Into the White: EMA Grapples with the Decay of Privacy in the Internet Age

Imagine your brain for a second. Your big, gloppy, pink, fleshy brain, up there inside your head.

And now imagine that in the center of your brain, amid all its firing neurons and serotonin reuptaking and calculating the tip at the restaurant, sits a white cube, inside of which lives everything public about your life thus far: every photo, video, status update, head shot, tagged post, and article. A buzzing, luminescent cube containing the way the world sees you, lodged like a microchip inside your skull.

For Erika M. Anderson, the brilliant South Dakota-born musician known as EMA, this vision of the White Cube arrived during a psychedelic experience at the tail end of touring for her widely hailed debut, Past Life Martyred Saints. Year-end lists in 2011 bestowed near-universal honors on the theretofore unknown Anderson, with her image popping up on blogs and in magazines around the world — and, in a vision inspired by reading William Gibson's Neuromancer, inside her own personal White Cube.

“Oh, I wanted to get rid of the White Cube, for sure,” Anderson tells me about the experience from her home in Portland. “I couldn't actually feel it, but I imagined it being super hard. I wanted it gone.”

To that end, Anderson cut her hair off and dyed it dark. She came home from tour, stayed off the internet, and rarely left the house in an effort to reclaim her sense of self. “It's funny, because people give me advice, like, 'Oh, you just need to create a persona, and then you won't have to worry about as much.' And to me, it's just not something that comes naturally for me,” Anderson says. “My tactic, instead of creating a persona, is just to try and hold onto myself and hold onto something that's authentic.”

In this mindset, she began writing The Future's Void, her latest album, a meditation on decaying community, personal privacy, and distorted representations in the 21st century. “Feel like I blew my soul out across the interwebs and streams,” Anderson sings in “3Jane,” her voice breathy and crackling. “It was a million pieces of silver and I watched them gleam / It left a hole so big inside of me and I get terrified that I will never get it back to me.”

Swapping the private-journal aspect of Past Life Martyred Saints, with its confessionals of teenage sexuality, drug use, and self-mutilation, The Future's Void evokes the cold digital age in a way that few indie-rock albums are willing to attempt. Blown-out opener “Satellites” wistfully recalls when humans instead of html code were sent into space; “Neuromancer” questions the narcissism of millennials taking selfies; “Dead Celebrity” calls out the urge to click on links hashtagged #RIP; and the cover itself shows Anderson wearing an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset.

Unsurprisingly, the press has seized on the album's scattered internet references, and even the UK Guardian mused, in a recent headline, “EMA: Has she written the first post-internet album?”

That, Anderson insists emphatically, is not what she set out to do.

“I think I should probably be just, like, 'Yeah, that's right. I wrote this crazy cyberpunk album and it's really topical,'” she says, resignedly. “I should quit trying to say 'It's not all about the internet!'… Because some of the songs are very realistic about living in a digital age, which I think is important. To make art right now that tries to talk about the landscape in the world, or in America, and not in any way acknowledge the internet? That just seems so unrealistic. And then you get these civil war bands like Mumford and Sons.”

Anderson's show this week represents a return to the Bay Area, a fertile ground for her musical trajectory. In the late aughts, before relocating to Portland, she lived at the Cereal Factory in West Oakland, threw shows and parties at East Nile on Oakland's West Eighth Street, and played in the stunning noise outfit Gowns with her then-boyfriend, Ezra Buchla. (Live, she still plays some songs from Gowns' 2007 cult masterpiece, Red State.) Calling it “an idyllic time,” Anderson sounds rueful when she talks about leaving the Bay Area.

“The thing about it is when Ezra and I broke up, it felt really public,” she tells me. “I just couldn't deal. And I felt all of a sudden exposed. That was my first experience of feeling really hurt. Even though it's a small, tiny scene — it's not the world stage of the internet or anything — I was feeling so depressed and visible that I didn't even want to leave the house, or talk to anybody, or do anything.”

Lately, Anderson says, she's missed the sense of community she found in West Oakland. She's kept a low profile in Portland, and musically, even though The Future's Void experiments with conventional song structure — particularly on the retro-grunge “So Blonde” — she admits she's been drawn more to the jagged, untamed sounds from those backyard noise parties at East Nile.

“I have to remember that I really like that style,” she says, as if tying a string around her finger. “There's not very much like it. It's a noise jam, it's got two chords, and I need to remember that that's what I do, and that's what I like.”

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