“I’ve been messing around with electronic music my whole life,” Anohni says. “But this was a new frontier.”
The statement is true on multiple levels. On HOPELESSNESS, her new collaborative record with Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never, Anohni crafts sharp, rhythmically pulsing songs that lay a foundation for her spectral voice. (“Ahonhi” refers to the singer, while “ANOHNI” is the name of the group.) Sonically, it’s a world apart from the chamber pop she released with Antony and the Johnsons—ornate classics like 2005’s I Am a Bird Now and 2009’s The Crying Light. The process of editing and assembling the songs digitally proved a serious task. “It was just horrible,” she laughs. “It’s like you’re constantly trying to untangle a giant pile of noodles.”
But the results are stunning. Anohni’s voice—a singular, baroque presence—commands the record, and her lyrics—about capital punishment, climate change, the surveillance state, President Obama, gender, and decay—have never been more frank. Lush beds of synths blanket some of her most brutal lines: “Blow my head off, explode my crystal guts,” she sings on the gorgeous “Drone Bomb Me,” singing from the perspective of a child whose family is killed by a drone strike. The song’s typical of the uneasy accord between pure beauty and abject terror on the record. Often, Anohni sings most beautifully when describing the harshest realities. Songs like “Marrow,” with its piano-house touches, or the rapturous pop of “Why Did You Separate Me From the Earth,” or the devastating “Crisis” are among her most moving recordings, and they’re powered by unflinching and brutal lyrics about American foreign policy.
It’s an album that asks a lot of the listener, but not more than it asks of Anohni herself. Unfolding via Skype, our conversation quickly expanded beyond the topic of HOPELESSNESS to encompass the personal unpacking required by the songs, as well as the radical futurism inherent in her art.
HOPELESSNESS is a beautiful record. There’s this contrast between a romantic or sensual quality to the beats and the lyrical content, which is very dark. Was challenging the conception about what a pop record could be a goal as you started making the record, or did it become so in the process?
When I began making the record I was working with Dan [Lopatin] and the record was going in a more “fine art” kind of direction. But I was looking for something more… To answer your question, yes, I had preconceived that notion of making a pop record with challenging lyrical content.
Were you thinking of the record in the lineage of protest music?
Usually, I put my work forward in hopes that people can relate to it or find something in it that supports them. With so much information about a whole array of issues that are affecting us available, I’ve been feeling still quite alienated and alone in my inhaling those things, in living in this mist of issues. You know, walking through life trying to hold space for all of these terrible realities that are buffering our lives. I wanted to write some songs that were vividly direct in voicing my perception of reality as best as I can assess it. It’s not to say that my assessment is the correct assessment, but it’s using all my faculties and observing as a member of this society. This is the landscape as I saw it. I wanted to affirm that—not just for myself, but for what I imagine are hundreds of thousands of people who are seeing the same thing but don’t have really a soundtrack—at least in the context of pop—to support them in those perceptions.
“We try and address these things one at a time, or one [person] will specialize in one [issue] and one will specialize in another, but most people with their eyes half open are aware of all of this stuff. And yet, we don’t have means to support that consciousness. So we’re left, basically, to sink into systems of denial.”
It wasn’t really about changing people’s minds. It was more about trying to articulate something that I think is a widely held perception of what’s going on, but [doing so while] trying to use my resources as an artist: someone who specializes in intuition and emotion, and yet is thinking critically and trying to find clarity in an assessment of what’s really happening. I wanted to use my skill set to articulate the thing that we’ve all been feeling. I feel that you can’t really make change until you can identify what the problem is.
We’re dealing with all these problems. Everywhere you look there’s a problem: climate change, income disparity, police brutality, more climate change, corporate sovereignty, capital punishment, lobbyists and corruption, vanishing biodiversity. It’s a downward spiral. We try and address these things one at a time, or one [person] will specialize in one [issue] and one will specialize in another, but most people with their eyes half open are aware of all of this stuff. And yet, we don’t have means to support that consciousness. So we’re left, basically, to sink into systems of denial. That’s what we’re encouraged to do. “Disconnect from that—you can’t do anything about that. Stop thinking about it. Stop thinking about it. Stop thinking about it.” But to me, that’s just digging us deeper in.
