The Lenny Interview: Anohni

The first ever Oscar-nominated trans performer discusses her solo debut Hopelessness.

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This is the year of Anohni. In February, she was the first transgender performer to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song, for "Manta Ray," from the environmental-justice film Racing Extinction. However, Anohni did not attend the Oscars ceremony because she wasn't invited to perform the song, saying that the omission gave her "a sting of shame that reminded me of America's earliest affirmations of my inadequacy as a transperson." Her new record, Hopelessness, out today, is the first she's released under her own name as a solo artist — previous recordings were with her band, Antony and the Johnsons.

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I've been transfixed by Anohni since I first heard her in 2005. Her soulful tremor turned pain into something transcendent and opened my teenage ears to the multitudes that a single voice could contain. In Hopelessness, Anohni's voice is louder than it's ever been, at a time when it's never been needed more. It continues the environmental concerns that have been present throughout her work, but sonically it is a departure.

Set to swarming synths, deep bass, flickering percussion, and regal brass courtesy of producers Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never (a.k.a. Daniel Lopatin), Hopelessness finds Anohni confronting every darkness facing the world right now, and its inevitable conclusion: environmental collapse. The track list may look a little like a checklist, with song titles like "Execution" and "Violent Men," but Anohni imbues every issue with disarming personal resonance and investigations of her own complicity within them. On "4 Degrees," a postindustrial sibling to Kate Bush's "Hounds of Love," Anohni shrugs as the planet's temperature rises, evoking both climate-change skeptics, and the way even the most conscious person can downplay our responsibility for global-warming chaos.

Her ability to merge the personal and political, and to consider her role in the planet's destruction without being self-aggrandizing, feels rare and unparalleled. Hopelessness is one of the most bracing, fearless albums of 2016: a Trojan horse in the middle of the dance floor, challenging you to stand still while the world ends. I called Anohni at home in New York the day after she returned from Berlin, where she'd been prepping an upcoming art show and career retrospective.

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Laura Snapes: You've been talking about the ideas that feed into Hopelessness for years now. How did they come to form a single album?

Anohni: Originally, I had been collaborating with Dan Lopatin on a more soundtrack-y record that was going to use other songs I had written in more conventional ways. But when Hudson stepped in, his tracks had such a tremendous sense of galvanizing energy about them that it reawakened my desire to make very political dance songs. It's something that I tried before a few years ago with a different producer but hadn't succeeded at. Hudson sent me six tracks, and I recorded all of them almost immediately. "4 Degrees" and "Drone Bomb Me" are Hudson's tracks. They pushed me off into a higher gear. Up until that point, I'd written a song called "Hopelessness" with Dan, and "I Don't Love You Anymore." It was a more melancholic approach, and then when the real beats started to kick in, I was off to the races.

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LS: The record casts a wide topical net, dealing with war, the environment, feminism, Obama, the NSA — this huge range of issues. How did you manage that amount of information in the songwriting?

A: All these issues swell around us like a constellation. They amplify and exacerbate one another. Ecocide and eco-collapse, I think that's the climax of all of these issues. Neo-liberal capitalism* and trickle-up economics, multinational corporate sovereignty — all these things insidiously collaborate to realize the perfect storm of conditions that usher in ecocide.

We compiled 15 or 16 songs that really covered the spectrum of things that preoccupy me. A lot of the final choices for which songs to include were more aesthetic than based on content — I know I will eventually release all the songs anyway, because I'll probably release a second group of the tracks. I basically just kept going until I was tired.

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LS: Recently, you said you wanted to challenge yourself about how vigorously you could state your truth. Was the album difficult to write?

A: Actually, once I decided to jump off the edge and write really plain-hearted lyrics, it was very easy to write. I have so much emotion, so much anger, so much brokenheartedness, so much energy in me about each of these issues. It's my day-to-day reality, it's not something that I just dip a toe into. Once I decided I was going to step away from those gossamer interior songs I've been used to writing and write something that was really direct, it was a tremendous relief. I had to move through my fear of doing it. When I first sang "4 Degrees," or when I sang "Drone Bomb Me," it scared me, and then it felt really exciting. It's always exciting to unleash your sense of truth, especially as a singer. It's one thing to talk about these things or to see them represented in documentaries, but there's something about singing — especially my kind of singing, which people tend to associate with a kind of elevated openheartedness — that is much thornier, more angular and difficult, combined with this complicated content. It was exhilarating.

LS: One song I found really striking was "Watch Me," where you frame the surveillance state as "Daddy." It's so tender, but it's so sinister. Every time I hear it, I have this horrible image of an abusive parent watching their child.

A: I have the same image in my mind. A parent that spies on his children, makes sure his daughters don't leave the house, spies on all of their interactions, saying that he loves them and he's trying to protect them. But in fact there is something much more sinister. It's actually an expression of his lack of trust for them. He's revoked their presumption of innocence. In the surveillance state, we've all had our presumption of innocence revoked. It's a dangerous place to be. It is cryptic and creepy, and it is familial and personal as well. It's quite a furious song.

