Photos by Annie Collinge
The date is November 7, 2008—just three days after Barack Obama defeated John McCain in the race for the 44th US Presidency. The singer and visual artist formerly known as Antony Hegarty is seated on a chair, talking to an unnamed interviewer offscreen. Riffing on the lyrics of the artist's recent single "Another World"—a mournful ballad that contemplates the possibility of an impending apocalypse—the journalist asks her if she thinks that Obama's election will help usher in a period of peace.
"I'm not really qualified to talk about political things," she says, smiling demurely, her moon-shaped face framed by a curtain of wispy black hair. However, later on in the interview—part of a six-part series by Amsterdam-based video blog FaceCulture—she starts to open up, confessing that on the day when the results rolled in, she woke up in Paris at 5:30 AM to watch the news. "I think that everyone's really excited," she says, shyly noting that Obama's JFK-like stump speeches seemed to portend well for citizens of the world troubled by climate change, America's long occupation of Iraq, and rumors of torture in Guantanamo Bay. "It's a very critical time, so we needed that—everyone around the world needed some glimmer of the potential for hope."
Fast forward to spring 2016, and in less time than it takes for the earth to make a full revolution around the sun, Obama will be ceding his desk in the Oval Office to a still-unknown successor. Anohni, as the artist is now called, is on the brink of releasing an album called HOPELESSNESS—probably not a conscious riff on her words in the 2008 video clip, but worlds away from the delicate optimism of that moment. The record follows a recent Oscars nomination for "Manta Ray," a song she wrote in collaboration with composer J. Ralph for the environmentalist documentary Racing Extinction. Released to coincide with the 2015 Paris Climate Conference this past November, lead single "4 Degrees" echoes scientists' predictions that rising global temperatures will render myriad animal and plant species extinct within the coming decades. "I wanna hear the dogs crying for water/ I wanna see fish go belly-up in the sea," she sings, her elastic voice reaching near-operatic levels of intensity against surges of synthetic brass. "I wanna see them burn. It's only four degrees."
Judging from the music alone, Anohni feels fewer reservations these days about sharing her political views. Other tracks on the album treat drone warfare, government and corporate surveillance, and state-sanctioned execution with the same jarring plainspokenness; there's even a chant-like dirge called "Obama," where she outlines all the ways she perceives that the president has failed to live up to his campaign promises. Throughout, the line between the personal and the political becomes meaningfully blurred: on "Watch Me," she sings from the perspective of a person who feels she is being watched as she travels from city to city and from hotel room to hotel room, watched even when she's "watching pornography." It's impossible to tell whether she's singing about a lover or a computer, but the ambiguity drives home the point: "I know you love me/ Cause you're always watching me."
HOPELESSNESS is the first record the Britain-born, California-raised, New York City resident has released under her chosen name as a trans woman—a feminization of the name "Antony." It's also a striking departure from the sound she's honed across countless world tours and four full-length albums with her chamber-pop band Antony and the Johnsons, swapping sparse piano chords and pastoral strings for bubbly electronic production courtesy of collaborators and friends Oneohtrix Point Never and Hudson Mohawke. The sinister lyrics and the dance-inspired instrumentation make for a hair-raisingly powerful album—one whose cumulative effect could be described as disarmingly, ecstatically "too much."
When I meet up with her in late March in a room off the lobby at the Roxy Hotel in Manhattan, she's visibly flustered; our interview is one of a long list of things she has to get done before flying to Los Angeles for the Oscars in two days' time (ultimately, she'll cancel the flight, and publish a long essay to her blog explaining why). She also just seems to be overwhelmed by the emotional weight of the subject matter at hand. The instrumentals, she says, are something of a "Trojan horse," harnessing the language of contemporary pop music to spread the message of the album far and wide. After all, there's a call-to-action embedded within HOPELESSNESS—something she's dubbed her "eyes wide open campaign," a plea for us to recognize the ways in which human enterprise is accelerating the demise of humanity itself. "My job right now is to see how it's a system—not just a series of isolated things going wrong at the same time," she explains. "And we're complicit as participants—especially in the West."
In the extended interview below—which combines our in-person conversation with a follow-up phone call, and has been edited for length and clarity—the singer opens up about about her long relationship with club culture and electronic music, asking to be known by a new name, and the thinking that inspired her to open her eyes so wide.
THUMP: The destruction of the environment is a recurring theme on HOPELESSNESS. When did nature become sacred to you?
