EMA Lights Up The Darkness At SXSW

If you’re willing to spend a small eternity on line to get in, Austin’s Central Presbyterian Church is one of the great places to catch a show at SXSW. The acoustics are pristine, people are more likely to shut up and listen to the music, and — best of all — you can actually sit down for a few hours. It’s a perfect place to be dazzled by something pretty, and Pitchfork curates its annual church showcase with an eye toward creating a sustained, lulling atmosphere. Some of this year’s acts at the church were perfect. Mark Kozelek got a rapt audience for his stark Benji songs, and he got to thank Pitchfork, from the stage, for assigning the album review to a critic other than Stephen Deusner. (Sorry, Stephen; it was funny.) And Angel Olsen absolutely hypnotized, staring holes into the back of the room and sounding paradoxically more rock than anyone else on the bill. Others didn’t work as well; Hundred Waters and Mas Ysa and Forest Swords all made very pretty sounds without giving the crowd much of anything to watch. But the act that left the deepest impression on me was the opener, EMA, who seemed to understand better than anyone else on the bill how to tailor her show to her surroundings.

You will hear a lot about the goth-industrial and grunge influences on EMA’s forthcoming album The Future’s Void, and those are certainly there. But the new LP is also, in a lot of ways, softer and more forgiving than her stunning 2011 solo debut Past Life Martyred Saints, and that was the side she highlighted last night. The show had some seriously raw moments — the chorus on the new “So Blonde” comes to mind — but last night, she was more focused on quiet, mesmeric drama. She sang more quietly than anyone else, straight-up whispering at points and daring the crowd to lean in and listen rather than throwing her voice in our faces. Her instrument-switching bandmates followed suite, doing delicate versions even of old songs like “Marked” and “California.” The way EMA moved onstage was deliberate and confident; she knows exactly what effect it has when she wraps her mic chord around her neck or when she walks very slowly to the lip of the stage. EMA’s music is obviously not church music, but it’s devotional music in its own way, and that came off amazingly well last night. If you get a chance, for god’s sake, see her live; she knows what she’s doing.

[Photo by Hutton Supancic, via Getty Images]