Anohni Opens Up About Her New Album and the American Political Landscape

May 17, 2016

Living in this new geological age called the Anthropocene – an age defined exclusively by humanity’s grievous impact on the environment – we are forced to confront our identity and mortality in new ways. Singer and artist Anohni, who has just released her new album HOPELESSNESS, communicates these new modes of thinking in a way that both challenges her listeners and evokes an emotional response that wavers between both hopelessness, and actual hope. Since she started her career as a performance artist, Anohni has been gently prodding for emotional responses with her unmistakable voice, a seraphic tenor that has been known to turn the most stoic of people into a salty puddle on the floor.

But the emotions evoked in HOPELESSNESS are far less straightforward. There is tried-and-true love and loss, but it is coded in a far more complex system. Call it emotional-political, call it emotional-existential, call it emotional-environmental – Anohni has made a record that asks us to step outside ourselves and call upon the deepest reserves of honesty to really see our impact on the earth and society. “How did I become a virus?” she asks on the title track. While it seems like a kind of self-interrogation, it’s something more outward: It is ultimately a question for us all.

Anohni often uses the phrase “rigorous honesty.” It’s a good mantra, but perhaps it’s also a way to live in the Anthropocene, where all science points to poisonous methane leaking into the rising oceans, CO2 levels filling the air, and shifting weather patterns wreaking havoc across the world. Rigorous honesty is a gift donated by Anohni through her art, and as far as political call-to-actions go, rigorous honesty is about the most relevant thing we can ask of ourselves right now. “I didn’t make [this album] for me,” says Anohni. “I made it for you. I wanted to tell you something so bad.”

For the last several years you’ve been working on an art exhibition called “My Truth.” What have you learned throughout that process?

My drawing work is very accumulative. It’s something that I’ve worked on over years and it’s meaningful to me as a body of work. You know, drawing space is so different than performance space. It’s much more contemplative, interior and more kind of solitary in a way. It’s a space that I really love. Before I ever was going to be a musician I always thought I was going to be drawing, but then I took a long detour into music. In my early teens, I got seduced into doing music. It’s kind of like, I’m over in paradise and for me to get this chance to do residencies and just spend a lot of time just thinking about visual materials.

Anohni – Blue Ghost, Photo: Gunter Lepkowski Kunsthalle Bielefeld

As you think about music and as you hear music affect you, do you find it more of a solitary pursuit or more of a communal pursuit? How is art and music absorbed for you in those two different environments?

I usually notice it more as a producer than I do as a consumer. Just because the experience of doing music live is so different than the experience of showing visual work. As a performer, your body is the focus of your work. It’s one of the main focuses of your work. Also it’s the way that conversations get tied into making sound, and it’s whether issues get tied into your impulse to make sound. Especially in the presentation of a work. It’s a kind of harrowing, just like the live performance aspect of it.

I’m interested in how we consume so much music as a communal event now. Even in a social media context, a sharing context across networks, how we communicate and experience things as one organism versus doing it solitary, alone and meditating on that art and having an unfettered experience with it.

I think it’s interesting that you experience social media or whatever it is, as community activity. To me, I think of that as very lonely activity.

Why do you feel it’s lonely?

It makes me feel lonely. It is just me sort of tapping into abstraction. I’ve never really felt doing stuff online was a community activity. I guess, again, the live part of it, to me, is more of a community activity. Yes. As a producer making work, especially doing interviews and doing press is about addressing the community or communities. It’s a powerful platform for communication. As a producer of music, I’ve been trying to harness that aspect of it.

I’m swimming against the tide of my work, swimming against the tide of what most people want out of me.

Does it feel like you are being on message when you are talking about this album? Does it make you feel like an activist or make you feel more political in talking about this album in particular?

Well, does it make me feel political? Hmm. I guess, I’m not a politician. In the press I’ve found myself delivering almost a series of bullet points, that were very much in my mind to communicate as an artist, not as a politician – to utilize my sphere of influence to express in hopes that would be useful to other people. I have a slightly different agenda than maybe someone delivering a stump speech. I have nothing to gain by participating in this way except the joie de vivre, except the expansive feeling of being alive and trying to be useful.

