"FUCK CALIFORNIA, you made me boring." This declaration, blurted out above a sea of noise, comes courtesy of EMA (the abbreviated alias of one Erika M. Anderson) in the opening line of "California," the second track from her forthcoming Past Life Martyred Saints. It's a moment of unwavering confidence, the only time Anderson will ever sound so assured on Saints—which is as glorious and creative a debut recording as you're likely to hear in quite some time. The remainder of Saints is far less kind, as Anderson's brutally confessional music is draped in droning noise, creating a beautifully damaged sound not unlike a girl group band by way of Smegma.
As Anderson explains it, "I don't think noise and pop are mutually exclusive. One thing that excites me is the idea of bringing noisier stuff to the masses because I think they can handle it. It doesn't have to be a cloistered thing. People are smart, and people are turned on by new ideas."
Before she arrived in her newly adopted home of Portland, Anderson was a South Dakota misfit, channeling a riot grrrl obsession into a pair of early high school bands (the adorably named Mann Hayter and the less so Swampussy), eventually fleeing her hometown at the behest of her parents. "I moved because my parents thought I should go to college, which they had a hard time convincing me of at first," explains Anderson. "I was like, 'What's wrong with smoking pot and being a waitress?'" Anderson chose Los Angeles for all the wrong reasons ("I really liked 'Welcome to the Jungle' and 'LA Woman'"). She eventually became part of that city's well-documented DIY scene at the all-ages mecca the Smell.
From there she performed with Amps for Christ (the project of Henry Barnes from Man Is the Bastard) and eventually crossed paths with Ezra Buchla, former frontman for the Mae Shi. The pair started Gowns, a visionary experimental outfit who released one stellar LP (2007's Red State) before breaking plenty of hearts when they splintered last year, leaving behind a painfully sincere final statement from Anderson that closed with the line, "I'm sorry we couldn't keep it together."
"Toward the end every single show was like, 'Are we going to do this or not?' It was so nerve-wracking," explains Anderson, discussing the gradual disintegration of Gowns. "I hope that I have left some of my self-destructive streak behind me. You know, we'll see. I can only just hope so."
While the drone-folk sounds of Gowns were never built for longevity, Anderson's solo work falls on steadier footing. Saints' unassuming opener, "The Grey Ship," is a seven-plus minute folk song seized by buzzing synths at its midway point, eventually unraveling as its tempo builds to a fury of distortion, muffled vocals, and a jarring violin that mimics a creeping sense of madness. It's as exhilarating as it is dire. The previously mentioned "California" is an exercise in geographic nostalgia, as Anderson confronts past accomplices ("What's it like to be small town and gay? Fuck it, baby. I know you'll never change"), before resigning to futility of it all ("I'm just 22, I don't mind dying").
If there is a moment on Saints that liberates Anderson from the pack of other confessionary singers, it's the harrowing "Marked." An unflinchingly honest song that opens with a barren structure (hushed guitars and Anderson's fearful whisper), it's soon capped by the chilling chorus, "I wish that every time he touched me left a mark." Tracing the similarly jarring path of songs like "He Hit Me (And it Felt Like a Kiss)," its sheer unapologetic vulnerability is quite difficult to listen to.
"'Marked' I recorded a long time ago, and when I first listened to it I was like, 'Well, I like the way this sounds, but this is not usable. I can't do this, I can't put this out in the world,' explains Anderson. "Musically it's somewhat upbeat—I don't know if that's true. I guess to me it is. I spent so much time in the harsh noise scene, I'm like 'What do you mean? There's some chords here, there's singing going on.'"
Coupled with the divulgences of Anderson, this complex dichotomy of noise and pop is the backbone of Saints. With its delicate intimacy, sheer and utter destruction, EMA has created a debut recording that is as haunting as it is memorable. You couldn't forget this album if you tried.