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Tense moments with EMA (Erika M. Anderson)

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Erika M. Anderson likes to make her songs into events. Something big, something dramatic to force you into a decision: love it or hate it.

"I didn't go to music school, but I hang out sometimes with music nerds," Anderson tells the Sun-Times. "They're always saying that the one thing that makes people make up their mind about music is an event, a dramatic moment that shifts things in such a way that they'll either really like it or dislike it. If you go along at the same dynamics and rhythm, people don't have to make up their mind about it. You have to make them choose."

EMA
• 10 p.m. March 10
• Lincoln Hall, 2424 N. Lincoln
• Tickets, $12
• (773) 525-2508; lincolnhallchicago.com

Anderson, who performs as EMA and often is photographed with those initials spelled out in bejeweled bling, knows how to build up to a dramatic moment.

Before venturing out as a solo act, the South Dakota native toyed with folk and drones in the band Gowns and made appearances with the noise-rock project Amps for Christ. Her 2010 debut "Little Sketches on Tape" lit up the blogosphere with its distillation of those previous alt-rock experiments, as did last year's tighter, more pop-structured "Past Life Martyred Saints."

That album opens with "The Grey Ship," a seven-minute slow burn with a clever dramatic moment. Around the three-minute mark, Anderson's dissonant chants and low-note guitar thwacking suddenly switch from a gauzy lo-fi recording to a crystal-clear, digital high-fidelity sound.

"I wanted it to be like the black-and-white to color switch in 'The Wizard of Oz'," Anderson says of the track. "I wanted to do this thing with fidelity and showcase it, make people think about what ideas and emotions and preconceptions they have attached to different fidelities. We use the same instruments, the song goes on, but we record the parts on different machines. What does that mean?"

A pre-album B-side, "Kind Heart," generated online chatter for its similar tactics. It's an intense 16-minute, Quaalude-slow meditation on Robert Johnson's "Kind Hearted Woman Blues."

"I love making things 10 or 15 minutes long," Anderson says. "I've been trying to think about that, about why. People are always asking, 'What are your influences?' 'What did your parents listen to? Classic rock?' I don't know. There was nothing special about it. But then I remembered my mom used to like to put on classical music. So it was rock and then, like, Tchaikovsky. I wonder if I absorbed that penchant for long works that have these dramatic gestures and different sorts of movements. I can't write music and I can't play violin, so I'll just do the same thing with feedback."

She's had a little taste of that kind of composition, too. In 2006, Anderson participated in one of avant-garde rocker Glenn Branca's performances for 100 guitars at Disney Hall in Los Angeles. ("It was awesome," she says. "[Minimalist composer] John Adams gave me a hug in the elevator!")

Her interest in traditional pop and folk music is evident on "Past Life Martyred Saints," as well. At one point, she quotes "Camptown Races" in the middle of the brash, indie-rock squall of "California" ("I bet my money on the bob-tail nag / Somebody bet on the bay").

"It's such a good line, it's always in my head," Anderson says. "I read it wrong, though. I always thought it meant I bet my money on this horse and somebody else bet on the winning horse, so I lost. It's actually more like, 'I'll bet on this one and you bet on the other one, in order to make it more exciting!' I, of course, assumed it was this regretful loser song."

"California" also finds EMA wailing, "I'm just 22, and I don't mind dying," which raised the alarm of some fans who hadn't heard the original.

"That's Bo Diddley, man," Anderson says. "Everyone was so shocked by it. I'm like, yeah, it's from 'Who Do You Love,' the most benign song ever."

Anderson's been touring the new album for nearly a year, including a stop last summer at Chicago's Pitchfork Music Festival. She just launched another leg of her headlining tour, which will include slots at both the Coachella and Bonnaroo music festivals, but for now she's happy to be back indoors.

"The festivals go back and forth. We're at the point where we usually play really early at a festival," she says, laughing. "We're still figuring out how to play on these big stages, playing outside at 1 p.m. in the blaring sunshine. . . . I'm really excited about this tour, though, because last year was fun but kind of crazy. In some ways there was a record before there was a band. There was a lot of scrambling to put the band together to play these things. This will be 2.0 of what we brought through last time."

After that, she says, more long stuff.

"I want to take the group of songs that includes 'Kind Heart' and make it into a kind of weird iPad app that deconstructs American folk music, or like a traveling installation that's a recording booth for tapes and four-tracks. People can go in, there's carpet on the walls and a couch, and make tapes. . . . I guess it's connected in a way, like the modernization of folk music using electronics, the Smithsonian Folkways approach of bringing the tape recorder to the people. I love that stuff a lot."

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Thomas Conner

Thomas Conner covers pop music for the Chicago Sun-Times. Contact him via e-mail.

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