Fans of guitar noise will have crossed paths with EMA as the scorching guitarist in legendary folk/noise outfit Amps For Christ before forming the genre-defying cult duo Gowns with Ezra Buchla, which Pitchfork called “one of the most heart-stoppingly great live bands on earth” and the Village Voice spluttered succinctly upon seeing them live: “Holy fucking fuck!”. Their 2007 album Red State was an electronic folk and feedback drenched masterpiece that left critics both raving and bewildered. It sadly proved to be their last. The upside is that that musical crossroads lead to the unveiling of EMA who has since opened for Throbbing Gristle on their last US tour. Did we also mention she relocated to LA when she was just 18, because she really liked ‘Welcome to the Jungle’? Ballsy? Erm, just a tad.
A native of South Dakota, the dead centre of America's great empty heartland, EMA’s unique and at times dervish-like guitar style, visceral songwriting expressions and DIY recording ethos have seen her develop a distinctive sonic signature, somewhat neurotically assembled and essentially raw, the product of obsession by somebody who never learned the ‘right’ way to do things. Besides making music, EMA has been involved in video, performance and curating multimedia shows in West Oakland and LA.
If there is a grand unifying theory behind Past Life Martyred Saints, it’s that EMA treats fidelity and distortion like another instrument, being obsessed with the question of analogue vs digital. Songs switch seamlessly between lo-fi 4 track grunge, trashy dance beats and damaged girl group ballads, like all the car radio hits of the past fifty years absorbed and sweated out through pores of distortion, feedback and reverence.
Not being able to technically write music but looking for a way to represent the Glenn Branca-inspired ‘Kind Heart’, EMA drew out what she called a Hobo Code, which looks a lot like the name sounds: a graphic score created by an outsider artist living under a bridge. Her work on redefining classic American blues music has led to a currently underway collaboration with the Kronos Quartet.
The album introduction, ‘Grey Ship’ ‘is a nod to the Viking funeral ships of EMA’s ancestors, and while pop logic dictates the tune is divided into two parts, one sunny and strummy and the other low-lit and dramatic, the recording also switches up from lo-fi to hi-fi. Listen for the BASS DROP. The song also features guest appearances from Ezra and Corey of Gowns.
As EMA explains, “I wanted ‘Grey Ship’ to change fidelity in the middle of the song. I imagined it being like when Dorothy opens the door to Oz and the whole world turns from black and white to technicolour.” That change in fidelity also serves as a coruscating “sonic signifier” for transferring from the earthly plane to one beyond.
In ‘California’, we find a fuzzed-up, distortion-hymn to EMA’s adoptive home.
“Musically, the track is inspired by ‘My Life’ by The Game,” she says. “Basically it's a noised-out rap ballad by a Midwest white girl with lyrical references to Bo Diddley and Stephen Foster.”
‘Marked’ ups the intensity of the album, as EMA explores a complicated relationship, over an eerie guitar strum and keyboard drone, intoning raspily, “I wish that every time he touched me / Left a mark”. It is the captured sound of climbing walls. All the more impressive given the fact that both lyrics and guitar were improvised in a complete blackout. Its creaking sonic weft brings to mind the inner workings of Khonnor’s Handwriting.
“Some wounds don't leave marks, and they would be almost easier to explain if they did,” EMA says. “I heard a story once about Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, where they got in a huge fight out at a club, and one of them got so mad that they went and jumped in the river. Police were called, and once they were finally rescued they joined up and walked back into the club, arm in arm.”
Inspired by a “teen goth murder” that happened outside of LA, ‘Butterfly Knife’ draws on EMA’s own experiences growing up and has a squalling, rhythmic guitar texture underpinning multiple EMA vocals scrabbling for air in the mix.
Both ‘Breakfast’ with its impeccable refrain “you feel like a breeze to me” and album closer ‘Red Star’ and are more fully fleshed out band tracks, featuring EMA’s sister Nikki on drums and bassist Aaron Davis. We can hear how EMA’s vocal melodies really soar in tandem with her distinctive guitar style on these tracks and alongside the militaristic, drum-riddled “trashy sex romp” of ‘Milkman’ indicate a depth of influences and studio nous that would make other alleged ‘producers’ blush and run for the hills.
Evoking the whisper-to-yell dynamics of early Cat Power but without the oft-copied melancholy, Liz Phair’s intimate and visceral expression or Royal Trux emerging from a basement fug and smelling fresh salty air for the first time, she is a significant talent that completely compels the listener.
EMA’s songs are filled with harmonies and hooks that exist right in those sweet spots between melody and dissonance. It is a knowing voice, the sound of a drunken laugh while crying.