EMA’s Raging Noise Pop Album ‘Exile In The Outer Ring’ Balances Empathy And American Isolation

Erika M. Anderson’s music under the EMA moniker has always been an attempt to take the seismic cultural shifts that rock our society and turn them inwards. Her albums carry this burden for us as Anderson imbues her songs with the weariness of cultural overload. With 2014’s The Future’s Void, she tackled technology with equal doses of curiosity and disdain, and it’s precisely this willingness to see things from perspectives outside of the dominant sphere that animates her latest album, Exile In The Outer Ring.

Outer Ring finds Anderson exploring alienation, disenchantment, and anger, not just amongst a certain group of people, but proliferating outwards from the city streets. Anderson’s idea of the ‘outer ring’ — the space that working class urbanites, poor farmers, and immigrants have been pushed to — is a wellspring of cultural clash and animosity. Rather than place the blame on these people — unwillingly relocating due to issues both economic and ideological — Anderson hones in on the city centers. The $5.00 coffees, the cute boutiques, the charmingly rubbish overpriced homes; these are the real agents of gentrification and homogeneity now pervasive throughout major American cities.

Anderson uses her EMA project to refract this increasingly dire cultural crisis on herself, using Outer Ring to examine the ways in which she impacts this phenomenon both explicitly and accidentally. Courting Jacob Portrait from Unknown Mortal Orchestra to help shape the record, Exile In The Outer Ring is EMA’s strongest, boldest, and most confident album yet.

It’s the platonic ideal of the EMA mission, harsh and grating with an underlying brilliance and shimmer — equal parts caustically clever and boisterously beautiful. We spoke with Anderson over the phone from her home in Portland to discuss shitty apartments, her old band, Gowns, and misinterpreting Outer Ring as an anti-Trump album.

Sonically, Exile In The Outer Ring is really assured and confident. It seems to be the best example of your style to date. How formed were your musical ideas when you began writing this album?

With this record, it’s a step forward, but it also feels like a full-circle. I’m coming back to the things I really like — static, noise made into melody digital, manipulation, and drones. I’ve been messing around with this stuff for years but my new record got mixed in a real studio which definitely helps. I played around with some different ideas for this record, although I’m not sure they came through on the recordings. I’m really into some of the drum sounds I programmed — this is the first time I actually sat down and programmed them, picking out the sounds. I love the pine-y sound that represents domesticity — these tiny little sounds. I was sampling really early drum machines for that.

Speaking of this record coming full circle, do you think you would have been able to make this new record without having done Past Life Martyred Saints and The Future’s Void?

When I’m speaking of full circle I’m counting that Gowns full-length in there. This record was one where different people suggested working with poppier producers. They were like, ‘Do you wanna go in the studio with so and so?’ It felt like a much poppier sound than you’d guess for EMA. This became the point where I decided against that. I wanted to like this record, to be proud of it. I wanted to love it more, and the way to do that would be to stick to my guns. So it was a crossroads where it was between trying for pop stardom or continuing to expand vision. Some people ask, ‘Would you do anything it takes to be successful in your field?’ And my answer is, ‘No. I wanna make my shit.’

Outer Ring certainly moves in its own direction, but it’s still building off what you’ve already done as EMA. When you were making Outer Ring did you have your two prior EMA full-lengths in mind either for ideas you wanted to build off of or things you wanted to avoid?

For the last record I tried to do a lot of things, tried to play with a lot of sounds. I wasn’t really thinking about coherence. I was into things sounding completely different each time. So that’s one thing I wanted to back away from again. I wanted to create a specific sonic palette. With The Future’s Void I had more input from bandmates and other people for writing. With this one, I went back to saying, ‘No…I want to be in charge of as many aspects of this as I can.’ I just wanted to write everything. Although Jake [Jacob Portrait] did come in and help me with some stuff.

“Always Bleeds” was originally a Gowns song. Why did this album feel like the appropriate place to revisit that iteration of your career?

I’ve always wanted to do that song because I love the guitar part. I wrote that part a really long time ago, and it’s one of those things that whenever I pick up a guitar I play it. Like, ‘Man, that’s a sick riff. I need to get that back into something.’ Also, I think both musically and emotionally, I’m revisiting that era of myself.

