Track-by-Track: EMA on "The Future's Void" Interview | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Track-by-Track: EMA on “The Future’s Void”

Erika M. Anderson on Each Song on Her Acclaimed Second Album

Oct 20, 2014 Web Exclusive
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When I first talked to Erika M. Anderson (aka EMA) in the summer of 2012, she had just started the process of sketching out The Future’s Void, the follow-up to her 2011 breakthrough Past Life Martyred Saints. Though she wasn’t sure what shape the album was taking, she had already penned a political punk song that she knew had the potential to upset some people. Written from the perspective of someone whose generation had been molded by the 9-11 terror attacks, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the disillusionment that the resulting world has been shaped by opportunists, the song (titled “False Flag”) sounds like the breaking loose of a decade of anxiety. When I talked to Anderson again two years later, she had decided to leave the “False Flag” off the album, explaining that the line “I never gave a fuck about the Twin fucking Towers” could be too easily misinterpreted as a nihilistic boast, potentially drowning out any other commentary about the album. She was right: if people found it disturbing that she dared to use words such as “selfies” and “interwebs” on The Future’s Void, how would they have reacted to a blatantly confrontational political statement?

On September 11th, 2014, Anderson decided that if you’re going to release the most incendiary song you’ve ever written, you might as well release it on the most provocative day possible. “My whole point was that it was shitty that people died [on 9-11], but what [those in power] did with that tragedy was disgusting, when people kept trotting it out and exploiting it,” she says. “People in the heartland who considered New York City a den of iniquity, they trot it out and want to go fight these wars. It just seems really exploitative. [The song] would have fit in some ways on this record, because it’s about the government and how people have exploited 9-11 for insane things,” she says. “But it’s probably wise I left it off.”

Political content aside, the song’s screeching, wildly careening fury would have been an odd fit for The Future’s Void. Though the album has no shortage of frustration and slow-burning angst, the prevailing mood is more elegiac than angry. Though most of the songs were written a year before the Edward Snowden revelations, they’re nonetheless haunted by watching eyes, both real and imagined. There are references to Cold War-era surveillance states, to celebrity culture, to the vapidity of modern life, and Anderson narrates it all as a damaged protagonist. Experiencing the intrusiveness of fame for the first time, she was perfectly positioned to translate her uneasiness into a critique of an image-obsessed culture where everyone becomes a commodity. The resulting album is dark and mysterious, loaded with odd and occasionally disturbing references that unite riot grrl indie with industrial pop and crack nursery rhymes. Here, going through the album song-by-song, Anderson untangles the inspiration for her distinctly 21st century opus.


Matt Fink (Under the Radar): What about that song made it the ideal album opener?

Erika M. Anderson: I think sonically it sets the thesis, in a way. It starts with harsh noise, which I’m into, and it kind of has this binary element going on. It’s harsh noise, deep bass, and the human element comes in with handclaps, which I think is a funny moment. The thing that represents the human is obviously totally fake. They are these fake handclaps, which makes them funny. So I felt like it was a strong start that would let people know that they hopefully would be hearing things that they hadn’t heard before and that didn’t sound like other things. When I wrote it, I wasn’t thinking about it as this surveillance anthem. It kind of was, but I wasn’t thinking of modern surveillance. “Satellites” has a double meaning, which I didn’t realize. I came up with these lyrics, and I had these ideas of satellites and space being connected to the Cold War and the Space Race. So I googled “Soviet satellites” and that refers to the countries that were under the control of Russia, and I was thinking about life in those countries. I had read these books by this woman Huerta Mueller about life in Romania and the east side of the wall and stuff like that. So it’s got multiple meanings going on, and it gained this new meaning post-Snowden and Russian invading Crimea. But I was thinking about it not so much as being modern, at least not as much as it became about that, based on real world events.

So where did the phrase “open the satellites” come from?

