Illuminating the Void: EMA’s Past Life Martyred Saints at 10

‘What’s the deal with this image of a man being tortured to death perpetuated ad infinitum to a point where people become completely desensitized by it?’ I caught myself thinking out loud, with the same snark as a Seinfeld standup routine. I wasn’t thinking about a scene from Hellraiser: I was thinking about the most pervasive image of Jesus Christ, you know, the one on the cross. It’s a horrific image: a mangled, gaunt shell of a man resigned to a fate of unspeakable suffering. Why can’t we look away in the same fashion as the famously repulsive ‘Jesus Wept’ scene? What makes us voyeuristic towards violence, suffering and despair, to a point where it comes to dominate the daily discourse and economy?

These are seemingly insurmountable questions that likely won’t be resolved until humankind’s inevitable – and likely Biblical – demise. To tackle them is to examine our own deepest faults and fallacies to some extent. Erika M. Anderson, the artist known as EMA, has bravely courted them in her work over the past decade. During the course of three albums and myriad projects, Anderson has been pulling at these pesky threads, unraveling the hardest of truths within our flawed human nature. The notion of martyrdom, in any context, is no exception.

Anderson grew up in Sioux Falls on classic rock records, but eventually dissented into the outer realms of noise. Her musical roots lie in Gowns, an experimental folk outfit she formed with then-boyfriend Ezra Buchla. Gowns wasn’t exactly a band with prospects. The group partook in the type of defeatist shoestring DIY tours that unravel in the most bizarre, morbid fashion imaginable. There was no prospect of fame and fortune and appearances on late night TV shows. Touring was a performance art piece in and of itself, just to see how much of your sanity would remain intact. EMA wrote about it at length in an article for Vice called Keeping It Bleak. Within the many ill-fortuned testimonials of the realities of DIY touring in America, quote unquote rites of passages such as food poisoning, broken down vehicles and impromptu fist fights are downplayed matter-of-factly like a list of errands.

Just a small excerpt from said article: “While the above may read as a jaw-dropping litany of shit-luck incidents, the overall tally is pretty typical for a modern tour of the noise/performance/ atonal/not-pop/ not-rock variety. Broken-down van, bleeding money, missing shows, not getting paid, and eating trash… It’s hard to tell whether these conditions are the result of poverty, poor planning, or some sort of post-Black Flag nihilist extremism. It’s also possible that this lifestyle is somehow an integral part of the art form itself, as if the only way to get up every day and play an authentic harsh noise set is if you slept on a spare radiator the night before.”

After disbanding Gowns, Anderson was likewise disillusioned, opting to move back from West Oakland, California to her family in South Dakota. At the time, for the sake of her own mental health, I reckon it was for the best. Out of nowhere, Souterrain Transmissions, a now defunct Berlin-based label affiliated with City Slang, convinced her to release a record under her own moniker. Experiencing the familiarity of her Midwest surroundings again after an extended time on the West Coast opened a rift of creativity which would become the main thematic thread for Past Life Martyred Saints.

The title of the record was inspired by one of Anderson’s childhood friends, who at one point believed he was the descendent of a martyr from the past. It’s the kind of exultant small town dreaming, hundreds of miles away from the bustle of the interstates, that a lot of people from metropolitan areas might consider quaint. But Anderson, growing up in that grounded, rural environment, saw a certain grace and comfort in it, especially because it was so hard to envision something else than what you inherit from your elders. The small town life of fishing in ponds and cycling across vast open meadowlands seemed like a refuge from what she witnessed in Oakland. There she was a substitute teacher at a high school within a segregated urban area. Around that same time, the community there was shook by the death of Oscar Grant, a young African American man murdered by police in 2009.

On “California”, the sprawling first single of Past Life Martyred Saints, Anderson creates a concentrated, vulnerable effort to mend some of the large gaps within the collective American experience,  filtering it through her own personal lens. It’s a freeform, structureless song that alludes to both the small town nihilism she grew up with and the (gun) violence that shook her core on the West Coast. It’s an introspective piece that reads almost like an internal dialogue in real time, but sonically it doesn’t hinge on the feverish noise incursions of Gowns. “California” feels borderless in its sonic executions, symphonic even, gazing into a vast horizon. A lot of press at the time thought that the line “I’m just twenty-two” referred to Anderson herself, but it was in fact a subtle reference to Grant, who died at age 22. It’s important to note here that EMA keeps the song oblique deliberately, like a collage or a cut-up, creating an ocean of meaning, an epicentre where all these contradictions of American life can potentially coalesce.

