Erika M. Anderson on why capturing a zeitgeist is an albatross around the neck
Every artist dreams of nailing a common sentiment, don’t they? Of being the answer that is blowing in the wind? When Erika M. Anderson used her latest album, The Future's Void, to express her fears about losing control of her sense of self on the internet, she inadvertently did just this.
Anderson’s career had an organic start. After leaving South Dakota for California in the mid-’00s she was in an experimental rock group, Amps For Christ, followed by a synth-drone-folk band called Gowns with her boyfriend Ezra Buchla. Then she found herself very much in vogue with her second solo album, Past Life Martyred Saints, being canonised by the NME, The Guardian and Rolling Stone.
But she never received the pop star manual. Unsure of what to do in photo shoots for style magazines, Anderson found herself copying what other pop stars did, which was perhaps a little poutier than she was comfortable with, but you know – one thing leads to another.
Those images, paired with the same old pull quotes, turned her into a new persona all together. She found herself reduced down to her most consumable parts and suddenly she’s become one of the most blogged-about musicians on the web. As a result, she’s in danger of becoming more compressed and zipped than ever.
Erika, there’s been a lot of talk about your album having captured a zeitgeist, but what goes largely unmentioned is that there’s a lot of emotion in it. Something like ‘3 Jane’ is quite exquisite. (The forlorn lyric “When you wandered out on the super highway” makes it sound like someone is about to get mowed down in five lanes of traffic.)
Oh definitely; I appreciate you saying that. I’ve been answering a lot of questions about the internet and technology, but there are other things on there that are pretty, like ‘When She Comes’ or ‘Solace’. I hope not everyone is scared off by thinking it’s a sci-fi dystopia. I didn’t realise this record was going to be topical right now. When I was writing it felt more taboo to talk about online experience.
It must be a blessing and a curse to find yourself very much in fashion.
(Laughs) You are absolutely right. Yeah I was talking to my marketing manager about ‘Satellite’ and he’s like, “I don’t know, man, this one feels like too topical now.” I’m like, “I know!”
Are your lyrics a kneejerk reaction to something that’s going on? So rather than this being a concept album, it was an immediate reaction to suddenly feeling like you were being misrepresented online?
It’s funny that you say immediate, because I do use lyrics to figure out how I’m actually feeling about things. I’m from this Midwest-Scandinavian background, which means you don’t talk about your emotions; not even to yourself. And so I’ll write lyrics in a stream of consciousness way. That’s something that happened with ‘3 Jane’. Then I’ll look at them and be like, "Oh my god."
You write on your blog that you dyed your hair black and unplugged from the digital world after the release of your previous album. That sounds like a response to something traumatic.
A lot of it was from being a long time on the road, which is just a very unhealthy lifestyle, as far as eating, sleeping, time alone, exercise… there’s lots of booze backstage, and you just get exhausted and crazy. It’s really hard for me to access everything that I was feeling at that time, because in some ways I wrote this record I order to get rid of some of those demons. It’s hard for me to go back now and imagine myself in that state because I’ve taken steps to try and be more empowered or be more in control.
That’s the thing about promoting a project – you have to be plunged back into somewhere that you’ve left behind.
Yeah. Sometimes it’s fun. I like conversations. That’s part of why I like to make music. I make music to make myself feel better, but I also like having conversations about, not only music and fidelity and art, but also about society or about technology, about what’s going on. That’s fun for me. It’s just when it gets to be a certain level [of fame] that I’m not ready for… I don’t know. I would be happy to just talk to smart people about art and the world all day, and kind of be a cult artist and that would be awesome.
But as you say on your blog, your persona gets boiled down to a pull quote and a handful of photos that get circulated. You almost become like a GIF.
Yeah, it’s funny, I was doing an interview and I asked the journalist, “Have you ever been interviewed?” He was like, “Oh yeah, it was awful. It felt grotesque.” It was interesting that he used that word, because with music, just as some things become more awesome, there’s a bad side to everything. Like, I’m able to put out a lot more things to go along with my music, such as videos, but many people will only ever see a couple of images and a headline. That happens to many public figures.
When it comes to music are you quite a techy geek? Your bandmates look like 1960s computer programmers.
(Laughs) Yeah, I am, but I’m also very chaotic with it. But I mean, I know how to run my ProTools session, patch in the microphone, figure out what plug-ins I like, even set up mastering, plug-in on the master bus… I can bus my vocal tracks over to a separate off-send that has my reverb and yeah, I can do all that stuff and I find it fun. The thing that was fun for me on this record was that I’d never really worked with MIDI, which is the language that computers use for music, like the signals for software synthesisers and stuff like that. I also got into Eurorack Modular Synthesizers a little bit. So I guess I’m a techy geek, but I’m also like: first take, best take, keep the punk spirit.
You made a trip to Olympia recently, to hang out with the people from K Records. Was the ’90s Riot Grrrl scene an influence on you?
I was really inspired by that northwest DIY punk thing that happened at Olympia. I read the book on K Records – Love Rock Revolution – and feel like it really changed the world, or at least indie music!
You avoid talking about gender, whether it be when you’re writing about Olympia on your blog, or talking about your own experiences getting shitty YouTube comments. Is that deliberate?
People are going to read gender into it anyway. But I’m also really excited that one of the cool things about online is people are moving away from this binary gender identity, moving away from using labels. It’s still important to take into account things like race and gender – to explain sociologically why things are the way they are and why economics work the way they do – but I also am excited about these new ways of identifying yourself that don’t fit into that sociological matrix of labels that we used to really cling to about 15 years ago.
The Future Void is out April 4 on Matador.
The clip below is EMA’s “meta-grunge” single ‘So Blonde’. File alongside St Vincent, Sky Ferreira, Magnetic Fields, Robyn, Ariel Pink and Abbe May.