Interview: EMA explores the boundaries of the outer ring

EMA - Exile in the Outer RingIn September 2015, the Washington Post ran a feature called ‘An American Void’. It follows the day-to-day lives of the Meek family, who occasionally housed Dylann Roof in the days and weeks before he walked into Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and shot dead 9 black attendees, an act he had hoped would spark a race war. What was most captivating about Stephanie McCrummen’s story was its focus on the peripheries of the event, the sheer ordinariness of the lives that orbited Roof’s.

This proved to be one of several cultural and political backdrops that informed Erika M. Anderson’s concept of ‘the outer ring’, the economic dead space outlined on her third album as EMA, Exile in the Outer Ring. (Enormously articulate and well-read, Anderson lights up when I ask her about literary influences and confesses she’s been meaning to compile a ‘reading list’ to accompany the record.) Her definition for The Quietus seemed succinct enough: “It’s the estuary between where the people who are being forced out of the cities, due to being economically disadvantaged, meet with the people who having to leave the countryside in order to get jobs.”

The outer ring could be described as the geographic space that occupies America’s economically disenfranchised – not quite the suburbs, but certainly outside the city. In an NPR piece that Anderson loved, Ann Powers called it “that circular band of highways and avenues surrounding a city, where vape shops share strip-mall space with Halal butchers and Triple XXX Pleasure Zones… When gentrification implodes a city's historic core and outsourcing devastates employment in small towns — the everyday ways the world ends now, and will keep ending – the Outer Ring emerges as a real-life Fury Road…” These are the modern dislocations that keep the country divided.

A lot has happened in America since Anderson started recording Exile in the Outer Ring over a year ago, and the temptation is strong to examine more recent events through the lens of that narrative. Having made a record with overtly political overtones – one song is called “Aryan Nation”, though I’m told that was written at least three years ago – Anderson is now facing a press cycle where every journalist wants a hot take on the State of the World Today from her. Perhaps starting with Charlottesville was a little much.

“Charlottesville’s a hard one. I think I’m good at being able to tell what’s going on in the world, but with this… my stomach was upset. It was churning whenever I’d read something about it, like a physical sensation.” Though the events are undoubtedly relevant to Exile in the Outer Ring, previous atrocities had been allowed some time to digest. In the immediate aftermath of an event that is “constantly changing”, the artist is understandably reluctant to offer anything trite within such painful proximity. “I don’t have any easy soundbites for Charlottesville,” she admits.

Though the album’s focus remains on the U.S., Anderson has spoken previously about her love of Shane Meadows’ modern classic This Is England, another vital document, and reminder that nationalism flourishes in times when ordinary working class families are let down by political elites. Does she see parallels between England in the 80s and modern American racism?

“One of the things that struck me about it was parallels to people I’ve known in my past, and one of them is…” She stops to choose the right words. “The villain, I guess, is kind of radicalised in prison, and I think that’s something that’s going on in America as far as racial animosity goes. I mean, in the U.S. a lot of people join up in these racially segregated prison gangs. And that seems horrifying, but it’s just accepted as part of that whole situation.” She also recognises the backdrop of the Falklands conflict as a huge factor, though each conspires to play its own part. “So you have militarisation, you have a prison, you have poverty, you have drugs. And it kind of creates this monster. It feels like everything is connected, and it’s the perfect storm.”

Although there has been a massive focus on the political concept of the outer ring, Anderson poured a lot of herself into the record; the titular ‘exile’ refers to her own crises as well as those at a national level. “When I say Exile in the Outer Ring, this is about me self-exiling myself for a while, locking myself away and becoming afraid of other people. It’s not like sloganeering or telling other people what to do.” The album’s sentiments, she insists, are artistic rather than prescriptive. “This record isn’t political in the sense of saying, ‘You should all do this, this and this, these people are bad.’ It’ not black and white like that. It’s really personal and deeply-felt, and it just kind of happens that it’s in a place that’s realistic, and real places have these forces that are working on them, whether it’s economics, geography, or politics.”

Nonetheless, she admits that the daily filter of news and events may have played into her subconscious mind when writing. She mentions “Blood and Chalk” as an example, written during the during the time that she was creating a horror movie soundtrack. “This is a song about a 12-year-old girl, but I when I hooked up with [Unknown Mortal Orchestra’s] Jake Portrait, who helped produce the record, he said he thought it was about a shooting. And actually, when I look at the lyrics, I wonder whether it makes more sense as that. I wonder if my subconscious mind was writing a parallel story.”