It’s truly powerful stuff. Much has been made of the sonic space Past Life Martyred Saints, and EMA’s discography as a whole, occupies. It definitely can’t be summarised by a cute soundbyte, and somehow I feel that intrinsically, that’s the entire point. I guess if I had to ‘sell’ it to people unfamiliar with Anderson’s music, I would ad hoc blurt out something like “the wormhole between Throbbing Gristle and Live Through This-era Hole”. But even that feels rather reductive. At the time, EMA was hailed by Pitchfork and other ubiquitous music outlets as ‘the next big thing’ alongside Lana del Rey and Grimes, with Past Life Martyred Saints being awarded the Best New Music tag.

I remember Anderson reacting to that brief flare of hype with blithe confusion and irreverence. On the album cover, she uses her own image as a ‘pop emblem’ for the first time, wearing a metallic bling with her initials and waving her illuminated index finger like E.T.. Though she seemed noticeably uncomfortable and ambivalent about using her own likeness outwardly in the rollout, I, however, do believe it’s one of the reasons why Past Life Martyred Saints struck such a nerve at the time. Pop stars are often depicted in popular culture as proxies for messiah figures or, yes, martyrs, but in Anderson’s case it felt like a Trojan horse to present these confronting, contrasting questions in an impactful way.

Anderson’s mastery as a producer tells as much a story as her kitchen sink lyrical punch. “Marked” is a harrowing, fractured piece of music that examines abusive relationships like the picking at a scab. “Butterfly Knife”, with its tubular light noise flickers, examines the act of inflicting physical pain to alleviate the mental kind. Anderson multiplies her own voice into several, creating an intrusive avalanche of anguish that hits you physically. Opening cut “The Grey Ship” starts as a skeletal, post-grunge vestige, but transforms halfway into something of a cyberpunk Velvet Underground denouement. At the time, Anderson compared that song to The Wizard Of Oz and how the film’s setting transformed from a monochrome tranquil farmland to a fantastical technicolor wonderland. Only to fizzle back out in resignation and harsh reality: the empty void staring back, the feeling of being arbitrary and redundant, despite efforts to transcend.

Transitioning from basement shows to professional venues created yet another sense of disconnect and conflict within Anderson to explore as an artist. She told stories about hurling guitars off stage and creating the type of havoc that wouldn’t look out of place with Gowns. It left a lot of her ‘pop audiences’  – for lack of a better term – flummoxed. For an artist who wants her work to be understood or, in some way, usefully communicated, I could tell this realisation devastated her. Especially because Past Life Martyred Saints was an album that explored so many particulars at once that would otherwise be reduced or compartmentalised, and therefore easily discarded as out of sight, out of mind. In those days, EMA frequently name dropped Dutch performance artist Bas Jan Ader in interviews, using failure as a means to take risks, learn and grow.

In an interview I did for Drowned In Sound, I remember her describing how her creative compass works best within the fault lines of society. And, given recent events, those lines seem to grow even deeper and wider. Black people are still being murdered by police, and Nancy Pelosi’s tone-deaf fetishisation of martyrdom in the wake of Derek Chauvin’s conviction fuels the cynicism inherent that some of them are beyond repair. The aforementioned Lana del Rey and Grimes have ascended to stardom, yet with that fame came increased scrutiny of what space their art occupies, and to whom it appeals. EMA has arguably gone the opposite direction: the followups to Past Life – 2014’s The Future’s Void and 2017’s Exile In The Outer Ring – were made largely outside of public scrutiny. While still garnering critical acclaim, she understood that drifting within the common experience is what fuels her inspiration more than chasing individual ambition.

“I just took some time off to live a ‘normal’ life, because I feel that’s where my best art comes from,” she told me in that same interview. “To have a time out of – I don’t want to say ‘spotlight’ – but time to be your normal self and do normal things. And that’s my main thing: I want to put out good work. If I had to choose between getting more exposure or making good art, I will always pick the latter. Because in the end, that’s what heals me.”

In the 10 years that have raced past, the songs on Past Life Martyred Saints have only snowballed in their significance, touching on many of the pervasive subjects that still dominate the news. EMA’s stubborn insistence of being a lost voice within the void has given her work the now hackneyed ‘prescient’ label. And while that is in fact a testament to her genius, it does err once again towards our tendencies to label artists as pioneers or martyrs for these often conflicted festering human conditions. EMA’s acute recognition of the slippery slopes of existence will give way to many brilliant records in the future: by both her own illuminated hand and those touched by it.

As achingly human and small as that light may glint within the pitch black void, it’ll never be the kind that becomes blinding. It’s the kind that prevents us from getting lost, even when we feel lost most of the time. In past, present and future, it’s still impossible to look away.