Indie singer-songwriter EMA (aka Erika M. Anderson) grew up in South Dakota but has moved around the country a bit since then. So when she recently found herself back in Madison, Wis. for a gig with indie rockers Spoon, she was taken aback by the way it felt so different from her Portland, Ore. home.
"I haven' been in the Midwest for the fall in a while," she admits in a phone interview. "It made me feel like I was a teenager. There's something about the way the light hits. Whatever it is, it feels different here than anywhere else. It brought back some crazy feelings. For me growing up there, there was this thing about creating your own meaning. It was kind of arbitrary. Now, I don't know if everyone is moving toward this mono culture thing where it's all the same and everyone can have this collective experience on the Internet. I guess it will change and the only thing that will be different is how the sun hits the earth."
"Mono culture" is certainly not what comes to mind when listening to EMA's terrific new album, The Future's Void, which is an arty balance of noise and avant folk as Anderson vacillates from whispering to screaming. The album's sophisticated use of electronics is rather ironic given that Anderson wasn't exposed to the latest technology while growing up in South Dakota.
"I remember people going online, but it wasn't part of the culture there," she says. "It was mix tapes and word-of-mouth. I would hear about a band and then go buy their stuff. People didn't even have cell phones. For the first 10 years, you were considered an asshole if you had one. My mom kept telling me to record on the computer but I told her that was lame. I would have had a huge jump on digital recording if I had just listened to mom."
Despite being out of the loop, she made some remarkable strides early on, hooking up first with the noise band Amps for Christ and then forming the duo Gowns in Los Angeles.
"Gowns was formed because some noisers wanted Ezra [Buchla] to go on a tour with them," she says. "They were assuming he would bring his synths and bring some drones and harshness and instead he brings his girlfriend and her crazy poetry written on T-shirts. Some people were into it and some people were pissed. That's how it started and someone asked us to make a release and I got super tweaky and insane with Pro Tools."
After that band — a situation that Anderson refers to as an "untenable venture" — came to an end in 2010, Anderson started doing her own thing, originally releasing Little Sketches on Tape, a demo tape of sorts, and then making a more proper debut with 2011's Past Life Martyred Saints.
"It's like a noise tape," Anderson says of Sketches. "I was driving around L.A. doing transcriptions. It was so miserable and terrible. I had this voice recorder and it made the craziest sounds. I was improvising with that and put that out through a friend's label."
For Past Life Martyred Saints, she took a more refined approach.
"It was half me recording with Pro Tools," she says. "Then some was done in a practice space in L.A. and some was in Oakland, which was a cross between Pro Tools and home."
With The Future's Void, she tried to experiment more with electronics. With its tape hiss and random noises, "Satellites" verges on industrial rock. Strings and heavy percussion distinguish "Cthulu," a number that has a haunting, Nick Cave-meets-PJ Harvey vibe to it.
"Trying to write in the old ways didn't seem very productive," she explains when asked about her approach on the album. "I couldn't fake it. There was some diversity of sounds and songs on the previous record and I wanted to keep that going. Almost every song has a different instrumentation and different vibe. That's cool. That's a challenge. That's fun."
"So Blonde," an accessible song that appropriately sounds a bit like a '90s grunge number, is about Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love. But, as Anderson explains, it could be about "any blonde," herself included.
"I think it's from the perspective of someone who would have seen them in the scene and thought they were the coolest couple before the tragedies engulfed everything," she says when asked about the tune. "And it's me thinking about me and what it means for me. All the rocker babes are blonde, even today. What does it mean that I do that too?"
For the live show, Anderson says she tries to recreate the songs, even though many tunes feature an intricate mix of live instrumentation and sampled sounds.
"It's not super jarring," she says. "We're using a lot of electronics so it does sound a bit like the record. We're using some of the samples that are there. One of the hardest things is the vocals. I can't always sing like I'm whispering into a condenser microphone. Other than that, it sounds like the record. We play older songs as well."
Perhaps most significantly, Anderson succeeds because she's able to give the album's quieter songs a real intensity, something that isn't easily done.
"Yeah. I try to keep it that way," she says. "I guess it's just my nature."
EMA with Gomez Addams
8:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 29, Beachland Tavern, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $10, beachlandballroom.com.