That came out of a jam, as a lot of the lyrics do. I was thinking about these countries, the satellites as they’re gaining their independencelike Slovenia and Croatialetting them go and their process. It’s kind of like opening up information, like freeing information and freeing these countries that were under arguably oppressive regimes, even though there are people who are nostalgic for those times, when everyone was guaranteed a job. I was going to write more about that in depth, but I ran it by my German label, and they were like, “Don’t even try to bring it up. Don’t try to speak for these people, because it’s a complex thing you don’t understand.” And that was true. The Cold War is still mysterious to me and many Americans. We have these images that involve space and surveillance and these things. But the details of the Marshall Plan are probably hard for most Americans to cohesively lay out.

Was that one of the more time-consuming tracks to make?

Yeah, I had the idea for the first part immediatelythe harsh noise and deep bass. I knew I wanted that before I even knew what the lyrics would be. And we were going to work with Alessandro Cortiniwho is a solo symphony musician but who also plays with Nine Inch Nailsbecause I knew him through noise scene stuff. He ended up going out with How to Destroy Angels and Nine Inch Nails again, but we were going to work on that one together. He helped put in the bass line that happened there. We didn’t end up using his sounds, but we ended up using that progression a bit, which helped. To be honest, because I’m playing so much with industrial sounds on this record, I think it’s probably good that we didn’t collaborate too heavily, because I was able to explore that on my own terms. I’m sure in the press it would have been like I was collaborating with the guy from Nine Inch Nails. When he gets off tour, it would be fun to work with him. He’s such a sweetheart.

“So Blonde”

What was the songwriting process like for that one?

I think I was taking a nap, and then the chorus and stuff came to me, and I woke up. I get a lot of my stuff through napsthe subconscious will come through. For this record, I thought about how people seem to like this verse-chorus-verse thing, so I was going to try that and see how it goes. I don’t know if it comes naturally for me to do that. I like verse-chorus-verse songs, and I feel like it has some benefits. People love them. But I don’t know if it’s necessarily my easiest, most natural way of writing. But I thought I’d try it because it’s the gold standard, or whatever. So the music was really easy, because with verse-chorus-verse you just repeat over and over. But the lyrics were really difficult, because I would look around at myself and some other female blonde rockers right now and examine that in the influence of the Kurt [Cobain] and Courtney [Love] type of thing. Courtney Love is the most successful rock icon that many of us grew up with, and maybe still is the most successful female rock icon of modern times. But it’s a complex relationship to have, so I wanted to do something that was both flattering but also slightly ambivalent, so that’s why the lyrics took a while. I couldn’t quite get the tone right, and I hope that comes across. I spent a lot of time going back and forth on lyrics. That’s the thingwhen I’m writing something that’s not in verse-chorus-verse format, the lyrics just come out. But with verse-chorus-verse, you have to make sure it rhymes and you have to make sure there are a certain number of lines. So it was like, “Here’s my rock song.”

Are most of the lyrics autobiographical?

That’s a part of that, too. It’s not just about the Kurt and Courtney thing. I also imagine it as being about “What is the image of this blonde?” There are so many people I was trying to put into this song besides those people. One was this cute boy in middle school who was this stoner in eighth grade, who I thought was so amazingly awesome and cool and hot. And he actually died in a motorcycle accident when he was 27 or 28, so I was thinking about him. And I was thinking about these blonde Hollywood girls like Lindsay Lohan, and I was thinking about the rockers that I see now. There were a lot of people I was trying to put in theremyself, too, because I feel ambivalent about fitting into it. Someone said in a review I likedthough I had to look up one of the wordsthat I was playing with the “lacuna” between serious artist and “rock alterna babe,” or something like that. So I do feel that. “Lacuna” just means the space that doesn’t fucking exist. So it’s about a lot of things, actually. All of the songs are about too many things to say “Oh, it’s about exactly this.” I think of the tempo of the song as being more like a driving-in-your-car-and-listening-to-Tom-Petty kind of tempo, because it has the acoustic guitar. It’s a little more like a rock song when we do it live.


