A Conversation With EMA on Male Rage, America, and the 'Outer Ring'

Image via EMA / Alicia Gordon

Erika M. Anderson, known as the artist EMA, has made a beautiful record about a disturbing, painful world on her new record Exile in the Outer Ring. Drawing on her childhood in South Dakota and her current life in Oregon, EMA’s new album is a creepy, static-laden document of the fucked-up crawlspaces of this country and feeling personally disillusioned by the American dream.

Exile in the Outer Ring speaks to a bubbling darkness in a place Anderson dubs “the outer ring,” envisioned as a desolate, frustrated suburbia. It’s here over “Born In The USA”-inspired snares and walls of noise that EMA inhabits the nihilistic persona of the scumbag white boys she grew up with, exploring performances of male rage. And while Exile in the Outer Ring, out August 25, began as an interrogation into Anderson’s personal anxieties about America and her place in it, post-Trump the record feels even more sinister.


On “Aryan Nation,” EMA sings the anthem for white Americans who see Nazis marching in the streets in 2017 and say not my people. “Go back home to below your station, like a refugee from the aryan nation,” she sings. “Can appeal, but you’re still them within.”

A few weeks ago Anderson and I talked over Skype about her album and the complexities of this so-called “outer ring.” Our conversation has been edited for clarity.

JEZEBEL: What exactly is “the outer ring?”

EMA: To me it’s kind of like the outskirts of a city and what would have once been thought of as the suburbs. The idea of the suburbs is kind of outdated, that kind of affluent, white, homogeneous area. But now in Portland and I think a lot of European and American cities, the inner city is really where the wealth is concentrated and everyone else is getting pushed out. So I’m seeing these spots that I’m calling the outer ring, which could either be a version of utopia or dystopia.


What made you want to write about this?

I had been being a bit of a hermit, just a shut-in in my apartment, which is a pretty generic space. It’s in Portland but it’s not a cute little house or something. It’s an apartment with beige carpeting, shitty blinds, no green space. I started doing VR projects and I would always want to focus on this idea of this living room as this weird place that could be a place of spiritual transformation or radical politics in a really prosaic spot. I just started getting really into this idea of the outer ring. It reminded me of where I grew up, this place where there’s nothing glamorous about it and you’re just getting fucked up in the back of a Camry.


You grew up in South Dakota. What was the place you grew up in like?

In some ways it felt like a suburb because [on the] main road you’d probably just see like a Target. But it was actually the largest city around so people from really small towns would come in to go shopping. In some ways it felt basic, super basic, but it was also pretty rough and tumble. There wasn’t any interest in higher education, there was a lot of weird shit when it came to drugs. Just everything about it felt arbitrary. Like, why are we here? Why would people live in this place? And that can really seep into your consciousness in all sorts of ways.


You wrote the record before Trump won the election but its darkness, and the way it highlights a divide between liberal cities and the America outside them, speaks to right now. How much has the album changed for you after the election?

One of the things that changed as far as song choice goes is that after the election there were some questions from label people about putting on a song like “Aryan Nation” or “33 Nihilistic and Female.” Those were the songs where I remember people being like [concerned voice] eeeeh, I don’t know! [Laughs] Which, I get it. But after the election I was like, we should do this. It was like, now do you get it?


One of the things I was tapping into maybe subconsciously was this kind of alienation from what these kind of city-centers were becoming. As much as I like dressing cool and eating nice food, there is a part of me that has a little bit of a gut check when I’m walking around a neighborhood that’s way too hip. There’s a part of me that just has this instinctual kind of hatred or resentment for a cute boutique selling overpriced shit, you know? I wanted to set protagonists and stories in a place that doesn’t really have all of that. I think of [the record] taking place in shitty apartments and the parking lot of a Best Buy or something and to say, the swath of human emotion is present in these places. It was a place that resonated for me because I didn’t really see it being talked about or represented.

Also, I don’t think the outer ring is necessarily red or blue, it’s like an estuary of where things coexist. So maybe if the media had focused on a place like the outer ring we would have had a better idea of what the real temperature looked like. I was shocked when Trump won. I didn’t see that coming. In South Dakota I knew people who believed in, you know, reptilians are under the Earth, 33-degree Masons and all that shit, but I haven’t hung out with cats like that for awhile. But while Exile in the Outer Ring can be a snapshot of a place, I’m still always writing for me. It’s not a detached intellectual exercise.


How do you feel about Exile in the Outer Ring’s politics right now?

