After the success of 2011’s Past Life Martyred Saints and 2014’s prophetic The Future’s Void, EMA retreated to a basement in Portland, Oregon – a generic apartment complex in a non-trendy neighborhood, with beige carpeting and cheap slat blinds. Now, she returns, with a portrait of The Outer Ring: A pitch-black world of dark night highways, American flags hung over basement windows, jails and revival meetings and casinos and rage. In a year dominated by white working-class alienation and anger, EMA – a Midwesterner who never lost her thousand-yard stare — has delivered an album that renders Middle American poverty and resentment with frightening realism and deep empathy.
“I want to explain to outsiders that the people where I come from aren’t beyond hope and reason,” says EMA, “I want this record to bridge a divide.”
The album, co-produced with Jacob Portrait of Unknown Mortal Orchestra, is a return to EMA’s roots in the noise-folk outfit Gowns, whose 2007 album Red State prefigured many of Exile’s core themes, along with its mix of stripped-back folk (“Always Bleeds,” originally a Gowns song), spoken word (“Where the Darkness Began”) and noise epics (“Breathalyzer”).
The result is a deeply personal, confrontational, but ultimately redemptive album from a quintessentially American artist at the peak of her form.
1. In America there are more poor people in suburbs than in big cities.
2. Between 1 in 4 and 1 in 5 kittens in a litter will die of unknown natural causes before reaching 8 weeks. It’s called “fading kitten syndrome”.
3. Women are not allowed to ride bikes in Iran.
1. What is the biggest inspiration for your music?
Oh wow. It’s literally everything. Life and personal experiences. It’s often very cathartic for me. Parts of this last record were definitely influenced by longform journalism. I was reading a lot to take in the complexities of America in these modern times.
2. How and when did you get into making music?
I got into making music as a teenager. It was basically the only vital art form in my hometown. I didn’t know any painters or writers or actors. It was hardcore and punk and that’s it. So it was the only way to actively engage in culture.
3. What are 5 of your favourite albums of all time?
Do people actually answer this? That’s way too hard.
4. What do you associate with Berlin?
A duality and a dark past.
5. What’s your favourite place in your town?
Where I live now, in Portland, the best thing is to float down the rivers in the summer.
6. If there was no music in the world, what would you do instead?
Read and write.
7. What was the last record/music you bought?
“Emit Time” by Auto Da Fe. It’s a group led by Tara Tavi, who I played with in Amps For Christ. She sings and plays hammered dulcimer and traditional Chinese instruments. She also writes great hooks. I kept bugging her and she finally put it up on band camp!
8. Who would you most like to collaborate with?
I’d love to help write songs for other people. I feel like I have a lot of music and ideas in me and they don’t always fit into “EMA”. Sky Ferreira should call me when she wants something a little noisier and even more twisted.
9. What was your best gig (as performer or spectator)?
As a spectator probably some house show as a teenager.
As a performer something with a lot of risk that probably felt like shit at the time but was amazing to watch.
10. How important is technology to your creative process?
Super important. I learned how to edit and process video before I learned digital audio, so I just took my skills there. That’s partially where the “worldbuilding” happens, through creating a sonic signature. It’s a separate layer of language and meaning beyond the lyrics and melody.
That said I mix super tweaky and super sloppy when it comes to my sessions. I’ll nitpick certain details but leave in rough edges.
11. Do you have siblings and how do they feel about your career/art?
My sister was in EMA at the very beginning. It got bigger than either of us expected and she wanted to get off the road. She’s more of a homebody. There were some very stressful times on tour and I actually haven’t talked to her much about it since. So I don’t really know at this point.