This is just about how I felt after going from being a relatively obscure person to being a person who had a presence on the Internet or something. I was just feeling very raw and emotional. I think while a lot of the stuff for Past Life Martyred Saints was happening, I was conflicted and ambivalent, and I had these feelings that were really sad and angry. But when everything was going well, I felt like I wasn’t supposed to have those feelings. So I really invalidated them for myself, like, “You can’t be having these feelings. A., you’re not that famous [Laughs], and, B., you’re getting this thing that a lot of people wantall of this praise and attention for your artwork. There’s no reason you should be feeling this. You must not be feeling this; you must be feeling something else.” So I wrote this when I was feeling stressed out and emotional.

This was one of the songs that was like an automatic writing type thing, and I did a little bit of editing on it but not a ton. There’s a lot of stuff going on with the language of this record, like people saying “I can’t believe she said ‘interwebs,’” and I’m interested in that. Yeah, I know “interwebs” is a totally dorky word. Obviously. But it also doesn’t give it the same power. It’s either cute or awkward. I knew that was a word that would catch some people, but I’m surprised how some of the language on this record is a sticking point for some people. They’re like “She used that word and not ironically.” There’s a lot of language on here that people cringe when they hear, but they type and use it and read about it all day long. People are like “I can’t believe she said ‘selfies’ in a song.” Or “millennials.” But I’m just reflecting what we all are reading and talking about all the time, so if you find it distasteful when it’s in a song or art, what does that say about what we think about and write about and do with our time?

Did that song change much from the demo?

There is a crazy demo of it somewhere where I was using the GarageBand on my iPad, these weird sounds. It was longer and sadder and had even more crazy stuff in it. I took it out, but the language is still pretty naked. We tried different things with it, and I did this demo-y take, and then we tried a million things to either put it on a click or change the key or get it so that I sang it more in tune or to get the words a little differentlyit was such a waste of time, because I couldn’t get the feeling back. I could have taken out the things that were awkward and made it more in tune. I could have crafted it more, but it would have lost some of its vulnerability.

Since so much of that song seems to be about dealing with the image that had formed around you, were there any particular moments that you become aware that you were losing control over your image?

One of the moments was when we were putting out the “Marked/Angelo” single. I like to do everything myself, but we were on the road, and they were like, “We need a high res photo.” And I was like “I have this one that I took during post-production, where I’m looking kind of cute or sexy.” I approved it for that, but for some reason I felt kind of bummed out, because the song is so important to me but I didn’t have time to do the artwork the way I wanted to. I was so blonde and sexy or whatever on it, but I didn’t feel like I had the time or alternatives to do anything else. That was a moment for me, where I was like “Is this the person I feel like I am?”


That was a basement jam. Our drummer [Billy Sandness] that we’re playing with now, who I’ve actually known since high school, he has this drum kit that he’s had forever. And we were like, “Oh, we should hook up weird samples to it, so that you don’t have to just play drums.” So it was just a weird basement hangout thing, and he was playing drums, and we jammed with that. The lyrics are actually taken from this other improvised thing that I did for Little Sketches on Tape that is all improvised piano, guitar and voice. So I took those lyrics and put them into this thing, and it took a long time to get that mix correct. The synth choice and everythingthat was difficult to get. I like these choir synths, and [producer] Leif [Shackelford] totally hated them. That took a long time to get right, and mixing took a long time. It’s hard to go for this huge, epic fucking thing and get that mix to be correct. But we had fun doing it.

What’s the significance of the title?

That’s another one that came from this basement jam type of thing. I give things working titles, and we were like “What are we going to call this session?” And I thought, “Well, let’s call it ‘Cthulu,’” because it had this monstrous sound. It’s a great word, and I love that there’s this meme of people dressing up their babies like Cthulu. I always meant to rename it, but it just didn’t get renamed.

What inspired the lyrics?

That was an improv. I would get in an interesting state of mind and just do that. I don’t know where it came from, but it’s almost like watching an old film like Gone with the Wind. It’s like it’s from another time or place. A lot of these are Rorschachs of the subconscious. Lyrics are interesting. A lot of times, I don’t even know what they all mean until after I’ve been talking about them for a while. I get new insights all the time about how things fit together in ways that I didn’t understand. That’s also why things can have an awkward quality to them for some people, but I think there’s something really beautiful about trying to put judgment out of the way and let your subconscious come through, because your subconscious doesn’t lie. It just goes.