I could certainly go off and continue to make pastoral, relatively opaque, meaningless work and make a living and be fine. It’s a little bit different. Do you know what I mean? I don’t need to be as challenging as I’m being as an artist in order to move forward as a pop singer.

In fact, if anything, I’m swimming against the tide of my work, swimming against the tide of what most people want out of me. Sometimes I find that a little frustrating. First and foremost, I’m an artist. My perceptions are those of someone who has developed and exercised their creative point of view for 40 years.

It’s just a totally different way of coming at things. I think the fact that I’m trying to say the things that I’m saying is probably more evidence of how hardcore things have gotten in the world around us, that I’m feeling this compelled. It’s not just the environment, it’s how flooded I feel by the reality of the world that I’m a part of, how powerless I was feeling, how confused I’m feeling and should try to start organizing it and articulating it.

Naomi Campbell in the video for Anohni’s “Drone Bomb Me” Rough Trade Records

For me, it’s about expressing an inward gaze, and manifesting that so it can be of service to others who find pleasure in following that blueprint to reach their own spirit or heart. As a consumer, I’ve also followed the blueprints of other singers in order to get in touch with my feelings; or to get in touch with feelings.

It’s hard. We’re not given that many forums to really sit down and just feel how we’re feeling; or even more spookily, acknowledge what we’re seeing or acknowledge what we think we’re perceiving, to be in fear we might be perceiving in the world around us.

That’s even more the issue than the feeling issue. That’s the point of this album. Is this really happening? Is this really what’s going on? What’s really happening? Where are we? Where are we in this story? What’s at stake?

I’m sure President Obama is feeling like a victim of circumstance and of systems a lot bigger than himself.

There’s a lot of self-interrogation on the album.

I don’t feel like I interrogate, that’s a little too violent in a way. There’s a phrase: “rigorous honesty.” Can I be rigorously honest with myself about my part in this? Not to say that I’m the cause of these problems. I have a part in them. By not acknowledging my part in it is one of the keys to my disempowerment. As a participant in society and thinking always that I’m the victim of decisions made by others or whatever ... I think, even to the top level, I’m sure President Obama is feeling like a victim of circumstance and of systems a lot bigger than himself.

He’s probably leaving office thinking, “Oh, well. I couldn’t get that done. I’m powerless over that. I couldn’t change this. I couldn’t change that.”

That was the idea of bringing it closer to home for me: To let that flood into my meaningful work rather than have this other headspace where I lived most of my life, which was banging my head against the wall of my perception of a world that was totally frightening me. Then I’d go off and create these pastoral, restorative environments; increasingly for others to shelter in. As an artist, I wanted to connect the dots and make work that reflected where I was at.

This is it. That’s what I did in terms of music. I’ve always done that. I just wanted to do it more vigorously, with plainer language and with the hope that it could be less passive. I say, “passive.” I guess I’m being critical by using the word “passive.” I just mean “passive” in the way that a tree is passive. It just holds space. It holds its own space. It lives. I think that was how I was in my approach to making it work. Making music, especially, was just about trying to clarify and hold my own space.

There’s something, obviously, grandiose about launching into this broader indictment of the world and of myself. There’s something over-reaching about it. You would want to say that. We’re supposed to say that. “How dare I participate in this expansively in the conversation?”

Obviously, this other way of participating which is following the rules like little rats in the maze of our lives isn’t working. Shit is still just getting worse and worse. I don’t really want to be part of this, not like this. I just can’t bear it. I just can’t bear it; what we’re doing, what we’ve become, how we’re dealing, how we’re occupying this place. I use the metaphor “virulence,” on the album. I really feel that that is one of the truths. When I look at what we’ve become, how we inhabit this place and how we can’t help but have this devastating footprint at the expense of all other life forms; it’s so shocking that we’ve gotten to this point.

I hate the word, “tragedy”... It suggests that there’s only one possible outcome. I don’t believe that.

I’ve been thinking about manifest destiny recently. I just feel like it’s that inexorable spreading. Do you know what I mean? Where did that come from as a species? Why are we so compelled by that model of more and inexorable spreading? Other species don’t do that. Even the top predators out in nature, they didn’t necessarily inexorably spread. They held their space within a bigger system of life.

I don’t know. It’s tragic. It’s tragic. I hate the word, “tragedy.” Again, it’s too passive. It suggests that there’s only one possible outcome. I don’t believe that. I really don’t; just because it’s not interesting to believe that. It’s so boring to believe that.