LS: Similarly, "Drone Bomb Me" is about a young girl in the midst of drone warfare. But there's something about the way you sing it and lyrics like "I want to be the apple of your eye" — it has this disarming erotic need. As well as making these big statements, did you want the songs to have an emotional reality?

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A: For sure. I think "Drone Bomb Me" is my favorite song on the record. In some ways, it reminds me of a song I did a long time ago called "Cripple and the Starfish," which had a similar way of expressing the point of view of someone who basically has no power to advocate for themselves. They magnify their own vulnerability and use it almost as a weapon to communicate with, at the very least, if not to disarm, their perpetrator. It's an idea that's been buzzing around me most of my life. It probably stems from moments of my own childhood when I really didn't have power to advocate for myself, and I had to rely on ingenuity to get out of situations or dangers. "Drone Bomb Me" is very much a song from the perspective of someone that's had everything stripped from them unjustly by the powers that be. What you said about how it's eroticized: It's sung with the erotic innocence of a young person, in a way, like a first love.

LS: That ties into something you've said in the past, about how a lot of the language that we use to describe the destruction of the earth is the same language that we use to describe the defilement of female bodies. Somebody's saying "Drone bomb me" reminds me of cruder terms about, say, taking a woman's virginity.

A: Yeah, definitely. We did this project called Future Feminism — myself, Kembra Pfahler, Johanna Constantine, and Bianca and Sierra Casady — a year and a half ago in New York. The first premise of it is that the subjugation of women and the earth are one and the same. That's one of the foundational concepts that support almost all my points of view; that in order to do that, they would also have to subjugate the feminine aspect of themselves and the feminine voices in their community.

LS: You sing about that idea in "Violent Men" — this is perhaps naïve of me, but I always think that so much violence could be avoided if gender roles weren't drilled into little boys. If children weren't raised to see their mothers as the primary caregivers and their fathers as the fun parents, which engenders this sense of entitlement and resentment toward women.

A: Yeah. It's so hard to know if it's all nurture, or nature. I have always ended up thinking it's a combination of the two. In some ways, I think that the work that the transgender community has done in the last 30, 40 years is quite pioneering in that respect, because it's been a relatively unexplored but persistent revelation that biology affects not just physical gender, but the sense of your gender. We're working with these bodies that have evolved over millions of years, but we're still kind of babes in the woods in so many regards, operating and responding to unconscious impulses in our bodies: survival impulses, reproductive impulses, hoarding impulses, tribal impulses. Yet we're facing problems that require that we transcend all of those impulses if we are going to effectively address the extreme crisis that's facing us.

With Future Feminism, the idea was to explore feminine paradigms of governance. What if we leaned on a different archetype within ourselves to determine a way to move forward rather than relying on what we've ever known, the rational mind, which is filled with sublimated male impulses?

LS: You've previously talked about your admiration for the White Rose Movement, the young Germans who led a pamphleteering campaign against Hitler and Nazism and were killed for it. They refused to be complicit.

A: It's about standing up: Yoko Ono does it a lot. That was what inspired us to do Future Feminism — to stand up and say what it was that we saw in that moment and to put our name on it. Obviously under much less threat of consequence than the White Rose Movement, or Pussy Riot, for instance. But taking a risk, or exhibiting courage, acting despite your fear or your shame. Keep speaking your truth and helping.

LS: You called the record Hopelessness, and you deal with some incredibly bleak subjects. Where do you find optimism?

A: Actually, putting the record forward is, in my mind, a hopeful gesture. A child that truly believes she doesn't have hope doesn't raise her voice. She sits in the corner and hopes to disappear, to minimize the damage that's inflicted upon her. She doesn't raise her voice or ask for anything. That, to me, is hopelessness. If you have no hope, you don't take action. You just try to disappear.

LS: Was publicly taking on the name Anohni a symbol of that hope?

A: I don't think it's a symbol of anything. It's just my name, honestly. Although, of course, it's always a good thing if you feel like you can be yourself. I've never not been transgendered — it's not like I'm Caitlyn Jenner or something, where I have a wife and five kids in the background, five Olympic medals, or another life of privilege, and now I'm moving into the female guise. I'm the kind of transgender person that's always been transgendered and has always been talking about it. For me to change my name, it's not symbolic of me becoming something else. It's more just a rite of passage, creating a space of dignity around me to acknowledge me in a formal way for the years I've lived. Acknowledging that my point of view is partly rooted in my identity as a trans person. It was a happy accident that a new body of work would have a new name.

LS: As much as this is a very beautifully orchestrated dance record, it also feels like a punk album to me. In 2016, awareness and compassion are the most punk qualities, because they're largely the opposite of the establishment's values.

A: I think the constant vein of anger through the record makes it sort of a punk record. You should have seen all the record covers I had before we chose the one we have. I was totally inspired by the Dead Kennedys record with the little hand and big hand. I was totally going for that, but I was eventually discouraged. What's punk now? The essence of that isn't so much about the aesthetic of the music as it is sort of an attitude.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Laura Snapes is a journalist and critic swingin' on the flippity-flop in London, UK.

*Correction, May 8, 2016: Because of a transcription error, "neo-liberalism" was originally written as "liberalism," and "hopelessness" was originally written as "business" in one place. 

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