Do you think this re-visiting may have to do with the fact that you’re now firmly established as a popular solo act? You’re no longer Erika from Gowns.

I don’t know. There might have been a moment where I needed my own thing, but I’m proud of Gowns.

It was weird. I was in New York at PS1 and someone behind the counter was like, ‘Did you used to be in Gowns?’ That was like ten years ago! Recently there was also some Perfume Genius thing where he was listing his favorite records and he listed Red State. At the time it didn’t feel like Gowns went anywhere — we were a pretty underground band. But I’m kind of realizing that maybe it was a really important record for a lot of people. I also feel really proud of it sonically. I didn’t have any goal in mind besides making something as perfect or interesting as I could. There wasn’t anything else adulterating that. It’s a cool mindset to go back into with EMA.

The way the music industry is in general, having had a taste of success and what that means, I want to go back to the thing where you’re only creating to make the most awesome thing you can for your brain. Gowns had no rules. That beginner’s mind — that sense of freedom — is cool.

So you approached this record abandoning those same rules?

One thing people are drawn into with the work is this sense of world-building, which is a phrase that’s pretty new to me. I didn’t really know what it meant. I think it makes sense, though. I just want to go back and build these worlds that people can be entranced in, or take my own little world and refract into some work.

Outer Ring and The Future’s Void aren’t concept records, but they revolve around particular topics — they have a throughline. With The Future’s Void focusing on technology and Outer Ring on a particular rural, American anger —

Sorry, I need to interrupt real quick. I know that it seems like a rural thing, but the place I’m trying to build out is the new American suburbs. I’m in Portland, Oregon right now and the suburbs are actually more diverse than the city center. The suburbs are poorer than the city center. It’s an inverse from what we traditionally think of. It’s happening in a lot of cities all over the world — not just in America. The outer ring isn’t necessarily a rural place, but it’s the idea of being pushed out of a city center due to economic concerns, or you’re moving from the country into the city because your way of life is dying in the country. That’s what the outer ring is. It’s not completely rural.

With that being said, was it your experience in Portland in particular that led you to tackle this topic on the album? Or was it more of being a Midwesterner and seeing that happen in your childhood region?

I think it’s being a midwesterner in Portland. Just always feeling slightly out of place with some of the culture or the things happening in city centers now. I don’t really want to use the word gentrification because it already has a lot of baggage attached to it — it’s like shorthand or a jumping-off point for a conversation I’m not necessarily trying to get into. But I’m talking about the Midwesterner in me… there’s an ambivalence. When I walk around certain big cities — and it’s happening to all of them, not just Portland — and see $5 cups of coffee, or a really cute boutique with overpriced clothes, there’s a part of me that’s Midwest enough to hate that shit [laughs].

Whether I knew it or not, this album taps into that. If you extrapolate that to what people in real rural places are feeling, I can see where the anger and resentment comes from, because I even get a prick of it in my spine when I’m in a neighborhood that’s too cute and all of a sudden becomes too expensive for everybody.

That’s so interesting, because the way Exile In The Outer Ring has been rolled-out and presented has been against this ruralness; an angriness towards Trump’s America, which doesn’t seem to be what you’re getting at here.

I’ve been trying to explain it to people, but it’s some concept I made up so it’s tough. Some of these things are set from a more rural perspective, but it’s more about people who are pushed out of cities. We never hear about where they’re going. I’ve been referring to it as the outer ring. Recent immigrants to the US aren’t gonna roll up and get an apartment in Manhattan. They’re gonna end up in Flushing. If they come to Portland, they’re gonna end up in Gresham. For me, the outer ring is just so interesting. I think sooner than later, everyone but the super wealthy are gonna have to end up there.

I think it could be seen as either a dystopia or utopia, because it’s kind of aesthetically neutral, right? You have chain stores but next to the mall you can have a strip mall that has the best Vietnamese food for miles around or something. The outer ring could either be this spot where everyone is poor, there are drugs, and shit goes down, or it could be this place where there’s enough space for people, it’s cheap enough, and features a diverse, integrated community.

Going into this conversation, I had gathered through press clippings and from reading various things about the album that it was about people in Nebraska, for instance, being angry at Hillary Clinton. But it seems to be more about displaced people in general and examining and empathizing with them.