Anohni: Well, it started in my childhood, when I realized that there was no seat for me in Judeo-Christian religions—particularly with Catholicism. When they realized that I was going to hell—as far as my teachers and priests were concerned—and that my soul was damned. As far as I knew at that age, I was one of the only gay people in the world besides people who were dying of bubonic illnesses in the big cities.
In California in the 80s, there was a pagan subculture. A lot of these people would go to circles in the Santa Cruz mountains, and read Starhawk, and were interested in mysticism. So I was raised in environments of young adults who were doing that kind of stuff, and listening to music, and going to clubs, and dressing in different ways.
"A lot of the theme about the record is my own complicity. Such as: I'm not to blame for global warming. I'm not responsible for Obama's drone bombing campaign. I'm a plane-taker; I'm a taxpayer. We're all complicit."—Anohni
I was writing songs about the environment as a teenager. In the mid 80s, the articles started to appear—predictions about what the world would look like in 20 years. All the information was there about global warming. And by the late 80s, the fossil fuel industry had begun a campaign of spreading lies and confusion about what's happening. It's still going on—the disinformation, the advertising [designed] to counteract people's instinctive knowledge that [what's happening] isn't in their best interest.
Manifest Destiny had an obvious trajectory. When people poured in from Europe, it was like being dropped into a giant bank account, and all they had to do was kill the indigenous people and pillage the land, and either hoard the spoils or bring those spoils back to their countries of origin. It wasn't a new model, but America is a place where it really took root. It became a founding principle—this kind of virulent approach to the consumption of human resources and natural resources, and obviously the consumption of landscape.
Does nature play a role in your everyday life?
Not in a pastoral sense; for me, nature isn't a patch of untouched wildness. I have a much more animist approach, which I learned from [Japanese dancer] Kazuo Ohno and my Butoh studies: everything is nature. Even the most grueling landscapes are the face of nature—and inanimate objects. Kazuo Ohno, when he would dance through a city, they would say, "Why don't you dance through the country?" And he would say, "I am in nature, dancing through these ruins. This Hiroshima landscape is nature, and I am a part of it and I can't be separated from it."
It's the idea that everything is aching and living right now; even everything that's dying is in a life cycle. The Earth, the elements, all the animals that remain, the ocean—everything is very still alive and full of magic. Even when this place is barren, it's still going to be full of magic. But the human tragedy is to lose the biosphere, which is all we've ever known, and is the cradle of our soul and our perception as a species. We uncurled into a paradise that we are cannibalizing.
Something that struck me about the lyrics was the extent to which the personal and the political are intertwined.
A lot of the theme about the record is my own complicity. What's my part in this in the way that I approach things, in my dysfunction, in my own brokenness? What's my complicity in this in the way I'm lying to myself? Such as: I'm not to blame for global warming. Executions aren't my fault. I'm not responsible for Obama's drone bombing campaign. I'm a plane-taker; I'm a tax payer. We're all complicit.
To make this stuff not sound the way I sound when I'm sitting here talking to you, I personalize it and eroticize it. My skill set is dreaming and shape-shifting, so [on "Drone Bomb Me,"] I can sing from the point of view of a seven-year-old girl whose mom and dad and brother were killed by a drone bomb, and she's looking at that little lens of a drone bomb, and seeing the soldier in his bunker in Nevada. And that's her first love: the American soldier who wants to kill her. She's innocent. And when you're radically traumatized in those days, that's how you deal with it: inhale it and you make it part of your reality. What could you possibly intend as a country except to love me so much that you want to kill me?
When I wrote "Drone Bomb Me," I wrote it from a place of complete rage, and as an effeminate and feminine person, the way I express rage most effectively is very sly. It's not an attack of rage; it's a steady, stoic, acidic perseverance. I may address you through a veil of tenderness—you're my perpetrator, how else do you want me to address you? The safest place with any perpetrator is hugging their leg. And that's how we're all behaving with America. We keep hoping that these corporations have our best interests at heart—these massive databases couldn't be used for malicious purposes somewhere down the line. I mean, the way that they convinced us to voluntarily surrender our right to privacy, it was ingenious.
What led you to decide to speak about these issues on this album?
I've always been someone who has been good at seeing relationships between things; I'm a collage artist, so I like to draw and see relationships. But I've always made music from this interior safe place. Because music for me in the past was about healing myself, and sharing that self-help with people. This record is very different. It's like Jean Genet's [1957 play] The Balcony. I always think about Genet because he always used to write these really interior, beautiful books. And by the end of his life, he was so sick of everyone that he had become really good friends with the Black Panthers, and he was writing assaults on the political system. I think there's a trace of that on this record: it's contempt and anger.
