How the New, Weird Suburbs Inspired EMA’s Noise Folk


Noise-folk artist EMA’s new record, Exile in the Outer Ring, began life in 2015 in a white dome in MoMA P.S.1’s snow-covered courtyard. For four hours on a Sunday in February, she sculpted soundscapes from atop a platform set up like the blandest of living rooms: TV, palm plant, messy coffee table, Ikea lamp. She never addressed the crowd; she was in a bubble inside the bubble of the dome, her audience an intermediate layer that formed a ring around the stage. “I like the idea of multiple realities layered on top of each other,” she says. “And that space from the performance — this generic American apartment, with beige carpeting and a shitty couch, slit blinds, a ceiling fan — that’s where I wrote the record from.”

EMA, whose full name is Erika M. Anderson, worked on Exile in her similarly bland apartment outside Portland, Oregon, where she’s lived since 2010. “I feel like that apartment, that experience, could be anywhere in America,” she says. That anonymous quality became a grounding concept for the album: the Outer Ring, the name the artist coined for the fastest-growing areas in the country. “It’s the suburbs,” Anderson says, “but the new suburbs. Even though the landscape is becoming homogeneous, the people in it are becoming weirder and more diverse and more unique.” As global capital gentrifies cities and regular folks are pushed out — exiled — the suburbs, she explains, are where the good stuff, the future, is happening. Resettled-refugee teens hang out in empty CVS parking lots with their rural-raised classmates or drive for hours on the highway at night, stopping at Denny’s at 2 a.m. before going home to play video games and post on Tumblr. “The internet, particularly the weirder places, feels like the Outer Ring to me,” Anderson says. “I’m interested in the spiritual transformations and radical politics that happen in those places.”

Full of feedback and thoroughly American influences, from hymns to folk ballads to Guns N’ Roses, Exile creates a noisy, spacious world that mirrors the amorphous essence of the Outer Ring. Most songs feature heavy reverb and filter or layer Anderson’s voice, giving few tracks a clear center. It’s a simultaneously claustrophobic and endless field of sound. “It plays with scale — there’s a scale of the super miniature to the super big, and that musically is what I like,” Anderson says. “I’m obsessed with tiny sounds, with timing, whether it’s a little sample, the time in between things, a breath.” Other than a few synths and guitar lines, she played or programmed everything on the album herself. “I like long synth songs with a story about fucked-up suburban life,” she notes. “I feel like that’s my language that I put together and created, and I want to double down on it and keep doing it.”

Anderson has written about fucked-up suburban and rural life since at least 2007, when her former band Gowns released their only record, Red State, an unsettling chronicle of disassociation and drug abuse in the middle of America. And she’s written about the effects that technology, urbanization, and globalization have had on the middle and working classes since her first solo record, Past Life Martyred Saints, in 2011. These themes are not new territory for her, but have since November become an obsession of the commentariat. “It’s strange to have this album coming out now, because it was written a long time ago,” she says, “and I’m not trying to talk about politics a lot.”

Case in point: “Aryan Nation,” the track critics and listeners will likely latch onto as commentary, is almost three years old. “My filtering system, my artistic algorithm, if you will, actually works pretty slowly,” Anderson says. “It’s really good at kind of predicting the future by paying attention to what’s going on in the present.” So the song, written during the Obama presidency as pundits basked in a seemingly stable neoliberalism, actually reflects Anderson’s differing, dimmer view from the Outer Ring of a liberal, overwhelmingly white city that’s long been home to white supremacy and would eventually see a double murder committed in its name. “With ‘Aryan Nation’ I had many people advise me that the title was too extreme,” she says. “Given recent events, it’s almost not extreme enough.”

If people take anything political away from Exile, she says, it should be that things are more complex than we want to admit. “The record has skepticism of liberal culture being our savior, since it’s fine with capitalism,” says Anderson. “But advertising isn’t subversive, yuppies aren’t subversive. You can put that ‘Coexist’ bumper sticker on your car, but you’re also displacing people.” That’s why we might look instead to the Outer Ring, where the lines between rural and urban, educated and not, online and IRL, dissipate across the strip malls and box stores that increasingly define a national identity. “When I want to feel like being at home, I’ll go to a weird suburb and spend time in the familiar layout of a Target,” Anderson says. “That’s what feels like a neutral, nondenominational place. That’s the American experience.”