Mixtape Memoir: EMA’s ‘Milkman’

Presented at Mixtape Memoirs with The Lifted Brow, Emerging Writers’ Festival Hobart Roadshow, 1 November 2013. Story Bridge by m3rkin (Creative Commons).

The concept of catharsis is deeply uncool in psychological circles these days. It has been tainted by its association with Freud and his hydraulic theory of the psyche—for Freud, catharsis is a means to release excessive pressure in the mental system, and a healthier one than repression, too much of which could cause any number of neuroses. For many cognitive behavioural therapists, however, cathartic practices often have the opposite effect to their intention—they habituate the mind to negative affect and hinder the subject’s healing process by encouraging them to stay ‘stuck’ in their pain.

I can’t say, therefore, that EMA’s album Past Life Martyred Saints “saved my life”. Perhaps if I hadn’t been given it as a review assignment by the editor of the street press I then wrote for—if I had spent the time listening to, say, Daft Punk instead—I might have gotten better sooner. As it transpired, though, it feels as though Past Life Martyred Saints saved my life. It spoke to me directly, from the first listen onwards, in a way that very few albums ever have. After the first listen, I felt as though I knew it in my bones, as though I had always known it. And of all of the songs on Past Life Martyred Saints, ‘Milkman’ spoke to me most.

EMA - Past Life Martyed Saints

  Cover, Past Life Martyred Saints (2011).

I should make it clear that this connection had nothing to do with the album’s subject matter. Past Life Martyred Saints is an album about—although, fucking hell, the vague banality of that preposition, ‘about’, hardly does the relationship justice—some heavy shit: suicide, psychosis, drug dependency, self-harm. My own issues at the time I first encountered it were more commonplace: unemployment, being in debt, a father with cancer, a grandmother with dementia, a cyst under one of my wisdom teeth that was slowly dissolving my jawbone, and a partner whose family was imploding after her father was diagnosed with an incurable and invariably fatal neurological disease. These are all common enough issues, although I will concede that the last is a little unusual. What was more unusual, though, was that they all happened around the same time—late 2010 to early 2011, my own personal annus horribilis. Things weren’t as grim as Past Life Martyred Saints subject matter, but they were pretty fucking grim.

One of the most enduring memories I have of the time is of walking home one morning around six a.m., too broke to catch a cab, in a shirt flecked with vomit from the night’s joyless excesses. I paused at the railing of Brisbane’s Story Bridge, coolly contemplating whether to throw myself over. I didn’t, of course, but the scary thing wasn’t so much the suicidal ideation as the fact that no self-preservation impulse kicked in; the only thing preventing me from doing it was the rational judgement that such a death would suck not only for my family and loved ones but also the poor sap whose job it would be to hose my remains off the concrete thirty-six metres below.

  EMA, ‘Milkman’ (2011).

So—things sucked. But then there was EMA, who might not have known the precise flavour of the shit that had coated my life, but who certainly knew what it was like to have one’s life coated in shit. Not only that, she expressed that knowledge in a musical language that seemed tailored to my own interests. I had been interested in both no-wave punk and folk musics, and had at that time begun to explore the relationship between various forms of metal and the noise music/industrial avant garde. These are some strikingly divergent forms of musical expression, but on Past Life Martyred Saints, EMA—that’s Erika M. Anderson—manages the feat of synthesising these forms into a singular style that perfectly expresses the Midwestern USA nihilism that the album explores. But what gets me most about ‘Milkman’, above all of the album’s other songs, is that beat. Dance music was my first serious musical infatuation, so to add a pounding, industrial-tinged techno beat to that rich stew is like catnip to me.

I want to close by exploring the final lines of the song—the repeated mantra of “I’m gasping, I’m gasping, I’m gasping”. Gasping is a physiological response to certain stressors including shock or hypoxia, and its aim is to rapidly increase the amount of oxygen available to the body. It is a primal physical response that we see even in the moments before death. It therefore expresses a profound will to live—and at the time I first heard ‘Milkman’, I didn’t have much of a will to live left. The cathartic response to music involves identifying with a piece of music and saying, “This song expresses how I feel!” But this process of identification goes both ways—the song expresses our subjectivity, but our subjectivity also begins to express the song. And it is for that reason I’ll be forever grateful to EMA, because she taught me how to gasp again.1


  1. This piece has been lightly edited for publication and some personal details have been removed.