Artists like EMA – a.k.a. Erika M Anderson – are definitely needed in our lives more than ever. With her brand new effort, Exile In The Outer Ring, she cut with the shit and goes straight to the point. From the brutality of late capitalism to the collapsing boundaries between private and public, Erika goes deeply personal and points out what’s really happening right now. We talked with Erika about all the concerns and issues in our society nowadays and how that fueled her new incredible and essential album.
Your new album, Exile In The Outer Ring, is a powerful effort fuelled by the current fucked-up times in USA and all the things in between. When did you start to put together and work on the ideas and subjects for this album?
It started kind of coming together about two and half years ago. I had some of the songs and few ideas, but I wrote some more when I was doing these museum multimedia performances that I started to do in 2015. I was playing solo and doing these long form of pieces at museums that had like a virtual reality component, so the whole sense of place and kind of putting it together really started around that.
2016’s US Presidential election with Donald Trump winning was a shock and quite overwhelming for everyone around the world, and still is. It was clearly a subject that you were inspired by for this new album. How’s it been for you looking back to that moment and looking to the current status of USA?
Oh, it’s so fucked up… I do feel like I can be pretty good at being intuitive and sensitive about what’s going on. Things come up when I’m writing the lyrics, but this took me by surprise, just the fact that I wasn’t really expecting that, you know? I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. It does seem like we’re gonna need to read all, a lot of things including the way that politics happen at all in the USA. Obviously a lot of things are really fucked up and broken and I’m hoping that maybe this is the wake up call that everyone needs. I don’t know if we’re gonna have to work through all the dysfunction and really cut out what obviously is not working and what is against our best interests. But I can’t tell… Everytime you think you’re kind of evolving and things are looking better… All the stuff online like there’s fake news in the USA and people can’t even get facts and they have to choose what to believe. You realize also that everything else evolves as well, like people are evolving on different circles of rights, issues and technology getting better and everything and then you realize that everything can be weaponized, you know? Everything can be turned against other people as well. If you make a weapon, it’s not always gonna start out on the hands of the people with the best intentions.
What did you want to convey with the album’s title, Exile In The Outer Ring?
A friend and I kind of coined that term “outer ring” and it’s not like a phrase that people use. I think in Europe people probably have a better understanding of it because they’re kind of on ring roads, you know? The beautiful America’s suburbs were like Óscars and the America dream where they’re now more empowerish, but also more diverse which I think it could be really cool if that’s where the future at. As an artist too, I’m constantly moving to cheaper and cheaper places as well and so I know that artists sort of have a role of in junction.
There’s a unique and staggering energy on this record, despite being so emotionally heavy. How was it like for you the writing process for it?
Through the work that I make, it always has a place as far as what it’s going on in the world, but it’s also personal. I take a lot of things that I’m going through or have gone through in a real way. I think that I’m just kind of able to write about it and make it to other people relate to it or I put it in a context of what’s going on either socially or politically, and they are my stories. I think the one thing that I’m realizing that I’m good at and that I’m interested in is what people call world building, just making your own little certain place, time, feeling, energy and I feel like that’s really important to me to make a really specific little world, I guess.
Which artists or records were you into while working on these new songs?
There are certain things that sonically I like, but a lot of it was books and articles actually. I read a lot during it like journalism around the world and a lot of stuff in the USA, and so that’s kind of where I get inspired a lot. And then I have my own sound in my head and I always had new ideas. I was just drawing on my own interests and my own history. Sonically, that’s where I’m getting stuff and then I’ll write some things or give a like a homage to different songs and different ideas. People find them like it’s easter eggs [laughs] and I’m not trying to hide it very much.
“I had to make that decision like ‘Do I want to go through things that make more money and are a little bit better for my career or do I want to make things that only I can make and that wouldn’t exist and I wanted to exist if I don’t make them?'”
The first single to be unveiled off the new album was “Aryan Nation”, and you mentioned that it was partially inspired by people you’ve known in the past and also the British film This Is England. Can you elaborate more on that?