I started to visualize this chasm of denial between who we think we are—our aspirational sense of self—and the reality of the footprint of who we are. This kind of black hole, this dark matter that existed between those two points, that was actually running our lives. It’s actually that dark matter defining our continued trajectory and defining the way we’re operating, defining our relationship to this stuff. It’s not our aspirational self or our actual self. It’s our denial that’s pushing us deeper into this stuff. If we could get—if I could get—a clearer sense of who I was in relationship to this, if I could accurately assess my footprint and relationship to that footprint, then maybe I could help in participating in this evolving collective consciousness that we’re hoping is going to dig us out of this crap.
It’s hard not to think of the situation as being hopeless, given the immensity of the problems we face.
I wouldn’t be following this path if I thought it was hopeless. A hopeless person gives up. A hopeless child in a violent family just tries to be as quiet as possible. I think in many ways “hopelessness” characterizes the space where we feel we have to deny reality. When you describe the subjects on this record as “dark,” it’s almost as if I’ve conjured them, or made them up. But mostly, all I’m doing is just identifying realities—which aren’t even political: they’re physical. This isn’t a politicized reality that I’m trying to address; it’s just physically what’s really happening. The challenge that we’re being faced with right now is to be able to find the fortitude in ourselves to hold space for the reality of our lives today and be able to address the problems as they are actually unfolding before us. But we can’t do that if we can’t articulate it, if we can’t allow ourselves to stop and feel the truth about what’s happening. I’m not saying I know the truth, but I’m saying I’m struggling to identify it for myself. That’s what the record reflects.
I’m working with the same media and information that you’re working with—we’re all reading the same papers. But to call the record dark is to [claim] this sense that we get to choose what’s real, as if it’s a political choice. Do you know what I mean? Actually, life is as it is today. That’s what we have to deal with—whether it’s dark or light. I’m not painting it with a wash of color. It’s not a lens through which to perceive the world as much as it is an attempt to empirically identify what the world even is today.
I recognize what you’re saying. I mean, reality feels dark to me, too. But reading an article on The Guardian is different from listening to a pop song, you know?
I totally get what you’re saying. For me, I really feel like I’m very mid-process with all this. I feel like I’m at a little bit of a bridge. I don’t have any solutions. This record isn’t [necessarily] proffering solutions. The record is simply trying to investigate my own systems of denial and trying to loosen those systems so that maybe I can get a deeper insight into my relationships with this stuff.
“Actually, life is as it is today. That’s what we have to deal with—whether it’s dark or light. It’s not a lens through which to perceive the world as much as it is an attempt to empirically identify what the world even is today.”
When you say “reality is dark,” then it comes into focus for me. Yes, OK, if you see reality as dark, then the conversation is dark.
It’s a psychic and a spiritual question, as well as an empirical question. And of course there are many different versions of reality, you know, depending on your point of view. Reality is also very subjective, but at the same time, I kind of draw a line. The question always returns: what’s really happening?
“What’s really happening” has been a theme in my painting, and it’s the biggest theme on this record. What are the relationships between these systems of brokenness? It seems to be that they’re climaxing or conspiring to create a perfect storm where an ecocide can be realized. I suppose that’s my point of view; I really feel like my subjective reality is trying to take an inventory, trying to see what’s going on in society’s relationship to nature.
It feels like every song examines relationships and their consequences. A song like “4 Degrees” is not about what you intend to do to nature, but the poetic language you employ recognizes your own role in climate change.
It’s been funny with that song, how some people characterize it as a super-cynical, ironic song. Because actually, it’s a completely earnest song. If my behavior were to have a voice, what would it be saying? It’s not true that those are the things I consciously want, but it’s true that that’s the endgame of my behavior. So what is that disparity? That’s what I have to sit with. We won’t be able to resolve this until we’ve sat with that disparity between our behavior and our intention.
