Anohni worried that she was going to cry. Sitting across from me in a windowless room at the Roxy Hotel in Manhattan, the artist formerly known as Antony Hegarty confessed that during her last interview, both she and the journalist had burst into tears. "I don't want to do that this time," she said, pausing to collect herself. "I think I got carried away."
Just a few minutes earlier, she'd materialized in the hotel's comely lobby, clad in an oversize black sweater, trousers, and white sneakers, and carrying a bag of clothes. After our interview, over a decaf cappuccino and glass of orange juice, she needed to visit her tailor on the Lower East Side. It was one on a long list of errands she needed to finish before she headed to the 2016 Oscars ceremony in Los Angeles, where she'd been nominated for best original song: "Manta Ray," a collaboration with composer J. Ralph from the eco-minded documentary Racing Extinction. She and Angela Morley, a film composer, are the only trans women artists ever to be nominated for an Academy Award.
The nomination was one of many career milestones I was hoping to ask the British-born, California-raised singer about. I also hoped to discuss her beginnings in the New York queer performance-art scene of the 90s, helming the drag-theater troupe the Blacklips; how her gymnastic voice won her an early mentor in Lou Reed, then a career-catapulting 2005 Mercury Prize; and the decade she spent shuttling her acoustic chamber-pop ensemble, Antony and the Johnsons, to concert halls and opera houses around the globe, sometimes with symphony orchestras in toe. But Anohni didn't want to talk much about her accomplishments. She didn't even volunteer the backstory of her soon-to-be released fifth album, Hopelessness. Anohni wanted to talk about our trajectory as a species.
"I've been doing this survey for ten years, asking taxi drivers about the weather," she told me. "And every one of them in their own way comes up with the same thing: 'The weather is changing terribly, especially in my home country. It's the end days. End days, end days.'" Anohni batted her eyelashes as if to drum down on the point.
Hopelessness explores a mind-set that she believes to be responsible for human industry's destruction of the biosphere. But it also explores a lot of other things, including capitalism, American foreign policy, patriarchy, and humanity's failure to provide for and protect its own. The record's about everything, and Anohni is determined to get people talking about all of it.
"I'm all into this eyes-wide-open campaign," Anohni told me. "How wide can I hold my eyes, how much can I try to see, knowing that I'll never see it all?" Hopelessness, she explained, incorporates 15 years of reading the newspaper daily, chatting with strangers and friends, and parsing how the myriad shortcomings of the West amounted to a "system." When it came time to write songs for the new album, she said the words came pouring out in a couple of days. "I was furious about this stuff, and I was scared to say any of it," she told me. "I realized there is so much energy here: Why am I so afraid to speak these truths?"
Compared with her 2005 breakout, I Am a Bird Now, and the albums that followed it—records cherished for their oblique meditations on love and death, shadowed by the calamity of the 90s AIDS crisis—Hopelessness is shockingly, almost ecstatically literal. There's a song ("Drone Bomb Me") sung from the perspective of a young girl whose family has been killed by a drone bomb, one ("Watch Me") about living in a surveilled society, and another ("Execution") about state-sanctioned murder, at home and overseas.
The album also marks a sharp turn from the string-laden sound she'd become synonymous with. She sets her end-of-the-world pronouncements over a contemporary-sounding backdrop of cinematic synths, trap drums, and delicate electronic flourishes courtesy of Scottish producer and Kanye West collaborator Hudson Mohawke and American experimental musician Oneohtrix Point Never. The instrumentals, she noted, are something of a Trojan horse. "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 that the people would still inhale it," she told me. "It sounds manipulative, and it is manipulative."
A month after our interview, Anohni would unveil another Trojan horse, in the video for "Drone Bomb Me." She had recruited Naomi Campbell as a physical surrogate, and as I watched the supermodel tearfully lip-sync the song, I recalled a story that the singer had mentioned to me—that of Martha Wash, the vocalist behind several of the biggest dance hits of the early 90s, including Italian house group Black Box's "Strike It Up." When the music video for the song came out, Wash, then in her late 30s, was absent; deemed unmarketable by Black Box's label RCA because of her age and weight, she'd been replaced by a lip-syncing French model and denied credit for her contribution to that song and others. (Wash sued RCA and won.)
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 who wants to be recognized for my feminine essence and aspect.'
Nearly 25 years later, the scandal still fascinates Anohni. "It was about creating a package that people would want to buy," she said of the label's deceptive casting choices. "And being seductive: a beautiful woman singing with a beautiful voice." The video for "Drone Bomb Me" replicates this commercial logic in the service of Anohni's oppositional agenda. "When people perceive my music through their perception of my physical body, it often really contains people's ability to open their minds to it, because they hear it through the local identity politic of my body," she told me. "With the live show, I'm finding ways to open that up, to create an amorphous feminine oracle that will deliver the work."
"Drone Bomb Me" is not the only instance of Anohni using other people's bodies as a stand-in for her own. The collagist album art for Hopelessness is a composite of her own face and model Liya Kebede's—and while performing her album, she'll present a series of portraits of other women as she hangs back in the shadows. "To me, it's been about separating my voice from my body," she explained. "That was my idea: I would be annihilated."
Just as Anohni feared, her eyes welled up twice during our interview—first, while contemplating the bottomless compassion of aboriginal Canadian folk singer Buffy Sainte-Marie, and later, while confiding that she hopes to one day write a book. Still, I detected a guardedness in Anohni. While negotiating our meet-up through her publicist, she'd denied me access to her home; then, at the last minute, she pushed back a second interview at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens to an indeterminate date in the future. But I did accompany her on that errand to the tailor on Clinton Street. Even there, considering a custom design, she draped two pieces of knit fabric over my shoulders and steered me toward a mirror at the far end of the shop, as though I were the one who was going to be wearing the improvised garment.
Later—after our stroll brought us to a picnic bench in a community garden in Alphabet City—I began to feel frustrated. My attempts to suss out what she'd actually been up to since the release of her last album, 2010's Swanlights, were yielding nothing but further sociopolitical commentary. After a few hours, all the talk about manifest destiny—and fossil fuels and Guantánamo Bay and 9/11 and Ferguson and the ways in which social media companies have tricked us into surrendering our privacy—was beginning to feel like a wall. I asked whether she thought there was something in her childhood perhaps responsible for this willingness to confront all the troubles of the world. "There is," she told me, "but that's private."
It's hard to blame her for being circumspect. During her decade in the public eye, journalists insensitive to her sexual identity have rattled her. And so would the Oscars, I'd soon learn. Two days after our meeting, she canceled her flight to the ceremony, publishing an essay on her blog attributing the Academy's failure to invite her to perform to "a system of social oppression and diminished opportunities for trans people that has been employed by capitalism in the US to crush our dreams and our collective spirit."
With Hopelessness—the first album she's ever released under her chosen name—she's in some ways becoming more vulnerable than ever. "I've never been 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," Anohni said. "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 who wants to be recognized for my feminine essence and aspect.'"
The sun was setting behind the city skyline, and I considered the possibility that "feminine essence"—as Anohni understands it—is something far more expansive than any single body could possibly encompass, something compatible with this desire to take the fate of all the people and dogs and fish and plants on Earth onto her shoulders. Then I remembered a wish she'd expressed to me, not unconscious of the fact that whatever piece I would write would be as much a reflection of the woman writing it as the woman it's about. "Use me as an opportunity to talk about something you care about," she'd implored. "That's what I want you to do with me. Use me in a useful way."
Anohni plays the Park Avenue Armory in New York May 18-19 as part of the Red Bull Music Academy Festival.