How do you account for the shift?
I've done so much work exploring grief and grieving. I did a song called "Another World." I've mined my despair in relationship to a world that is slowly dying. But it was beginning to feel too passive and indulgent and aestheticized. I never pointed out direct things. And I don't think there's any more use for that kind of music. It's like the Titanic: you can listen to comforting music on the deck chairs of the Titanic or not.
I'm furious about this stuff and I was scared to say any of it. And my fear was actually what led me to it. Because I realized there is so much energy here— why am I so afraid to speak these truths? Am I afraid of what happened to Chelsea Manning? Is it the campaign against whistleblowers during Obama's administration that's made us more and more afraid to speak out? Is it the fact that if you join the protests, you're more than likely to be put in prison and you don't know when you'll get out?
"As an effeminate and feminine person, the way I express rage most effectively is very sly. It's not an attack of rage; it's a steady, stoic, acidic perseverance. I may address you through a veil of tenderness—you're my perpetrator, how else do you want me to address you?"—Anohni
How do we participate with this looming specter of this totalitarian government masquerading as something that has our best interests at heart, something that's allegedly protecting us? That's after eight years of Obama? Of hope and transparency and the end of the lobbyism? And all we got was eight years of drone bombing and escalation and pathetic bipartisan negotiations. Chelsea Manning is the only one that was tried for war crimes, and she's in prison for 35 years. Dick Cheney—is he in prison? Karl Rove? Any of the torturers in Guantanamo Bay? In fact, Guantanamo Bay is still open, and anyone that would have been put in Guantanamo Bay in the last eight years has just been executed by a drone bomb—and their families and everybody around. [Obama] may have had good intentions, but he did not deliver.
I know you've said that in the past, some of your songs took up to a decade to gestate. Was that the case with this one?
They're things I've been thinking about for 15 years. And I wrote them in a couple of days, except for a few songs. Because it's my whole thinking, it's a catalog of my points of view. So I've been sharpening them for a long time. Once I heard Hudson Mohawke's tracks, I felt like I had found the perfect Trojan Horse to embed them into. The happiness of the tracks [was] the perfect foil. To lift the spirit and say something so hardcore at the same time just felt really fun. The first time we were rehearsing these tracks, I felt crazy. There's a jubilation to shouting out the truth, even if it will be short-lived.
The electronic instrumentation is a big shift for you. Did you go out to clubs as a teenager?
I grew up in the suburbs and it was very different kind of vibe. I didn't have the privilege of being in a place where people were awake. I was going to school in UC Santa Cruz. Johanna Constantine, who is my creative partner in a way—she and I moved to New York together. We were listening to a lot of records, like John Sex's 12"s and Marilyn and the Movie Stars. There was a movie called Mondo New York, and it had songs by Dean Johnson and his band Dean and the Weenies, and Joey Arias, Phoebe Legere, and Karen Finley were all featured on it. I was running these "midnight musicals" when I was going to school in Santa Cruz, and I would present them with my friend. I had a teacher who saw my work, and said, "You have to move to New York; that's the only place where people are doing this kind of stuff."
I got into this experimental theater program at NYU, and I went there for two years. The first night I arrived, I went to the Pyramid club with a friend of mine. We had read about it in the local newspapers, and I went because it was promising a drag performance. And Pyramid was famous for [being] a queer/punk crossover hub in the 80s.[After] I moved to New York I was doing all of my performances and theater in the clubs, and I was in the club world for six or seven years. It was this whole lineage of underground performance art that had occurred in New York in the 80s in the clubs, and then combined with inspiration from people like Divine, and John Waters films. As a young person I was really possessed to find my place in that world—in the New York queer/punk subculture. I would also call it the "history of transvestism in the avant-garde as it intersected with the punk impulse in music."
What sort of dance music would you listen to?
There's a certain oeuvre of dance music that I really love. There was one guy—Bobby Orlando—who produced Divine and The Flirts. It's the same three chords with the same kind of beat—the impenetrable early-80s disco beat. Thin and cheap sounding, like the classic New York sound. The first couple of tracks on the Technotronic release were also so exciting when they came out. I remember when I was a freshman I heard "Pump Up the Jam," and we were like "Oh my god, this is so great."
