EMA is the solo project of Erika M. Anderson, the former lead singer for defunct noise-rock band Gowns, and her four piece band plays a loose, groaning rock music that funnels the small town anxieties of drugs and love through a singing style that sounds like Elliott Smith resurrected with the emotional concerns of a young woman. Fans of her first record, Past Life Martyred Saints, are in for a surprise: with her tall stature, bold haircut and on-tempo dance moves, Anderson’s onstage confidence stands in direct opposition to her self-conscious, frighteningly honest lyrics.
Due to a van breakdown in LA, the opening band Reptar were moved to a closing slot and EMA didn’t take the stage until 11:20pm. With so much waiting time, the crowd could be charitably described as tipsy, truthfully described as drunk and loud. Unfortunately, drunk chatter doesn’t always mix well with EMA’s loud-soft dynamic and a number of songs were drowned out by the incessant buzzing of a crowd left to wait and drink before the show began.
All was not lost, however, as EMA brought a much more aggressive approach to her material than the last time I saw her at the Independent in October. Her first tour showcased the limits of her voice, as she struggled to recreate the almost Cobain-like gruff captured on the record and some of the notes were painfully off. This time around, her confidence turned out a better performance too, as Anderson let loose with abandon, harmonizing many of the vocals with her lead guitarist.
Despite lyrics that seem to walk dangerously close to abusive relationship territory (album highlight “Marked” includes the chorus “I wish that every time he touched me left a mark”), it’s strangely empowering to watch Anderson sing with the slightest hint of a smirk on her face. It was there throughout the show, a smile here, a laugh there, little touches that remind us Anderson isn’t a woman consumed by misery, but rather an artist exploring misery. The two are very much not the same thing.
Similarly, she closed the show with a moving performance of “California,” a track that opens with her most notorious lyric: “Fuck California, you made me boring.” This being San Francisco, one might assume that someone in the audience would take offense — but there were no boos.
As Anderson ended the song with the repeated chant “I don’t mind dying,” I couldn’t help but think about Lana Del Rey and her boringly clichéd debut album, Born to Die. Whereas Lana Del Rey traffics in emotional shortcuts (see: Hollywood string samples, washed out home videos, and tattooed bad boys), Anderson’s music rightfully captures the confusion of coming-of-age in an America lost to war, recession, and disillusionment. Cue up the electric violin, the distorted guitar, and listen to the droning messiness that is the intoxicating noise of a mid-twenties woman in America — occupied by day-to-day life, but ever weary of the brutality that surrounds us, the background noise of being born to die.