To be honest I’m worried about the album being pigeonholed as just a political record because to me it’s a really personal record and full of real pain and redemption. You think about someone like Bruce Springsteen and he’s writing about America and using details that feel true. When I was first going to release this record I thought about how I wanted to speak to people in places that are outer ring or places like where I grew up that are rural, and say you know, okay, I understand that you’re pissed and you have a right to be, but you also don’t have to be a fucking racist asshole. You don’t have to elect these people just to assert your identity.


But now I’m realizing this record is for people who just turned around after the election and said these people are insane, what’s wrong with them, they’re idiots, they’re morons. And I’m like, there is some shit going on that you don’t see because you don’t have to go to these places. They can be kind of out of sight, out of mind to you. And it’s not the best plan to be like anyone who can financially escape from this shit should and we should just forget all about it.


Going off that note before about having an instinctive resentment of gentrification or cities, there’s a lot of rage on this record, a lot of what sounds like bodied-up anger. Was making an album this angry cathartic for you?

Definitely. I went through some shit and for awhile I barely left my apartment. I was living in this town where I barely knew anybody and I wasn’t trying to meet people. I just didn’t trust people. I was a wreck for a while.


When was this?

I was a wreck after Past Life Martyred Saints for a number of reasons. With the second record I just didn’t want to be famous. I didn’t want my picture taken. When I was coming up in 2011 there weren’t any lines when it came to how people were going to be treated on the internet or how much of their past or personal life was going to come out. And for awhile I lived in fear that like shit from my past was going to blow up and be all over the internet. I was dealing with a level of success that none of my friends had in the noise scene. And took me a while to just chill the fuck out.


You’ve said before that you are sort of performing the role of a “scumbag boy” on this album. Why inhabit that voice?

That’s who I grew up with. When I was growing up scumbag boys were the predominant voices, that male angst. Where I was it took me a minute to find riot grrrl or whatever. It got me thinking about how there’s such a gendered response to frustration and anger. I hung out with a lot of these boys, watched a lot of people break shit. So what does that do to you if you’re not allowed to perform that for yourself? If your boyfriend’s getting mad and and breaking shit but you are not allowed to do it because you’re a woman. Sometimes I feel like that nihilism and aggression is always a part of me.


But at the same time on the record you’re also working through what it means to be a woman in these spaces filled with male rage, especially on songs “Receive Love” or “Fire Water Air LSD.”

Eventually I had to be a hard ass. In “Receive Love” it’s like me growing up with these assholes and being in this room where there’s all of them and just one of me and thinking what the fuck. It’s about learning to be fucking tough and then going to California and meeting a nice boyfriend and him always saying, angel, why you gotta be so tough? I think coming up with people who just say racist or misogynist shit because they know it’s forbidden is a common experience. And I was thinking about how it feels to be that person who has to let these people know that it’s wrong without just saying hey guys that’s not cool because then they’ll just laugh at you.


There’s a lot to feel alienated by on the record if it’s not something that you’ve grown up with. I can see why a song like “Aryan Nation” would give people pause.

Nobody would say that completely to my face except for friends who were like, why are you fucking with this? But I’m reading the news too. I know that you think nobody in polite company would say anything like this but it is happening in the US. Also Aryan Nation is a prison thing too. Incarceration in America is huge so these people end up in prison and end up racially segregating themselves. We have to think about how all these things feed into racial animosity in America and how it intersects with poverty, racism and prison. It’s all feeding together.


The record is about your personal experiences but it also feels like it’s reflecting sense of hopelessness in America. In “Down and Out” when you’re saying, hey, don’t go away, you’re not worthless. Who are you saying that to?

That lyric is how I feel. It’s interesting because I know I probably come off as like a super hipster sometimes, taking pictures in sunglasses and living in Portland. And I know nobody really wants to hear musicians or artists whine or complain about their work but there’s not that much money in it. There’s not much money for people who aren’t interested in making things that aren’t pretty poppy or pretty and licensable. And there’s so much emphasis in America on your worth being related to how much money you can make. So if that’s fucking me up then it really has to be fucking up people where the entire industry of their town is gone.


What is work worth? I know people that get paid decent jobs and all they do is email people all day which really makes more work for other people. Everyone just emails back and forth all day but that person is worth more because they have a paycheck. We’ve only ever had capitalism in this country and people can’t imagine a different way here. And the bottom is falling out of all sorts of industries as more things become automated. At one point we have to decide, do we still want to base individuals’ worth in society on how much money they can earn, or are we going to start taking care of people?

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About the author

Hazel Cills

Pop Culture Reporter, Jezebel