The other strand of influence for me from dance music was a production house called Savoy in Manchester, England. They were a super underground publishing house that printed cartoons and comic books, and they also released a series of underground dance records. And they were always being shut down by the police and all their stuff was being confiscated, because it was considered "anti-society" in England. Savoy came out with these bombastic cheap dance tracks, with the most ferocious lyrics sung by Rowetta Satchell, a fantastic raw English soul singer of English and Nigerian descent who also performed with the Happy Mondays.[They] had this song that went like, "Garbage man, shoot your load and let it go." We were mad for these songs. "Open your mouth, let me piss in it"—that's a song called "Golden Showers." Maybe the closest thing you could compare them to, like ten years later, is Lil Kim.
My friend Johanna had been living in Manchester, and she knew those guys, and she was one of the only people to have those 12"s. So when we started our own night at Pyramid, those were another one of the aesthetic centerpieces of Blacklips [which I co-founded with Johanna and Psychotic Eve]. Blacklips was the performance group that I started with like 12 other disenfranchised young people that we met in the East Village at that period. So we'd play that next to a Divine track, next to a song by Christian Death. And it was the idea of these really sharp teeth gleaming behind these dance beats. And that was the whole inspiration for it. That's what I was trying to drive towards. Because you want to lift people up, and saying something really unbelievable with a vocal that's going up—it's a shocker.
What was the collaborative process like with Hudson Mohawke and OPN?
We started with me and OPN, and we were going to do a "Japan-imation." We had this dream of doing a Queen Millennia-type project with vocals—like a Kitaro record with vocals—which we probably thankfully left in the dumpster. And then I brought a bunch of songs to him that I had already written on my own volition, in my normal style, which is with a piano. We found a couple of things that we really liked—slower songs, more like ballads—and we kept those, and they're on the record.
[Then] I got into a conversation with Ross, and he sent me a track he wanted me to sing on for his record. He sent me a bunch of other tracks too, and I basically ran off with them. I called him and said, "I put a vocal on this one track, and I think you'll really like it. And I put a vocal on six of the others that you sent me, and can I have them for my record?" I found his tracks really invigorating. They're so anthemic, bombastic, and his sense of chords is really good. He's got real emotion in his stuff; he's a magic worker.
Ross' stuff is completely in one direction; there's nothing swimming against it. It's just full-on, whereas Dan is so angular and kaleidoscopic in the way that he approaches things. We had a couple of sessions with all of us together. And then we did a bunch of stuff where I would send it out to them, and Dan would work on it in his studio, or he would work on it with me— it was every different kind of constellation. And honestly, I did a lot of it myself. I just sat with it for a long time, mixing it and messing with it and recording vocals—even taking materials they sent for one track and then trying them on a different track. It took three years.
Why work with producers instead of having a band?
The idea was to make a really plastic dance record, with the best tools that I could reach for. I wanted to use the currency of pop, because I knew the record would be this Trojan horse. And I wanted it to be plastic enough, sugary enough, delicious enough, and seductive enough that I could embed something really counter to that in the words, and the people would still inhale it. For the message to travel in a gas of euphoria is the perfect foil for the content. It sounds manipulative, and it is manipulative.
The currency of the music that I was making five years ago is kind of antiquated. People still make string music and acoustic music; it's pretty, but it's not in any kind of conversation with the thoroughfare of communication that's happening now. Underground, overground, middle-ground—everyone is listening to Rihanna. Everyone is listening to Beyoncé and Kanye West.
Why is the record called "Hopelessness"?
Because I felt so much hopelessness. Because I feel so much hopelessness about our trajectory as a species in relation to the rest of the biosphere. And yet, hopelessness is not a fact; it's a feeling. And I can process that feeling just like I can process grief, and any number of feelings, and move beyond it.
So I'm all into this eyes-wide-open campaign. How wide can I hold my eyes, how much can I try to see, knowing that I'll never see it all? And how much can I inhale and process, and how much space can I hold for a perception of reality that's expansive, with the goal that other people should take what they like and leave the rest?
I was going to ask about the name change. Had you been going by "Anohni" for a while before going public with it?
I never liked my name, and the name I had was very embedded in me for a lot of different reasons. I finally just took the plunge and started asking my friends to call me Anohni. And then I called my family—my brother and sister and my mom—and it was just a progression. In my case, I'm obviously not going through a profound physical transformation that's giving you all these visual indicators that "I'm a woman now" or whatever. I feel like my road is different as a trans person, and there are a lot of trans people like me.
