Judging solely by the recently released video for “California”, Erika M. Anderson looks poised to become one of the American underground’s great revelations of 2011. Over the course of four mesmerizing minutes, the singer—currently burning up the blogosphere under the moniker EMA—comes off as a creature sent from no less than hipster heaven.
Shot in one take, “California” has Anderson, all bleached-blond hair and cool-kid attitude, standing against an ever-shifting Super 8mm–style backdrop, digital streaks of light blazing as she sings of death, disappointment, and the dark sex-drenched underbelly of the Golden State. It’s powerful, star-making stuff. Like Kim Gordon, Karen O, and pre-crazy Courtney Love, Anderson has the kind of intangible magnetism that makes the boys want to be with her, and the girls want to be her.
Watch the video for "California".
Funnily enough, though, the singer is largely unaware that the video has both tastemakers and indie obsessives buzzing. She’s equally oblivious to the fact that, thanks to her insanely excellent, forthcoming solo debut, Past Life Martyred Saints, she’s being pegged as one of the breakout DIY stars of 2011.
“I try not to pay attention to that stuff,” the down-to-earth midwesterner says, reached in her adopted city of Portland. “Maybe I should, but I get kind of freaked out by the idea of living life in public. In some ways, though, I’m not super surprised at the idea that people are enjoying my record, because I worked really hard on it. I wanted to put out something that I would be proud of and stand behind. But as far as the YouTube stuff, I kind of put blinders on to that part of it all.”
Tuning out the attention is going to be hard in the months to come, because for all the brilliance of “California”, it’s hardly the only gold-star moment on Past Life Martyred Saints. The great stuff comes right off the top, with the kickoff track, “The Grey Ship”, starting as a gauzy lo-fi acoustic reverie, and then suddenly shifting gears midway as the dark clouds part and crystal-clear buzzing synths hijack the show.
From there, Anderson is all about mixing things up, the screaming industrial-wasteland clatter of “Milkman” followed immediately by the druggy down-home Americana of “Coda”. One minute, she’s picking at open wounds with the scraped-raw confessional “Marked”, the next she’s more gorgeous than a sunny spring Sunday with “Breakfast”.
If Anderson sounds like she’s arrived fully formed, that’s probably because she isn’t exactly a newcomer to the underground grind, having played in both SoCal antiheroes Gowns and even more obscure noise purveyors Amps for Christ. Created in the wake of the former’s breakup, Past Life Martyred Saints represents, the singer acknowledges, a new approach to songwriting. Where Gowns created ambient nightmares that sounded like the morning after the apocalypse, she’s now attempting to play things a little more conventional.
“I knew that I wanted to make things diverse,” she says. “But more so, this is the first thing that I’ve done where I really tried to focus on songs. I did a lot of thinking, where I’d be like, ”˜I want to make this one into something weird and grungy,’ or ”˜I want to make this one have an old-timey country feel.’ ”
For Anderson, that people are paying attention to what she’s doing is a reward for a big gamble she took in the ’00s, moving from the Midwest and eventually settling in West Oakland, California. The way she describes things, furthering oneself wasn’t exactly a huge priority for those in her native South Dakota.
“It’s funny—my parents were like, ”˜You should think about going to college,’ ” she says. “At the time I was like, ”˜No, I think I’ll just smoke pot and be a waitress—I’m cool.’ I had good scores and all, but it wasn’t even part of the culture to go outside of the state. It’s barely in the culture in the Midwest to even go to college—it’s like ”˜You’re just flushing your money down the toilet.’ That’s how a lot of people look at it, and, to a certain extent, they have a point.”
Packing up and moving to a major metropolis, meanwhile, was considered insane, even among her peers.
“I had no one I could even look to to ask something like ”˜You’ve moved out there—what do you think of it?’ ” Anderson says. “I didn’t know anyone who’d done it. New York never even crossed my mind—for a midwesterner, it was like you’d have to be crazy to even think about New York. And California, even that was like ”˜You’re going to California?’ It was like it was Mars, from people’s reaction. I had a ton of anxiety.”
What made the singer think that maybe she was making the right decision was, thanks to Hollywood, California’s long-standing reputation as a place where people go to reinvent themselves. Think, for example, of William Bruce Bailey getting off the bus from Lafayette, Indiana, and turning himself into Axl Rose.
“I really liked ”˜Welcome to the Jungle’,” Anderson says, referencing the Guns N’ Roses hit, which was inspired by a wide-eyed small-town kid touching down in the big city. “And I really liked [the Doors’] ”˜L.A. Woman’. I was like, ”˜I’m going to try this out because people have written songs that I like there.’ ”
Which brings us back to “California”, which Anderson has described as something of a white-girl answer to “My Life” by Cali hip-hop star the Game. Over a distorted, incandescent drone that’s part menacing soundscape and part Sonic Youth during the glory years, Anderson starts the song off by sneering “Fuck California—you made me boring,” and goes on to offer the confession: “Now you’ve corrupted us all with your sexuality/Tried to tell me love is free.” Armchair analysts will read into these lyrics what they will, and indeed her words become doubly intriguing once you know that the singer eventually got ground down by living in an inner-city war zone in Oakland, and that a fiery relationship with fellow Gowns founder Ezra Buchla ended up combusting in dramatic fashion.
Still, Anderson is ultimately happy to fill in pieces of the “California” puzzle—for example, the part of the song where she sighs “I’m sorry Steven and Andrew that I ever left you/You’ve never seen the ocean, you’ve never been on a plane.” Consider that passage proof that she might be known as the heavily hyped EMA these days, but she’s never once forgotten who she really is.
“Steven and Andrew are old friends of mine from South Dakota,” Anderson reveals. “Steven is also the person behind the title Past Life Martyred Saints—he went through a period where he was convinced that he was a past martyred saint. It’s strange—I visit them sometimes, and I really feel like this person caught between the worlds of California and South Dakota. I’ll see myself in a newspaper or a magazine or on the Internet, and then go back home to people I really love, and they’ll be, ”˜I’ve never been on a plane or seen the ocean.’ For some reason, when they mentioned that to me, it really hit me.”
But not nearly with the force with which EMA looks like she’s about to hit North America.
EMA plays the Waldorf Hotel on Monday (April 25).