This is one of the oldest songs on the record. It’s strange because it fits perfectly with Trump in a lot of ways [laughs] especially the line about casino, but that line is probably ten years old. I think there are things going on, especially in America, that it’s like this radicalization of young white youth and you see it as people as these kind of lies and racists. That was definitely something that I was just kind of intuitive with what was going on, but a lot of people when I told them that I wanted to put out that song and showing the name, for a lot of time people were like “Dude, what are you doing? Do not fuck with that.” People were just like “What do you mean by this?” To me it was like this is really happening and it almost didn’t make it to the record actually, because some people we’re just like “Hum, I don’t know… Are you sure you wanna do that?” and then once Trump happened, I was like “This is real, do you believe me now?” [laughs] What I really feel is there’s been a huge vacuum in talking about some certain issues, especially like this whole thing you see in society like poverty, prison, drugs, lack of economic opportunities and nationalism… It’s like if we aren’t talking about any of these things, especially with racism that is so complicated in America and of course all over the world, but if you as a polite left-leaning liberal person that don’t talk about it and don’t listen to other people from all kind of sorts, then you’re gonna create a vacuum and the people who come to fill that vacuum are a lot of times exploitive bad crab pots, you know? They’re like insane and they put really misleading and terrible information out there. So, I rather be the one who talks about it and be like “This is a real thing and you don’t have to be that way”, just like “It’s wrong and this is why” and stuff like that.
Have you seen American Honey already? It also deals with working-class alienation but in America, a really striking film.
Yeah, I did! I really liked that movie and the spot where the American Honey woman – the one who’s running the magazine – she’s supposed to be from South Dakota and so that spot where she takes the main character and feeds the kids that’s the state that I’m from. I thought that was funny.
You’ve recently shared a new video for the song “Down & Out”, which was directed by Alicia Rose and featuring Portland artist Taj Bourgeois and yourself. Tell us more about the concept behind this outstanding video and song.
I really like Taj’s work and he’s a Portland artist that I’ve been following. He’s just like a dude that makes a lot of work, he’s not like a fancy guy. It was pretty easy for me to “Hey, wanna come do this thing?” He’s a working artist and he’s not rich. He was like “Yeah, cool! For sure!” He just perfectly embodies it, which is the kind of broken but work with what you got, and then also to kind of inhabit these things that are humorous but still full of despair and frustration which I thought it worked well. So, I asked him if he wanted to do it and I said we were gonna be in my living room and I keep coming back in some ways to this place that’s kind of basically my living room but stands for any kind of generic American lower middle-class type of space, which has the fucked-up carpeting and a coach, it’s very typical. i figured I would finally do the fake singing and playing guitar like you’re supposed to do that every once in a while for a video. [laughs] I don’t necessarily really like that, I kind of like of doing but it’s always weird to see yourself on that. We just had one day to do it and then at the end I was just really tired and I was like “I’m just gonna lay down.” I laid down on the coach and Taj just did this really spontaneous performance and everyone in the room was totally silent and shocked, because he went up there and he didn’t tell me what he was going to do and I don’t think he had that planned, but I didn’t know that the skateboard was going to fly right into my face. [laughs] He’s just brilliant.
Your new album was co-produced with Jacob Portrait of Unknown Mortal Orchestra. How was it like to work with him?
It was chill. He was drawn by my vision like respectful of it. I’m opened to certain things but I’m also pretty fixed to what I want and to my vision. It was fun and cool and he’s very respectful. It took us a long time because we just literally sat down and talked a lot. [laughs] Just kind of hung out and that’s important, because there’s a lot of a specific energy and vibe and it’s like if you don’t get those correct, the songs won’t quite work.
Overall, this new effort is deeply personal and straight forward, showcasing you at your most confident and sharp approach to date. How do you see this album at this point of your career?
I think this is me kind of doubling down on what I like to do and making a choice in a way, because this was definitely one where different people were like “Do you want to work with a different producer? Do you want to make a poppier record?” and to be perfectly honest I don’t know if making these sort of records is gonna support me financially compared to maybe doing something else. This came down to a choice of “What do I care about?” and to me is so much more interesting and engaging to make these things that I feel like only I can make, like the song “33 Nihilistic and Female”, but that’s a decision to make that and not a poppier song, because certain people are gonna be like “No fucking way, this chick is crazy!”, but certain people are gonna be like “Wow! I needed this” and so I had to make that decision like “Do I want to go through things that make more money and are a little bit better for my career or do I want to make things that only I can make and that wouldn’t exist and I wanted to exist if I don’t make them?” We’ll see how many more EMA records are gonna be… I feel good about the record I made, I’m really proud of it.