I've never been a man, and I've always said I'm not a man, but I've been living with this male name and I was just humoring people calling me "he," and I was a little ashamed of asking for anything more than that. So I finally got the courage to say "I want you to address me as she because I want you to honor my spirit. I'm a transgender person that wants to be recognized for my feminine essence and aspect."
And that's who I am. I stand in a slightly different position than a lot of trans women in that I've always operated within women's systems—except for my first few years in New York City, when I had to operate in gay man's systems. So I don't know what to ask for: I got an invitation to go to a dinner at Diane von Furstenberg's for female Oscar nominees. I feel really shy to go to something like that, because I feel like once they see me, they're not going to really think I deserve to be there. As brave as I have been, it's very hard for someone like me to go into women's spaces and ask for a seat, and of course that's a source of sadness for me. I've always sat outside of the circle because I didn't feel like I would be allowed to sit in the women's side, and I knew I didn't belong in the man's side. So that's the problem of duality.
The album art for this release features a composite of your face and that of model Liya Kebede. And for the live performance, there'll be a series of projected portraits of other women running in parallel to the concert—similar to how the video "Drone Bomb Me" features Naomi Campbell lip-synching the song. Why use other women's bodies as stand-ins for your own?
In the early 90s there was this dance group called Black Box. They had songs called "Right on Time" and "Strike it Up," and they were huge dance hits in the city and around the world. They had Martha Wash sing, and she was one of the Weather Girls. She sang all the hooks, but she's a big, heavyset African-American woman; she was probably in her late 30s when it was recorded. So they hired a model in Paris to lip-sync all of the videos and to front the band. And the record sold millions and millions of copies and it became a huge success. And only after was it was revealed that Martha Wash was actually the singer. It ended with a scandal, and Martha sued, and she got compensation. It was about creating a package that people would want to buy. And being seductive: a beautiful woman singing with a beautiful voice. That was an interesting paradigm to me.
When people perceive my music through their perception of my physical body, it often really contains their ability to open their mind to it, because they hear it through the local identity politic of my body. With the live show, I find ways of opening that up, of creating an amorphous feminine oracle that will deliver the work. And I did it to some extent with [my 2004 collaboration with artist Charles Bradley] Turning. I worked with 13 women, and we took portraits of them that were projected behind me, and I felt all their spirits pour through me. And I could shapeshift—you get this more spectral sense of the self that is projecting the voice.
I've never been that interested in my physical body as a convincing visual conduit for my voice. I've never been comfortable standing on stage and trying to negotiate what it is that people are seeing. [Pointing at herself] I've never had this "for sale," particularly. It's always been an unfortunate byproduct of the fact that I'm a singer. So to me, it's been separating my voice from my body in a way. That was my idea: that I would be annihilated.
So I was thinking about aspirational bodies, and working with different models to find a body that, in some ways, could more powerfully represent the material than I could. For instance, the image of Naomi Campbell singing the song. Everyone knows it's not her; this isn't the Black box model, because everyone knows that it's me. Nevertheless, seeing Naomi singing the song totally transforms the song and makes it much more universal, because Naomi is an icon of beauty and of femininity. And, of course, it's so influenced by the popular perception of different kinds of people and identities. [Like the way you] perceive someone more beautiful or someone younger, someone older, someone of trans experience, someone of color—how does that shift the resonance of the song? It's also a conversation about, who do we trust? And who do we raise up? Who has more moral authority? Whose voice?
This "eyes wide open campaign"—it feels akin looking at a field of grass, and trying to register every one of the blades. Do you ever worry that it's a recipe for going insane?
I think to a degree, that's true. But what's most important for all of this, in my mind, is to accurately assess your sphere of influence and work within that sphere of influence. I have a sphere of influence right now, where I'm talking to you as a media outlet, where we could potentially have a large sphere of influence, so I'm really trying to say all of the points.
I do not suggest that everyone dive into the deep end; I'm a novice and I'm overwhelmed. But I also feel like this is my pleasure. I'm extremely lucky to have a chance to talk. I'm probably one of the first trans people that gets to talk about anything. There is trans-talking in Hollywood, but they're just talking about trans. I'm trans-talking from this perspective about the whole world. I feel very grateful to goddess. I feel grateful to the earth for giving me this moment.
Read Emilie Friedlander's Anohni profile in the May issue of VICE Magazine.