I’m glad she brings up “Blood and Chalk”. I never thought I’d love an EMA song more than the sucker-punch majesty of “California”, but Exile in the Outer Ring’s emotional highlight somehow unites every corner of the record’s fear, anger, and sadness into one cathartic line: “I know the rage that’s in me. But I’m just what you made me.” People talk about EMA’s music as dark, but when it’s this beautifully honest, you can’t help but feel the light shining through. Anderson admits that, even when the songs flow easily, her process often requires a degree of refinement.

“I just kind of see what comes out, and then play within the sessions,” she tells me. “I mean, the best things like “Blood and Chalk” come out really quickly, and then there’s some playing around with it to see musically what makes sense. That one actually had a huge, industrial, throbbing bass over all of it in the beginning. And this is really what Jake helped to transform – this is the one he transformed the most. He definitely made it work in a way that it wasn’t working before. It didn’t have the space to be tender.”

Since her previous band Gowns (who seem to be enjoying something of a critical renaissance, much to the singer’s surprise and delight) came to an end in 2009, Anderson’s control over her work has occasionally shifted. Her last outing, 2014’s The Future’s Void, featured more input from bandmates. For Exile, Anderson wanted to go back to a more autonomous approach, with only Jake Portrait really stepping into the creative circle. “For this one, I went back to mostly me. I like some collaborations sometimes but… I don’t know, I love records where it feels like one person’s brain. Because when that happens, even the weaknesses become interesting and revealing. This was one that I had a lot of demos for, that definitely wasn't sounding as big and thick and full as when Jake worked on them.”

Whatever creative chemistry emerged from those sessions, the record is abundant with examples of their success. "Fire Water Air LSD" is one of the most singularly uncompromising, industrial-tinged blow-outs she's put to the EMA name ("I thought it was kind of poppy," she tells me later). Likewise, "33, Nihilistic and Female" seems destined to go down as one of her greatest counterpoints between the clattering and the crystalline, while "Breathalyzer" sounds like it could have been an off-cut from her horror movie excursions, complete with noir-ish storytelling: "Out in the dark parking lot of apartments, did what he want..." While she's keen to stress the value of Portrait's contributions, there's no doubt that EMA's singular voice shines through stronger than ever this time out.


In the end, she trusts her own vision enough to make it work. “I was getting... I wouldn’t say pressure, but very strong suggestions from people to work with different producers. People who would’ve probably tried to make me re-record the whole thing.” That approach also, she explains, allows the lived moment of the creative process to remain as authentic as possible. “I think one of the things I like about my process, and the EMA records in general, is that the vocals are recorded during the writing process, so I’m really connecting emotionally to what is being created. And to try and go back in and re-do any of that? It’s just gonna be a performance. And I don’t mean that in a good way. Like, ‘What was I feel really strongly about then? Let me try and fake that…’” You lose some of the immediacy of the vision you had at the time, I suggest. “Yeah! And the playfulness, and the discovery. Jake was like, ‘I can’t believe I’m getting away with these vocals,’ because they’re just kind of wild and out of tune. And I’m like, ‘I can’t believe I’m getting away with these vocals!’ But that’s fun. To try and go back and do it all again would have just killed it.”

Now the record’s finished and released, she has the usual itinerary to contend with: interviews, touring, promotion. I ask if she’s looking forward to touring alongside indie heroes The Blow. “Well, I interviewed them for this radio show earlier in the year. And afterward they were like, ‘Hey, we’re both putting out records later in the year. Do you want to tour together?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it!’” She’s also excited for the European dates, where she’s touring with Dubais. “It’s this woman called Nadia [Buyse], she was from Portland but now she’s living in Berlin. She does this thing that she describes as ‘lo-fi Arabfuturism’. It’s a little bit performance art, but she’s fun.”

I ask how the teenage Erika would feel about it all, this career she’s got going. “My problem is that I keep taking my 15-year-old self’s advice,” she admits, laughing. “That girl’s like, ‘Yeah, you don’t need a producer, don’t worry about planning for your future. What do you need a real job for?’ My 15-year-old self is very much alive, and I have not disappointed her. But I think I have maybe fucked over my 65-year-old self…”

Reading through her previous interviews, listening to all the old records again, I get the impression that Erika M. Anderson expects a lot of herself. At the start of our Skype conversation, she tells me that the hot water is out in her apartment. It’s an oddly human detail for someone so enormously talented, but then I guess that’s the whole point: we expect extraordinary acts to come pre-wrapped in extraordinary circumstances, and it’s an oddly jarring feeling when we discover that it doesn’t work that way. Dylann Roof’s friends are out there leading relatively normal lives, playing X-Box and chain-smoking their way through their teens, because they have more pressing day-to-day concerns to address now. EMA has gifted the world one of the finest records of the year, but she still has to get her boiler fixed. Punctuated by suffering and ecstasy, the ordinary world goes on.

Exile in the Outer Ring is out now on City Slang.

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