One of your tenets of Future Feminism is “building a political structure using a circular model.” So, you’re not just receiving the emotions, you’re giving it out too. This thought process that led you to this album, that led you to this feeling that you had: Do you attribute that to your time here on earth or a paradigm shift that you had? How did you get to this point where you think, “What do I need to give back?”

The shift in my approach there is more to do with my shifting sphere of influence than it is to do with my age. This has been the material of my life. I’ve been circling this material for 25 years. I’ve been clipping articles. I have a paper trail of work that goes back to my early 20s, my late teens even, addressing a lot of similar issues in different ways. The choice to make HOPELESSNESS was very much about taking the reins of my opportunities and shooting a silver bullet out into the world.

You asked about the difference between drawing and the music. This album I really made for you. You know what I mean? I didn’t make it for me. I made it for you. I wanted to tell you something so bad.

It’s not an album that restores my wellness or that nourishes me. Only except in the fact that I’m being honest. That honesty is good for me. It’s like a much more bitter pill. It’s much more ... I’ve been looking for the word. It’s not manipulative. Sometimes I try to use the word stealthier. That’s not quite the word either. There is a word for this. It was almost like a scheme or a design. It was a scheme. It wasn’t just like sitting down at the piano and just bathing in the luxury of time and of self. It was really more like hard work. I didn’t make this record to get stinking rich, you know what I mean? Not that I made any record to get stinking rich.

It changes your criteria for making work, or how you make work as well, unless you’re a megastar or something, with ... Unless you’re the 1% of music, unless you’re Beyonce or something, and you can still figure out how to monetize your recordings, or you have access to top 1% restrictions and systems that will ... Invent your own Apple Music and force people to heed it, then it’s super cool for a tiny, tiny handful of the super rich artists. But for most musicians it doesn’t really affect the reality of the fact that the economy of music has all been upstreamed into these other people’s pockets.

ANOHNI - 4 Degrees

So how should we deal with this dread of ecological disaster? How do we practice rigorous honesty, and how do we practice making something for someone else in this society that we have today?

I think it’s a great question, and it’s the one that I’m asking too. I don’t have an answer for that. I agree with it completely; how do we do that?

And I have no idea, and I am sort of like grasping at straws here, but I think it’s the key to breaking our denial, and the only way we’re going to get through this is if we break our denial about what’s really happening, and it’s the only question that I really care about now.

The one thing that I shy away from is that if we were just better people, if we were making more ethical choices we would be doing better, and I think we have to recognize that everyone is already doing the best they can. I really do believe that.

You know, people have been so intensely manipulated in the U.S. and systematically undermined in their attempts to understand their environment by outlets such as Fox News and even the other outlets too, it’s like it’s all coming through these capitalist channels, you know? People are relying on capitalism to feed them deep truths about their reality. They’re relying on sponsored messages to pay for a clear channel for them to receive information about their environment. People are dependent on a drip from corporations to tell them what’s really happening, and that’s fucked up.

More than, “Why aren’t we making more ethical generous choices?” the question for me is, “How did it come to pass that there’s a wall of idiotic white people with pitchforks that are desperate to vote for Donald Trump, a billionaire?” How did it come to pass that those poor idiots were so misinformed that they thought that this was the best they could do? You know what I mean?

That’s the question for me, and that is about radical disempowerment, you know, and the radical systematic disempowerment overworking the middle class people in this country at the hands of corporations, and any president that’s not willing to dismantle that system, especially a president that was elected on a campaign of transparency is a failure as far as I’m concerned. Generally improving the economy is not enough on a boat that’s about to sink. It’s like you may have cleaned the rooms on the Titanic, but it doesn’t mean it’s not going to sink.

The system is exhausting to try to dismantle, or disempower, and to try to understand from within and without.

But it’s our system, we made it. I mean, that’s like number-one for me. It’s just like the Wizard of Oz, is like, “Powerful men are men that have convinced people that they have power.” What is power? It’s just an aura, an illusion. We could organize ourselves and do something different. Why is it that we’re making these kind of slithering sort of weak-tip concessions around global warming when we could be making a kind of World War II-level commitment to change. You know, we certainly throw billions and billions at a war, but we won’t throw billions and billions at climate change?

