by: Erica M. Medrano
The first time I met Erika M. Anderson was by chance. Somewhere in the wee hours of a random Saturday night, our paths crossed on a desolate LA street in line for the only open food truck in town. It was her shoes I saw first --bright red old school Nike Cortez. Trés chic. Reason enough to make conversation anyway. The self-assured six foot tall Nordic goddess/Thurston Moore look-a-like attached to them wasn’t hard to miss either.
She said her name was Erika and that she was originally from South Dakota, by way of Oakland, and was now in an experimental band called Gowns. Being naturally narcissistic (we share the same first name and middle initial so she must be funny and cool like me, right?) and sensing she was holding back some secret awesomeness just beneath the surface of her humble Midwestern attitude, I liked her immediately. It was March 2009 and I had no idea who she was or that a mere two years later she would be poised for indie stardom with an album that would quickly become one of my most played of 2011, one of my favorites in a very long while in fact.
I sat down with Erika to discuss her new album Past Life Martyred Saints just before she played the Detroit Bar in Costa Mesa.
Despite the abundance of good press the album has received since its release in May, from indie and mainstream sources alike (Rolling Stone magazine named her an “Artist to Watch”), Anderson seems devoid of a large ego and could not have been more welcoming to me during our interview. She is as humble and laid back as I remembered her being in 2009. Maybe this is partly due to the fact that she tries to ignore her own press. “There’s a lot of expectations”, she warily admits. Though there are some kinds of reviews that are easier for her to read—fan letters, and she is getting a lot of them, from unlikely fans all around the world. Anderson excitedly tells me about the “50 year old dudes in the suburbs” who write to her to express their admiration. “One guy was like, I never write to anyone but I had to write to you to tell you I love the album!”, she confesses, obviously amused. Posted on her official website is a heartbreaking fan letter from a young Israeli soldier who describes his connection to Anderson and her music as being like “two misfits like two submarines in the sky”.
Her music seems to have that affect on people. Much like her work with Gowns, her former band with Ezra Buchla, which she now calls “punk rock to a self-destructive point”, her solo endeavor explores dark themes, but with a lightness and hopefulness not always present in Gowns songs. Anderson’s writing traverses the underbelly of relationships (Marked), growing up in a small town, family history (Grey Ship), self-mutilation (Butterfly Knife), and even tackles boring California (California) in a way that always comes off as slightly transcendent, due mostly in part to her strong vocal and guitar shredding skills. Her voice is luminous and clear in a way that immediately and unexpectedly draws you in. That same voice was not always as appreciated in traditional noise circles though. “When I played with more like noisy people they'd be like this is great…except for that voice. It's really subjective. Some people think you’re a pop band because you have someone singing”.
EMA’s music is hard to pin down or categorize and Anderson prefers it that way. When I mention that many critics describe the album’s sound as “doomy”, she explains that she believes noise and doom are “not mutually exclusive”. “I just like the way it sounds. I love this feedback, this static. I love all this stuff”, she says. But she also loves ballads, she asserts. It’s that mixing of disparate styles and genres that makes for the album’s unique and ultimately fresh sound. "Whenever there's a rule or something, I want to break it. I think of it as a challenge. I want to make my piano rap ballad. I want to make my long country song. I want to do it all." But Anderson doesn’t see EMA’s music as part of the emerging mainstream success of women with noisy/fuzzy guitars à la Vivian Girls or Best Coast. “I want to be the best producer I can. Some of these other bands try to be really good at writing pop hooks. I definitely embrace simplicity but I also really like complexity. I try to make things, production wise, really complex, really diverse.”
Will she embrace mainstream success should it find her? “I have so many doubts about it. I consider myself an underground artist. I’m not prepared for any of it. I’m a real big fan of you have to put one foot in front of the other. I don’t have a five year plan. “, Anderson acknowledges. Putting one foot in front of the other, EMA plans to embark on a tour across Europe and the U.S. starting in September. Catch her back in LA at the Echoplex on October 13, 2011.