South Dakota doesn’t exactly have a reputation for its booming experimental noise-rock scene. But that’s where singer-songwriter EMA — a Sioux Falls, S.D., native — first dreamed up the dark avant-garde sound that’s earned her comparisons to such dirgey indie legends as Kim Gordon and PJ Harvey.

Born Erica M. Anderson, the sultry performer got her start performing in punk and swamp-rock bands as a teenager, an early education that would influence her distinctive boundary-pushing style.

“Even though I had no concept where these ideas came from, I’d be like, ‘All right, I want everybody to just rock out during this part and improvise. I’m going to say some weird spoken-word poetry, then at the end of this song we’re all just going to make a ton of noise.'”

This youthful experimentation didn’t exactly fit in with the vibe of Anderson’s hometown. “It made a lot of people scratch their heads in South Dakota,” she says. “But it would have been great in L.A.”

When she headed west for college, Anderson discovered the crowd of feedback fans she was searching for. She hooked up with cult noise band Amps for Christ, and later formed Gowns with Ezra Buchla, vocalist for Los Angeles band the Mae Shi. Gowns became known for its explosive live shows after its 2007 debut, “Red State,” but the band burned up soon after 2009’s “Broken Bones.”

Anderson then decided to strike out on her own. “I finally just had to get pushed out the door where there was no more safety net,” she says. “It was obvious to everyone else, but I was just scared to do it.”

Her May debut, “Past Life Martyred Saints,” picks up where Gowns left off in some ways, but also exposes a brasher, more confrontational Anderson. The songs buzz with eerie melodies and haunting lyrics, but Anderson warns listeners not to look too deeply into grim confessionals like “Marked” and “Butterfly Knife.”

“I don’t know if people realize that there’s almost something akin to humor or camp on it,” she says of the record. “When you think of stand-up comics, some of the most effective ones are the funniest because they’re hitting really close to the bone,” she explains. “I feel like my motivation lyrically is something like that.”

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Photo by William Rahilly.
Written by Express contributor Kristina Gray