ANOHNI - Drone Bomb Me

How do we give carbon emissions a face?

It’s about money. It’s just money, you know, it’s a cash cow for some people. At least let me know what’s really happening. Who’s suffering, who’s being killed, who’s dying, who’s poor, who’s rich, who’s making those decisions? Those are just facts. They’re not politicized. They’re not political realities. They’re facts. If we could even just get facts on the table, and reach a consensus about what the facts are, then we can start to move with greater agility in our decision-making. That seems so hard because the stakes are so high now. Two minutes to midnight or whatever.

Did you see that thing where that guy was introducing Donald Trump to speak and he was like, “This is the first person with as much courage as Truman who would send a nuclear weapon if necessary.”

No, wow.

That was actually supposed to be a net positive that this was such an idiot that he would unleash a nuclear weapon. That was actually used as a rallying cry that this guy would send a nuclear weapon that’s why we should vote for him. This sort of “faceless, snake in the grass” problem of terrorism. If we just wipe the entire continent off the face of the earth, then disenfranchised European immigrants aren’t going to want to join ISIS. Do you know what I mean? It’s just like, “What the fuck?” How could that be happening? How could that conversation be happening? I feel like we’re in pre-war Germany.

This election has been out of a different cosmic timeline. You question what parallel universe did we get where, all of the sudden, the conversation has been elevated to this level.

It’s not even an elevation, it’s like plunged to this level. It’s like Boss Tweed with a nuclear bomb versus what? What do you even call Hillary? Those are our best two options. I saw people beginning to say, “Well, Bernie should run as an independent.” The treading water thing..I feel like a Clinton administration is that. It would be treading water – horrible, two-faced. These two-faced values. One set of values at home for Sandy Hook and another set of values in a field in Afghanistan. What is that? That’s a fucking ... It’s schizophrenic and it’s scary and it’s duplicitous.

I understand you have to hold space. You’ve been elected to the office that you hold space for the difficult reality of life on earth today. You have to make tough decisions. I don’t accept that that’s the only solution, that you have to become so inhuman, that we’ve elected you to act brutally on our behalf and to not tell us. Is that how it always was? Is that how it was when were cave people? Dad would go out and kill an animal and then, we could just sit home picking acorns and eat a nice piece of cooked meat. We don’t really have to contend with the innards and the loss of life. Maybe on some level that’s how it always was.

We can kill kids from this country but not our own kids. It’s immoral to kill American children but it’s not immoral to kill Afghan children, Syrian kids or Pakistani kids. That’s our country. That’s what we’re paying for. I don’t know. I’m not a big fan of Clinton.

I keep expecting Donald Trump’s campaign to be like, “Okay, the great jig is up. We just wanted to let you know that Donald doesn’t actually believe in any of this stuff and he’s not running for president.”

Do you think this two-party system is going to last much longer for better for worse?

That’s what they’ve been saying already for more than a decade. That was Nader and then when we lost that election because he pushed himself forward. Not me personally, but a lot of my friends ended up voting for him in the general elections, and it bought right into our own demise there with our idealism, or our desperation for a change in the system.

Well the Republican establishment is just fuming at what Donald Trump has done to the party, too.

He’s their demon seed love child. Mess up their shit. He is their climax. How could they think anything other? That they are the ones that got everyone into this pickle, where they don’t even know what they’re voting for and they want a totalitarian, Putinesque billionaire celebrity running the show. That was how they have been conditioning us for two or three generations or more to be prepared for that. Now they don’t like it because he’s not following their orders. He’s gone rogue.

He’s saying, “Look at me because I’ll start a nuclear war.” I keep expecting Donald Trump’s campaign to be like, “Okay, the great jig is up. We just wanted to let you know that Donald doesn’t actually believe in any of this stuff and he’s not running for president. He just wanted to show you how broken you are and how misinformed you are that you would actually support him. We’re going to let you know where all these quotes came from. They came from my Mein Kampf and they came from 1984...”

Please welcome to the stage Banksy.

I really did think he was kidding for a while. I thought this was a joke. That actually he wasn’t really running for president. That he was going to come out and just laugh it off and be the toast of the town like the JT LeRoy of politics.

Header image © Rough Trade / Secretly Canadian

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