Yeah. Recent immigrants from the Middle East or North Africa up against a white family who had to move because the factory closed in their small town. It’s all of these different worlds colliding in one place, not in the city center but in the sprawl.

It’s more empathetic than attempting to take aim at any specific group of people.

I’m always trying to do something that maybe people don’t get. It’s more nuanced than just, technology is bad, people in the Midwest are dumb!

Do you find it easier to shape your records around a core philosophy or loose concept?

I think it’s just part of the world-building. Honestly, I’m always dealing with really personal shit. I just set it in a world, but I’m always telling my own personal story. I guess there’s just always an alternate reality that they take place in.

You recorded this album in Portland, but in a nondescript basement in a nondescript apartment. How did this ‘boring’ place impact the record?

This record — as much as it’s about these externalized realities or these ideas about migration and urban planning — is really about me. Just because of different shit in my life I was dealing with, I didn’t really leave this weird apartment that I’m living in. It’s not like I started this with, ‘Oh, I wanna make a record about the outer ring or about people that live in generic, shitty apartments.’ I’m hiding from the world for months at a time in this apartment, that does have shitty carpeting and blinds. I don’t give a fuck about anything. I pulled the couch off the street. All the furniture is from the Goodwill bins or off the street. There are fake plants all around.

That was what it was, I was also reading a lot about what’s been going on in America. In the beginning I wasn’t thinking about, ‘I’m gonna make a record like this.’ I just start making work, and realize, ‘Holy shit, I’m making music about my own alienation and loneliness, and this is what it looks like.’ It’s not like I’m consciously choosing — seriously, it’s like the most boring, generic, prosaic location you can imagine.

It’s not like a cute little house that you think of in Portland with hardwood floors. You don’t go outside and there are cute coffee shops or rolling hills with a big tree. It’s a really generic apartment complex with a cement courtyard in the back. I don’t even know how I could even make work about it, let alone this richly detailed private world. That’s part of it, too. Just because someone drives a Toyota Camry and gets fucked up in a Best Buy parking lot doesn’t mean that people aren’t going through spiritual transformations within their shitty living room. They’re going through real shit.

Did the album reflect your living situation or did you live in a place that would reflect the album you were creating?

I became a hermit in this spot before I started making the record. And then I got a chance to do a VR performance at PS1 MOMA, and so my idea was to perform in something that looked like a shitty living room. The virtual reality world was in one with someone that looked like me in a regular living room and all of a sudden a ton of lizards appear and all of a sudden I turn into a snake man. From there I was getting the themes for this record. But it wasn’t like, ‘I should move into this shitty apartment so I can make a record about the American experience.’

There’s a stupid romanticized notion of the artist sealing themselves from society and reality in preparation for creation. It’s really just lonely and extremely hard to do.

It was awful. Once the record was done, I finally got rid of that shitty street couch [laughs]. I finally tried to clean up some aspects of my life. I process deep psychological shit when I’m making records. After the record, I was lifting weights, moving things, trying to care more, reach out and make more friends. Until the record was done, though, I couldn’t get rid of that stupid ass couch!

Did immersing yourself in the psyche of modern Americanness ever weigh you down?

Yeah. I don’t know how much this comes out on the record or just through my thought processes, but I was reading a lot of stuff about race in America. That stuff will just stick in your head. Yeah, fuck…I don’t know. It just weighed me down and made my head just sort of spin out.

There’s this notion that America became bad on November 8th, but it sounds like you were grappling with all of this way before the election of the new president.

Way before. I’ve been working on this record for years. All the songs were written several years ago. “Aryan Nation” is the oldest song on the record, and I guess that one is more about a rural place, but that’s one of the tracks where people were like, ‘Are you sure you wanna fuck with this?’ I just had a sense… I knew it was something really happening. People warned me about having those words associated with my name. But I decided that if I didn’t talk about it, the only people that would talk about it were people that shouldn’t dominate the conversation. If you live in a city center, it’s easy to avoid this stuff. There’s something happening outside of that sphere, and it’s real. “Aryan Nation” is about prison gangs and drugs. That shit is real. It’s an American story.

Exile In The Outer Ring is out 8/25 on City Slang. Get it here.