That’s how I typically write things that I end up liking the best. To be honest, I would go back and try to edit things, and that almost always made things worse. It’s hard to always trust your instincts and your subconscious, especially with rock music which is this thing that’s supposed to be raw but very polished. With painting, people respect the process as well as the product, and naiveté can be a conscious choice.


That’s another thing that me and Leif were jamming on down in the basement. We had been at a party, and toward the end of the night someone got out a bottle of absinthe, and made us drinks. And then we went home and jammed it out, the main parts. He was on Moog and I was on vocals. That one, I feel like something happened in the mix or in the mastering, and I feel like it’s not as spacious and raw as it was in our earlier mixes. There’s 60 earlier mixes or something. So that one was one of my favorite songs on there, but I haven’t really listened to how it ended up mastered. It’s a difficult one to fit in with the rest of the things, as well, because all of the songs have such different arrangements that it’s hard to make them fit all together. I think we toned down the noise in my voice. It was like, “Let’s turn it down just a little bit, because it’s really noisy.” And I was like, “No. I want it to be aggressive.” It ended up somewhere in the middle.

That’s another one where we used the original vocals from that night. I tried to redo them, but it didn’t work. I was in this absinthe, free zone. First take, best takemuch better than me trying to do it again. We also went back and forth with this R&B verse, which is another thing that Leif hates and I liked. He was like, “I don’t like the language of it, because it seems like this stock, club language.” And I’d say, “I know, but it’s saying the opposite.” It’s like “I staggered to the club/I staggered to the stage/and I saw the bright lights filled me up with nothing, empty rage,” instead of being like “We’re in the club/we’re on the stage/the bright lights in my face.” For some reason, there’s a lot of shame on this record. I sometimes say it’s anger or discomfort with having my image out there, but I’m just realizing it now as I look at the lyrics and am talking to you. “I get so upset/I get so ashamed” and on “So Blonde” the word on the bridge is “shame.” On “3Jane” it says “Everyone saw me/I get terrified/I get stressed out,” but what it actually is is that I’m ashamed. I don’t know where that comes fromI probably should have seen a therapist while I was making this. But that turns up as a big theme.

That’s interesting, because it’s hard to know as a listener what is motivating that.

It’s hard enough for me to know what’s motivating it! So I guess I made a record to figure it out or at least get rid of it.

Did it seem like a cathartic process in that way?

Yeah. That’s the thing. How do I explain it? With the record, I feel like I could have made something more in the style of the last record and that would have been less polarizing and would have gotten higher marks from a lot of people. But what I was feeling was a lot of anger and shame, and in order to keep that from paralyzing me, I needed to get to rid of it.

Did you think that anger and shame is related to feeling that you don’t deserve the success of the last record?

I don’t know, because I think that record is cool. When I listen to it and divorce myself from it, I’m like, “Oh, this is rad.” If I take my ego out of it, I’m like, “Yeah, I like this.” I don’t know if it’s being in front of people or a growing up thing. In the Midwest you’re not supposed to stand out. I don’t know what this shame is, but it’s like I have this shame from having all this attention, of being everywhere and worrying that people that know me are going to talk shit about me or think that I don’t deserve it or be jealous of me. I don’t know where it comes from.

Kurt Cobain went through that, too-that feeling of being ashamed of his success.

