labels she sent samples of rejected the request to release an album. She almost was at the point to, with a depression and disillusion in the luggage, return to the basement of her parent’s South Dakota home when Souterrain Transmissions offered the chance to release her solo album. And what an impact it made.

This album is as refreshing as I’ve heard in a long time, someone whose lyrics are rough and dark but brutally honest and recognisable, and whose complex musical structures full of distorted sounds and noise structures makes listening and absorbing the album a challenge. However, like with one of my biggest loves, The God Machine (also known for their lengthy complex structures full of distortions and noise), every time I listen to EMA’s music you discover some noise you didn’t notice the previous listen, or you suddenly notice some new layer of sound. It is a puzzle that is hard to complete, but each time the picture gets more complete, you really realise you’re listening to something special. This is not music that sounds inspired by a lot of other bands (although probably she has taken inspiration from some bands obviously) but someone whose sound is refreshing and very much her own, the sound is very distinctive. The lyrics are bleak sometimes, even raw, but brutally honest and to many probably very recognisable. EMA left a mark with her first solo outing and stands out in the midst of new artists releasing material. You can hear the talent present to become someone who, within her own style and with her own way, may very well be an artist to follow for a really long time. Of course this record calls for confirmation in a second release, but let’s just say few would dare to release such daring record as a solo debut and few would manage to make such impact with it. Another parallel with my beloved The God Machine here. Also, while I am listening to noise rock with a lot of pleasure, somehow I rarely heard it done by a female. This makes EMA stand out again.

So what is so special about this record? Lengthy songs such as "Grey Ship" are not new, lengthy records have been done before. Noise structures, distorted guitars and complex structures have been around for a long time. Raw and rough lyrics are done by many bands too. But somehow the way EMA combines all of this, doesn’t sound like she imitates any other band, she makes it very much her own sound.

Lyrically, EMA is brutally honest in this album. What else to say about "Love turns to rot" from the very short but interesting song "Coda"? At some points, the lyrical honesty becomes extremely intense, such as in the song "Marked" with lines such "My arms are a secret bloodless skinless mess" and "I wish everytime he touched me left a mark". The song title "Butterfly knife" leaves little to the imagination what it’s about. Nonetheless, I will focus on the first two songs of this album: "The Grey Ship" and "California".

"The Grey Ship" was the song that got me hooked on the spot when I first heard it. It made me decide to buy the album, and that was before I fell for some other songs of the album which I then had yet to discover. The song is an epic over 7 minutes in length, where the complexity of the structure is remarkable: it starts of with a distorted noisy intro while Erika takes a countdown to the song, in the first part sounding like an acoustic guitar ballad with some background arrangements. Halfway the song the sound takes a very drastic turn and becomes a lot slower and darker, almost creating an eerie atmosphere up until the moment pounding drums and distorted guitars create a very heavy sound. The true climax of the song however comes in the outro when after this crushing sound blew you away, the tone again changes totally to an outro halfway acoustic guitar and a-cappella vocals. Complex and definitely not an easy listening, but for fans of this style of music like me, a gem and a proof that this is a singer to spend attention to.

Lyrically, the song first left a sense of mysteriousness to me. "When the grey ship calls, it is a calling for me. I thought it would come from further North than that". Apparently, so I read, this is a reference to viking vessels used for a funeral but it nonetheless leaves enough room for interpretation that it is still mysterious. When the music gets a bit more mysterious, references to distant family members pop up, leaving the most stunning lines for the more quiet outro: "Great grandmother lived on the prairie with nothing, nothing, nothing, … I got the same feeling inside of me: nothing, nothing, nothing, …". Lines that somehow speak to me, even when Erika, when she wrote them, probably had totally different things in mind than the emotions I think about while listening to this. It does reach for the emotions, and leaves an impression. The quiet outro adds a moment to take a breath after the heavy guitars and pounding drums faded away, a moment to just take a breath and recover from the overwhelming impact the song just left.

The second track "California" is, obviously, about the state Erika moved to when she was just 18, chasing her musical dreams. But it is far from an ode to California, otherwise how to explain the intro "F… California, you made me boring"? The song seems to deal with the subject of alienation while adapting to a totally new environment far from the familiar places one left behind, a feeling I know all too well, having lived in 7 countries myself the last 8 years.

However, not only it seems a song of alienation, but also a song that at the same time looks back to her South Dakota home she left behind, somehow halfway soothing and at the same time drawing a very thick line under all that’s been and looking back on why she left in the first place. "I’m sorry Steven and Andrew that I ever left you ; you’ve never seen the ocean, never been on a plane. Schizophrenia rules the brain, aliens coming to take you away…". These lines very much speak to me. I came out of nowhere myself, a very tiny Belgian countryside town where growing up not fitting in was suffocating and left me with a depressed youth. It was a place where everyone seemed to follow that same cycle of life, sticking to their own town or area, just getting a job and starting a family, generation after generation doing the same thing. Dreaming of achieving something beyond that, being ambitious, almost felt like a sin, a forbidden thing. I can look back on that town I escaped from and think of many people to whom the lines from this song could apply. Erika in an interview once said about South Dakota: "When people say they’ve never met anyone from South Dakota, that’s because there aren’t very many people there, and the people who are there don’t leave." Bingo, spot on about the town I grew up in, and I’m sure there will be plenty of people around the world who somehow feel a sense of recognition in this song. "Gimme the places, I give you the names. Wasted away alone on the plains". Again spot on. It seems the song is a dramatic and raw break from both California AND South Dakota. Probably again this is just my interpretation and often when trying to interpretate introspective lyrics, the interpretation is not what the writer had in mind. However, I can surely say the song sounds recognisable at many points.

EMA delivered a debut album that is risky: it doesn’t make the listener very easy with its complex structures, distortions and noise elements. The lyrics at some point are probably too raw to easily handle for some people. But it is all of this that at the same time makes the record stand out in many ways and puts EMA on the list of new performers with a very bright future ahead if the second album manages to come close to the impact of the debut. And as Erika wrote on her own website: “there is no art in the absence of risk”. Damn right. I recommend this album to everyone with an open mind and willing to give her music several listens to sink in. Each time it will become more haunting in a very positive way.


About thepathslesstravelled

An Aspie who has had a lifelong fascination with travelling, discovering new cultures and discovering new ways of life, and with a strange attraction to the less known and often forgotten places in the world. And very obsessed with sports and music.
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