Erika “EMA” Anderson isn’t great at elevator pitches. The singer-songwriter’s previous two albums under her initial-inspired moniker, 2011′s Past Life Martyred Saints and 2014′s The Future’s Void, have seen her branded as outspoken. But when asked what makes her optimistic about the current cultural landscape, she circles the issue. The problem? There are lots of lights in the dark landscape, but she can’t quite boil any of them down into a sound bite.
“I’d really be on the campaign trail there if I could,” she laughs. “It’s hard to say anything without starting a fight or taking a side. In general, it’s cool to see people moving past stuff.”
Unsurprisingly, Anderson’s new album Exile in the Outer Ring, out today, has been likewise pegged as political. There was the label shift from Matador to City Slang. (Sorry—no story other than standard “label stuff.”) And then there’s the simple fact that, given her previous musical discussions of sexuality, technology, and politics, she has proven herself unafraid to hit the points we’re all too polite to vocalize. (A tradition held over from her debut album, where she sang, “I looked on the computer/ And it just was an emptiness that/ Made me want to throw up on the spot.”) But it’s all good, she’s not looking to climb the ranks to any kind of outsider elite status. For her, sounds are equally important. It often goes unspoken that Anderson produces everything, and has since her previous band Gowns’ 2007 album, Red States.
“I don’t know how much I want to be, like, an indie rock singer,” Anderson confirms:
I have all these other interests. I like electronics, I like playing around with sounds. I’m really proud of it. It is something I feel like is unique. This particular combination of sonic elements, I feel like I invented that. Whatever that is, that’s my language. I really like the way this record starts with these micro sounds, [letting] the noise build. I love how it’s stitched together. That’s how you make something last.
Exile in the Outer Ring is a gritty piece of contrarian rock, with heavy blasts of feedback, droning vocals, lithe guitar lines, and industrial electronics. But even amidst all the artful layers of noise, it’s impossible to ignore the message. Yeah, you could call it political (isn’t everything in this era?), but Anderson admits the term doesn’t tell the whole story.
“It is more emotional than it is political, really,” she gently corrects:
There are a few things on there people were a little scared to touch. Like a song called “Aryan Nation.” They were like, “WHOA.” I don’t think anyone got it until the election, until all the stuff happened, why this was an important song and why I felt strongly about using that sort of language. It’s not just to shock. It’s to be like, “Yo, this is a real problem. We can’t just close our eyes and pretend this isn’t happening.” I think it was easy for people to pretend it didn’t exist if they didn’t rub up against it. [For] a lot of people on the coasts or on the cities, the rest of America doesn’t exist. I know many people who go from New York to L.A, but there’s a lot of space in between that.
But it isn’t emotional shock value she’s after, even with lines like, “You can deal you can deal you can deal, but you can never win.” Anderson sees any topic and every line as contributing to the bigger picture. You can hear it in lyrics like, “Tell me stories of famous men, I can’t see myself in them.” She’s here to represent. Her mission is actually pretty easy to sum up: Help move humanity forward.
“To me, the line is asking myself, Is it cathartic, is it healing?” Anderson says of her songwriting. “Rage sometimes works, and it sometimes doesn’t. That’s not, maybe, my end goal. It’s empathy.”