I hadn’t thought about that. He loved Olympia and K Records and riotgrrls and probably a lot of those people were like, “You are not punk anymore.” I’m sure he was totally ashamed. So I had that on some level, but compared to so many other people, I’m not famous. I’m not going through what so many other people are going through, so that’s another reason why I didn’t feel like I could express that, because the levels didn’t even seen that noteworthy. [Laughs]


This one, I feel like there’s a lot going on, and I’m figuring out more and more what it means. I feel like people are misunderstanding it a bit. One of the things I’ve been thinking about is that people are really cringing at the words “taking selfies” or “narcissistic baby” or “millennial baby.” Part of that is I’m a person who took my own press photos for the first record, so I’m talking about myself here. I’m not trying to shake my finger at people and say, “You’re narcissistic! You’re millennial!” I also say, “Is it true? Is it true? You choose.” Those are the ways people are talking about this age group, and it is kind of gross. This is just a reflection of what people are saying; it’s not like I’m trying to wag my finger at people and say, “You guys are all fucked up.” I’m a content creator. You make stuff, people look at it, and then they blame you and call you “narcissistic.” And this is an age group that has very limited economic opportunities, not only as young people who are trying to make a living in this post-recession economy, but for all content creators now, it’s becoming harder and harder to be anyone who does any sort of art or creates any sort of content who gets anything for it.

So that’s the first little bit. And the other part is we’re creating a lot of this content and doing it for “free,” and it doesn’t harm anybody or anything like that. Then it gets it fed through all these algorithms and data from people who have created the platforms, and it gets taken and aggregated, analyzed, and sold back to us. And these people know more about all of our habits and things that we like. When we post a picture, and it’s of a picture of someone walking on a beach, and it gets a bunch of “Likes,” there’s probably an algorithm somewhere that sees what the most popular pictures are and turns around and uses them in advertising. So the next time you walk on a beach, you think of a Chase commercial. So how free is all this Internet stuff if we’re giving up our brain space of creating new images and new memories for brands and ads? There’s a lot of stuff going on with that [in the song], and there’s also me, too, feeling like there’s this cube of information that is all me in thereall the digital information has been amassed and is in my fucking brain as an AI cube. And everyone has this, whether you think about it or not. You have a profile and an amount of information about you, and you don’t even know what it says unless you totally analyzed your bank accounts. There’s a lot of stuff going on there. [“Neuromancer”] is not quite as cut and dry as maybe people are taking it to be. I don’t blame them; that’s a fucking long, complex thing I just said.

“When She Comes”

I guess it’s kind of dark. It can either be dark or gross. There’s a lot of puns or playing with language. I feel like this is where the record gets really musical, so if you can deal with the social commentary and sonic exploration of the first half, you can walk into the warm and loving arms of “When She Comes.” It has a Pacific Northwest influence, and it has the “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain When She Comes”-type of play on words. It’s kind of about someone, but it also has these grunge lyrics. I was thinking about K Records mumble-grunge: “psilocybin nightmares,” “we will terraform the night,” “Dorothy’s mirror pond.” Just fun.

But there are some really terrifying lyrics in that“They’ll be begging for their lives when they come.” That’s some pretty dark stuff.

[Laughs] That’s funny. I didn’t think about that. That’s another one that just had to rhyme. That’s another one where I was like, “Fuck. What can I rhyme with this shit?” When you do this verse-chorus-verse thing, shit has to rhyme. The lyrics take longer, because you have to do that shit. I kind of prefer the jam-it-out kind of thing.

It’s also interesting because the subject keeps shifting from “he” to “she” to “we.”

Yeah, that’s something I’ve always done, as well. I don’t think there’s one narrator; the narrator changes. I’ve always liked to do that. You can do it with pronouns. That’s the same with “Dead Celebrity.” The use of pronouns blurs the line between “you,” “me,” “we,” “them.”

“100 Years”

That was just me in the basement, writing stuff. I think it’s good, because it gives the record some space. The record is very dense in the beginning, and it was a hard record to sequence. In the end I had to hand that off to someone else because I was too close to it. I might have sequenced it differently, but at some point your brain gets too full, and you don’t have the space. But this was about the first real modernization in the world, the first real mechanical age, but also about the Spanish flu. I was reading about the Spanish flu, and for some reason it killed young, healthy people at a rate that it didn’t kill the very old and very young. I thought that was very interesting. It’s almost like a person in a fever trying to understand it, because it was almost 100 years ago. It’s like a person in a fever thinking about the last time that the world changed so much. It reminds you that even though the world seems really crazy right now, it’s always been crazy.

