Midwest Art Exports: EMA and Zola Jesus Talk To The Quietus About How Rural America Impacts Their Music

EMA, a Sioux Falls, S.D., native is on the left, while Zola Jesus, a Wisconsin native, is on the right.

Two of the most exciting female musicians (in my musical realm, anyway) working today are Erika M Anderson (EMA) and Nika Danilova (Zola Jesus). They’ve both been making a real splash in the indie music world (and my playlists) with new albums in 2011.

Both also happen to hail from the Midwest. EMA is from Sioux Falls, while Zola Jesus is from a small city in Wisconsin.

Considering my last post about why I stay in Yankton, I thought this interview with British website The Quietus would be a suitable companion. The artists talk about the effect growing up in rural areas has upon their art.

Here are some excerpts:

Okay, so this is the pitch. I know you both spent much of your childhood in relatively isolated Mid-West towns. I was thinking about your music and wondering how much it has been shaped by the places in which you both grew up.

Erika Anderson: I’ve been thinking about stuff like this. As far as being from a small place there are some things that are really great about it, but I’ve definitely spent a lot of time being jealous of people who went to a bunch of music classes and had a lot of exposure to things – and maybe learned to speak different languages. I feel there is a lot of potential there that I didn’t have a chance to work on. But on the flip side of that, one thing I do have from those high school years, even if I don’t have any sort of formal musical knowledge or connections, is I have a lot of stories – a lot of fucking weird stories that maybe are unique.

So let’s backtrack, which towns are you from?

EA: I’m actually from a city – it’s called Sioux Falls. It’s just not very cultured.

Nika Danilova: It’s not worldly.

EA: Ha. It’s not very worldly at all.

ND: I was born in Phoenix and lived there for two years and then my parents moved me to Merrill, Wisconsin, which is a city of ten thousand people. I tried to send myself away to boarding school a couple of times. …

Both those places endure bitterly cold winters and are geographically isolated, in the sense of being part of a huge expanse of prairieland. Does climate and topography play a part in creating how you think as artists?

EA: Yes, a lot of the memories I have are of extreme weather and space. I believe in the effect geography can have on the music you make, in as far as your idea of space and your idea of sounds. I had this experience of being in this really amazing weather, where it was very dramatic and it made me appreciate drones and static, just because it felt like that.

ND: I know what you mean. There is such a solitude about living in those expansive places that you can be in a place of almost complete silence, but within that you take in the sounds and nature. Maybe you appreciate that more than someone who grew up in the city and was afraid to go into the woods. …

If I can drag this back onto topic, what was your initial exposure to music and what opportunities did you have to explore?

ND: My dad had a pretty good taste in music. He would always be listening to Talking Heads, Oingo Boingo or New Wave. So, I grew up with that stuff, not really knowing what it was but that it was in the periphery. Obviously there was a radio, and I would switch between NPR and Jam stations, because that’s all there was. But even the popular music was six months to a year behind what was going in anywhere else.

Really? A year? I’m surprised – we are not talking that long ago.

ND: Yeah, in order to get airplay where I live it needed to be already so popular, because no one can take risks in such a small town. Everything is very base level. There is no experimentation or taking a leap on anything.

EA: I would also say that still my friends in South Dakota have the best taste of everyone that I know, because whatever makes it there – whatever starts on the coast and makes it inwards – is three years late but they only listen to really good shit. They don’t fuck around. If it’s not good, it’s not going to penetrate.

ND: It’s gotta make it through.

EA: It’s like a water purification system. By the time we get it, it’s pure. …

Finally, if you had been brought in a Los Angeles or Brooklyn, would EMA and Zola Jesus sound like they do? Would they even exist?

ND: A lot of what I make is an expression of where I come from because there is a sense of survivalism, which I definitely picked up along the way, because I didn’t have those contacts. I just had the freedom to be loud; you can only be heard if you are loud. If I had a bunch of formal training and lived in a place with a lot of opportunities, I might make proper music and I might understand things a little bit better but I don’t know if it would be as intense for me – it might become a little bit placid.

EA: Someone asked me recently in an interview, ‘Do you feel like you are an indie-hipster darling now you are getting all this attention? And how does that feel?’ What’s interesting is that growing up where I did I am one of the people that has real experience of both sides. I have experience of the place where people hate anything with the merest whiff of pretension. They are really suspicious. But then I have also lived in Los Angeles where I’ve done these experimental shows of electronic music, which some people might think was hip. But growing up in a small place gives you a wide level of empathy for different sorts of people and I think that’s really important. I think people from large cities should have to go and spend six months in Kansas, just so they can have empathy and figure out what these Red States are about.

ND: When you live in a bigger city, people are a lot more compartmentalised. There are many different groups, whether it be racial or by what music you like or what you wear or who your parents are. Growing up in the middle of nowhere, everyone is the same. I want to make music that reaches the human and not the clothes on top of them. Artificial interest songs are superficial – it’s about connecting.


There is a lot more to the interview here.

I’m a bit surprised by EMA’s comment that her friends in “South Dakota have the best taste of everyone that I know” because music or art in general has to be really good to penetrate into the Midwest. In my experience, the Midwest simply does NOT get a lot of the good stuff. In fact, we usually get the most banal, largest-common-denominator art. Until the Internet really took off, I essentially had to be a private investigator to find all the cool things that interested me because I wasn’t into country music or classic rock (or only blockbuster films). I think things have gotten better for us in this part of the world because of technology and the expansion of the arts scene in larger Midwest cities like Omaha and Lincoln. But it’s still a struggle for me to find like-minded individuals (and maybe that is just because I have bad taste, huh?)

Am I off-base here?

One thought on “Midwest Art Exports: EMA and Zola Jesus Talk To The Quietus About How Rural America Impacts Their Music

  1. When I was coming up I had a really cool record store close by in Brookings that had REM, U2, The Alarm, the Vandals, Psychedelic Furs, New Order, OMD, The Cure, Femmes, et al. But I know many who didn’t have that, they were subjected only to the banality of Hair Metal and top 40 music.
    Nathan you would not believe the crap I took listening to Culture Club, Police, Duran Duran, Boomtown Rats, Elvis Costello, Roxy Music and other Brit Pop bands while my classmates were wrapped up in Quiet Riot, Crue, AD/DC, KISS and such. I listened to those as well and have even seen many of them in concert, but until I started at SDSU I had very few friends who even know REM or U2 (beyond Sunday Bloody Sunday) let alone some of the others.

    It was the same with literature. Was I “trying to be some kind of damn hippy” was asked of me by my Sociology teacher/athletic director when after a test I was reading “On the Road”. Small Midwest towns do not open their arms wide to the curious…unless that curiousity involves Old Milwaukee, Grand Funk Railroad Albums, stolen Winston cigarettes and Playboy magazine.

    I would devour Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Time, Life, National Geographic and Cream magazine just to get a glimpse at life beyond Flandreau South Dakota. I was lucky and had parents who allowed growth and took us to Chanhassen Theater and bought me the books I wanted and let me listen to the music I wanted to (via KOSS headphones).

    I still think there is a prevalence of staying inside of the box…the internet has helped some but in my humble opinion I think it has done just as much “harm” (for lack of a better word) spreading awful fads worldwide that much faster.

    My 2 cents.


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