EMA is Erika M. Anderson, for whom the label “singer-songwriter” gives a misleading impression. Raised in South Dakota, Anderson has the classic singer-songwriter attributes of emotional rawness and candour, yet she bundles them into music that lies far outside the plaintive strumming of your average troubadour.
Her debut album Past Life Martyred Saints is a mesmerising blend of blissed-out reverie and savage bursts of guitar distortion: a “digital Velvet Underground” in her words. With themes of druggy small-town ennui and self-destruction, her songs are Midwest Gothic at its darkest and dreamiest. The strung-out mood and undertow of violence are from the same wellspring as Terrence Malick’s film Badlands, in which a pair of bored South Dakota lovers go on a killing spree.
She brought her music to life with imagination and verve at Cargo. Her backing band included an electric fiddler who added an eerie extra charge to the songs. Set opener “Marked” was given the kind of psychedelic drone John Cale brought to the Velvet Underground. “Grey Ship” flipped from opiated folk-rock into a huge anthem with a trouser-flapping bass line and wild fiddle-playing. Anderson delivered crashing guitar riffs and sang about life under empty prairie skies. Her performance was a winning mix of intensity and theatre. “California” found her delivering a stream-of-consciousness rant à la Patti Smith accompanied by big reverberating drumbeats and criss-crossed laser beam lighting. Another song was delivered alone on stage a cappella, a spotlight bathing her dishevelled blonde hair in a halo. The theatricality meant her songs came across as performances, not confessional outpourings.
There were moments when the angst threatened to ripen into melodrama – Anderson wrapping the microphone lead around her neck while singing “I’m 22 and I don’t mind dying”, for instance. But she varied the tone skilfully. A cover of Violent Femmes’ ode to sexual frustration “Add It Up” was illustrated by pantomime stage business involving a carrot. At the end she went from phatic patter about how “awesome” it was to be in London to playing a spine-tingling epic full of vatic Midwestern visions. Awesome indeed.