There’s a lot of war imagery in there. Was that referencing World War I?

Yeah. All that stuff was going on then. People were moving to cities, so you had a huge cultural shift. Just the idea of airplanesthat blew people’s fucking minds. But with “men in metal, fly through the sky” it also harkens back to “Satellites,” because it slightly ties in.

Were you drawing parallels between then and now, since today we seem to be at another societal turning point?

Well, yeah. As crazy as anything seems right now, I just think times have always been crazy. There’s always a mass moment of change.


That one, we had a party jam at our house, with the guys from Washed Out, because we had played with them on tour. And they had a show in town, and afterwards they came over and we went down to the basement and jammed. The main hook “She gets solace”that came from them. We were just doing round robin, and Ernest [Greene] laid down a chord progression, and I instantly was like, “Here’s the hook.” Then the rest of it we totally reworked, but that’s how it started. It was just like a party down in the basement, so we had that, and then there was one where everyone was singing along and we had a clap happening. And we turned on the mic in the room, and we had the drums set up, but we couldn’t find drumsticks, so the drummer was playing with a toy stuffed duck feather duster. It was fucking hilarious. So we didn’t sit down and write this whole song, but we passed it around and came up with that.

Was that idea of looking for solace drawn from the whirlwind of the last record?

I think this one is less personal. I think of it as a road trip song, like you’ve been driving all night and the sun is coming up. That one isn’t quite as personal.

“Dead Celebrity”

That was kind of worked out, improvised, and written fairly quickly. That was one of the first things that I wrote, and it used the language of the Internet. That was one of the first time I was like, “Can I do this? Will this work?” And I think when you run up against things where you’re like, “Can I do this?”-that means no one else has done it. And it’s not a judgmental song. It’s not like, “You people are all sick! You click on the links of people you don’t even know.” It’s about how you relate to people you don’t know but that you feel like you know. One of my favorite lyrics on there is “Who can love us?/Who can judge us?/Who can blame the world and me?/Because we wanted something timeless/In this world so full of speed.” So I’m not judging anybody. It harkens back to feeling like the world is speeding up and going faster, which is something that is also in “100 Years.” It eventually ties back to that. “I hope that/you can know that/they’ve got problems, you and me…” It doesn’t really draw lines between which sides we are on.

Did you plan to use that melody from the very start?

I just went upstairs and played that and sang over it.

It’s interesting that the melody is kind of halfway between a church hymn and “Taps.”

Yeah. That’s another thing that you can love or hate. My manager hated that song. She said it reminded her of “Oh My Darling, Clementine.” But I like it.

Was that actually inspired by you clicking on the link of a dead celebrity?

Probably. Something like that. The first person I remember being like, “Oh, my God! Really?” was Brittany Murphy. That one seemed particularly sad, because she had been out of the spotlight for a while, and you wonder “Is it drugs?” You just assume that the person was troubled and that they’re dead because of their personal problems. That’s assumed. A lot of people are thinking it’s about Philip Seymour Hoffman, but I feel like fame and the word “celebrity” has this special connotation with young females. I don’t necessarily think of someone who died of old age. You think of people speculating about when Lindsay Lohan will die or Amy Winehouse. You think of a young dead celebrityPrincess Diana maybe. The other thing that really bummed me out was that when Amy Winehouse died, I felt like people were guessing when that would happen in this really macabre way, but I read somewhere that her bodyguards said that she spent the night before she died clicking on YouTube videos of herself. That sums a lot of things for me. Isn’t that so dark? You can imagine what most of the videos and comments were, and if that wouldn’t cause you to drink yourself to death, I don’t know what would.


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October 23rd 2014

This changes everything that I had thought of the album. I didn’t have preconceived concepts. This play by play just expanded what I already thought.

December 24th 2014

Great piece! Hearing EMA’s thoughts about the songs on The Future’s Void really expands my appreciation of this album, which is genius.