When you sing “How did I become the virus?” on the title track, is there a recognition of a natural state there? A virus doesn’t choose to be a virus; it’s just a virus. Are you recognizing something like a natural state, in that there’s almost no choosing how we interact with our environment?
I actually studied AIDS in the late ’80s, when I went to school, and I learned a lot about the behavior of the virus. It’s sort of an undead piece of biological information that occupies host cells and reproduces exponentially and seeks new cells to infect. And the endgame of a virus is its own oblivion. Eventually, they run out of material, so they’re living an unsustainable life. They are cogs in a larger machine that’s unsustainable. A virus is innocent in that it’s a part of nature, as you said. It’s as innocent as any other life form and has as much a right to its existence.
That’s the question that I’m most interested in: is it possible for us to change our trajectory? I’ve been to TED conferences where people are saying society, and the way that we organize as a species, is not subject to our input at this point. It’s an organism with its own momentum, [and] collectively we form an organism that has its own agenda that we can’t necessarily impact. I’ve certainly heard out those arguments. I, though, I believe that—and this is a belief, it’s not a fact—there might be a way for us to take some radical actions. I don’t know what those would be, but [we could] seek out a set of adjustments that could realign us with our environment such that we would stop behaving in a virulent way. We would have to employ our deepest sense of self, our deepest sense of knowledge of the truth of our circumstance. [We’d have] to employ skill sets that we’ve often subjected, [in order] to restore sustainable balance and life.
But we’re up against a giant system of our own construction that has no interest in that model. We’re going to have to unpack and dismantle hundreds—if not thousands—of years of development in order to do this. That is an intense challenge, and we don’t have to take it, but if we don’t take it the consequences are obvious. They’ve been written in the founding texts of patriarchal life, like climactic apocalypses that result in the male brain ascending to the heavens to be seated by his creator. We know that model. We’ve been dealing with it for a long time.
“At this eleventh hour, can we still have agency? What would it look like? As an artist, that’s almost my job at this point: to try and dream about these impossible shifts.”
But at this eleventh hour, can we still have agency? What would it look like? As an artist, that’s almost my job at this point: to try and dream about these impossible shifts—shifts we’re told are impossible but that actually aren’t impossible. Inevitably, it’s about pulling back the curtain and seeing a little man with a megaphone pulling a lot of strings. It’s about reorganizing systems of powers, about education and getting on the same page, understanding our relationships to each other differently. It’s about an awakening.
Even if you’re not proposing the means to dismantle the system, recognizing the need to do so ultimately feels like the least cynical or hopeless thing that I could imagine.
But make no mistake: what we’re facing right now is unprecedented. As a species, these couple of generations, what we’re dealing with right now, we’ve never dealt with this before as animals. Granted, it’s been around in some form or other for the last fifty or sixty years with our potential for nuclear annihilation, but it’s happening now on so many other insidious fronts as well. It’s about rising to a challenge. What are we comfortable with? What are we told comfortable lives should look like? What do we expect life should look like? [We say,] “I was just born, this isn’t my problem. I just wanted to have a comfortable life.” [But] we may be entering an era where that story is done. Actually, this next phase is going to be about a much more intense type of engagement that we’re all going to have to employ if we want a future.
I mean, if we want a future that looks remotely like anything like the world as we’ve known it. We can have some other fucked up thing. In a couple hundred years we could have a patch of farmers in Northern Canada growing olives or whatever with giant swaths of the world utterly uninhabitable or flooded. We could resign ourselves to that. But I’m so not interested in that.
Everything I’ve ever loved is here. Everything I’ve ever loved is this: the pastoral world. I don’t have another reflection of value. I don’t subscribe to these religions that tell you that value is elsewhere, in another dimension, [that] true value lies in some stardust-sparkled paradise elsewhere. To me, this place, creation, biodiversity, this was the rapturous bed from which I emerged. This is my home. This is our home, our creative home; we were created from this. It shouldn’t be too hard for us to wake up to that and to figure out a way to reorganize our neuropathways such that we could advocate for it in a much deeper way. FL