Introducing herself as a solo artist with the epically rocking seven-minute single “The Grey Ship” (http://souterraintransmissions.com/files/EMA%20-%20The%20Grey%20Ship.mp3) – backed by “Kind Heart,” her slowly rambunctious and flailing sixteen minute take on Robert Johnson’s classic “Kind Hearted Woman” – EMA invites you deeper into her world with her debut album, Past Life Martyred Saints due on May 10, 2011.
Fans of guitar noise will already know EMA from her time as the scorching guitarist in legendary folk/noise outfit Amps For Christ. She went on to form the genre-defying cult duo Gowns with Ezra Buchla, which was called “one of the most heart-stoppingly great live bands on planet Earth” by Pitchfork and about which, upon seeing their captivating, volatile live show, the Village Voice spluttered succinctly: “Holy fucking fuck.” Gowns’ 2007 debut album Red State was an electronic folk and feedback-drenched masterpiece that left critics both raving and bewildered. It sadly proved to be their last. The upside is that Gowns’ musical crossroads led to the unveiling of EMA, who has since opened for Throbbing Gristle on their last US tour. Did we also mention she relocated to LA when she was just 18, because she really liked ‘Welcome to the Jungle’?
A native of South Dakota – the sparsely inhabited north end of America’s heartland (her blog is called ‘came outta nowhere’) – EMA has a unique and at times dervish-like guitar style, a skill for visceral songwriting, and a DIY recording ethos that has seen her develop a distinctive sonic signature. Her songs are somewhat neurotically assembled and essentially raw, the product of obsession by somebody who never learned the ‘right’ way to do things. Besides making music, EMA has been involved in video, performance and curating multimedia shows in West Oakland and LA.
If there is a grand unifying theory behind Past Life Martyred Saints, it’s that EMA treats fidelity and distortion like another instrument, being obsessed with the question of analogue vs. digital. Songs switch seamlessly between lo-fi 4-track grunge, gloriously trashy dance beats and damaged girl group ballads, like all the car radio hits of the past fifty years absorbed and sweated out through pores of distortion, feedback and reverence.
Not being able to technically write music but looking for a way to represent the Glenn Branca-inspired “Kind Heart,” EMA drew the song out like map, creating a graphic score she likened to a musical equivalent of the ‘Hobo Code.’ Her work on redefining classic American folk music has led to a currently underway collaboration with the Kronos Quartet.
Album opener “The Grey Ship” is a nod to the Viking funeral ships of EMA’s ancestors, and while pop logic dictates the tune is divided into two parts – one sunny and strummy and the other low-lit and dramatic – the recording also switches up from lo-fi to hi-fi. Just listen for the BASS DROP. The song also features appearances from Buchla and Corey Fogel of Gowns.
As EMA explains, “I wanted ‘The Grey Ship’ to change fidelity in the middle of the song. I imagined it being like when Dorothy opens the door to Oz and the whole world turns from black and white to Technicolor.” That change in fidelity also serves as a coruscating “sonic signifier” for transferring from the earthly plane to one beyond.
In “California,” we find a fuzzed-up, piano ode to EMA’s adoptive home.
“Musically, the track is inspired by ‘My Life’ by The Game,” she says. “It’s a noised-out rap ballad by a Midwestern white girl with lyrical references to Bo Diddley and Stephen Foster.”
“Marked” ups the intensity of the album, as EMA explores a complicated relationship over an eerie guitar strum and keyboard drone, intoning raspily, “I wish that every time he touched me / Left a mark.” It is the captured sound of climbing walls.
“Some wounds don’t leave marks, and they would be almost easier to explain if they did,” EMA says. “I heard a story once about Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, where they got in a huge fight out at a club, and one of them got so mad that they went and jumped in the river. Police were called, and once they were finally rescued they joined up and walked back into the club, arm in arm.”
Inspired by a “teen goth murder” that happened outside of LA, “Butterfly Knife” draws on EMA’s own experiences growing up and has a squalling, rhythmic guitar texture underpinning multiple EMA vocals scrabbling for air in the mix.
Both “Breakfast,” with its impeccable refrain “you feel just like a breeze to me,” and album closer “Red Star” are more fully fleshed out band tracks, featuring EMA’s sister Nikki Anderson on drums and Aaron Davis (who also records solo as ACRE) on bass. On these tracks, we can hear how EMA’s vocal melodies really soar in tandem with her distinctive guitar style, and, when alongside the militaristic, drum-riddled “trashy sex romp” of “Milkman,” indicate a depth of influences and studio intuition that would make other producers blush and run for the hills.
With her mix of whisper-to-yell dynamics, intimate and visceral expression, honesty of voice, and studio playfulness, she is a singular talent who completely compels the listener. EMA’s songs are filled with harmonies and hooks that exist right in those sweet spots between melody and dissonance. It is a knowing voice, the sound of a drunken laugh while crying.