Singer Anohni tackles speaking out, oppression, and subversion with composer Nico Muhly

The musical artists talk composition, American civic complicity, and "joyful expressions of rage."

Not many people can count fashion designer Riccardo Tisci, singer Björk, and MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach as fans, but for the last two decades Anohni’s soulful, beguiling voice has been enchanting audiences around the world as the lead vocalist of Antony and the Johnsons. Since entering New York’s avant-garde underground in the 90s, Anohni’s rise has seen Lou Reed as one of her early champions, and her band taking the Mercury Prize for Best U.K. Album in 2005 for I Am A Bird Now. Earlier this year the singer—the first transgender performer to be nominated for best original song—took a stand against the Academy Awards when she was not invited to sing “Manta Ray” from the documentary Racing Extinction. Her latest album, Hopelessness—her first since adopting her new name to reflect her gender identity—contains outspoken lyrics that address climate change, social injustice, and politics laid over EDM rhythms.

Composer Nico Muhly has the ability to span genres, with a range that goes from contemporary classical to indie rock. He’s arranged music for Björk, Grizzly Bear, and Philip Glass. Muhly composed an opera, Two Boys, which made its debut at the English National Opera before premiering at the Metropolitan Opera in 2013. Anohni invited Muhly, who worked with her on the albums The Crying Light and Swanlights, into her apartment in New York’s SoHo to discuss Hopelessness, inequality, and the 2016 presidential election.

Nico Muhly—You played me “4 Degrees,” and it was so exciting because the sonic landscape is so arresting.

Anohni—You truly don’t have to butter me up.

Nico—I’m not! In terms of the overall landscape, what were you thinking? In terms of how or when sounds are deployed?

Anohni—I’m not like you. It was more intuitively developed, and as layers of materials emerged it was a matter of finding relationships between them. I’d started out working on a soundtrack-type record, like Blade Runner. I got in touch with Hudson [Mohawke, producer] who sent me a ton of his own demos. I started laying vocals on top of them, and the dynamic of the album shifted. It was really more about details and pulling the right vocals and lyric content together.

Nico—The lyric content is a huge chapter that we can unpack. What I find so fascinating in listening to this album is that there is such a disconnect between the joy of the sonic landscape and what you’re actually saying—as in what the words are—and how you’re delivering. What was the process through which you thought, “These are the words that belong in this environment”?

Anohni—It was a cumulative process. Firstly, working with Dan [Lopatin, the electronic music producer,] and getting to know better the texture of his world and the way he digested and reconstituted electronic sound. He’s sort of a mad scientist. I had originally asked him to create a soundtrack for an electronic record with me, but I was hitting a wall compositionally—successfully enough at times, but in other demos finding that my compositions didn’t translate effectively into electronic songs, at least in that treatment. Hudson sent me demos with his own song structures, chord progressions, and ideas. That intensely galvanizing, singular, euphoric energy really swept me up.

A lot of the lyrics that are attached to his songs I wrote very quickly, as opposed to the lyrics that are attached to the other songs that came from earlier developments. I’d been waiting for an opportunity to do an aggressive dance record, searching for producers to partner with. I don’t have the skillset to create that kind of track, and I was just thrilled when Hudson responded. Initially I just reached out to him and said, “I love your work.” He responded, “Do you want to sing on my new record? I love your voice,” and I said, “Of course!” He sent me demos and told me to choose one I wanted to sing on. I sang on all seven and said, “You can take one of these, but I’m taking the other six for my record.” Nico—It’s great. It feels like—the word virus actually appears here—what you’ve done is infected this music that we’re meant to receive as bubbly pop music.

Anohni—I thought of it as a Trojan horse. I wanted it to be seductive and sound contemporary and sugary—easily consumable and digestable—and slip into the ocean of normal sound of now, but then to imbed it with more challenging lyrical content.

Nico—You’ve certainly achieved that. It’s very disconcerting actually to listen to it—I don’t want to say listen for pleasure because that’s a complicated thing…

Anohni—It is designed for pleasure. For me, angry music that makes me want to dance isn’t a conflict. That’s the dance music I grew up on. Whether it’s Bronski Beat or Black Box at the height of AIDS, all these faggots dancing in rage and for their lives. Again, I’d say that a galvanizing, joyful expression of rage is a very great and normal reason to dance.

Nico—This is a test of that conflict. I don’t know of anything else in the last 10 years that does that so specifically.

Anohni—Not with these topics. In hip-hop there are definitely people hitting it up around identity, the racial politics, and the reality of segregation in America.

Nico—Definitely race, poverty, and associated issues.

Anohni—It’s a little bit darker, stealthier in that regard. Some of the songs have more of a cruel flip, but some are very direct. “Execution” almost has a sneer to it, but “Drone Bomb Me” or “4 Degrees” are very pure points of view, from my point of view ultimately. It’s me working with systems I’ve worked with for a long time to confound and disarm a perpetrator. Or to address my own complicity on “4 Degrees.” There is nothing sarcastic about that. I’m always surprised when people say, “That song is so ironic,” because it’s not; it’s a narrative of my behavior as opposed to the narrative of my idealized version of who I am or what I represent.

It’s very direct. People say, “What on Earth are you suggesting? That you’re responsible for a drone campaign?” Yes, as a taxpayer I am.

Nico—As a voter; there are many ways in which we are complicit.

Anohni—And yet we’ve been infantilized and given the opportunity to forfeit responsibility. We build a firewall between us and the truth of our responsibility for those things, through what we perceive to be the parameters of our relationship to representational governance. We think: “I cast a vote, but didn’t choose to send those drone bombs to kill those children.” People claim not to be responsible even though they paid for those bombs to be made. It’s like A removed from B removed from C; you sever a personal responsibility from the government you’re paying to operate on your behalf or represent your best interests.

Nico—You’ve elected them to be agents of what you consider your best interests. It’s like a complicated family relationship.

Anohni—On the “Obama” song, even though it’s such a strong indictment, obviously, of his tenure as President; it’s also the fine line of how—like children—we believed in it. I allowed myself to ultimately take a passive role, even though I voted. I felt I had fulfilled my role as a citizen and retreated to this sort of voyeur, child in the back seat. That’s a structure that was put in place. That’s not necessarily a reality—it’s just the structure that we’ve learned to adhere to. That’s how I’ve been taught to participate, and that was the extent of my sphere of influence I was taught that I had. Once you start kicking out those walls, kicking down those presumptions, and kicking out the containers and the ways they’d been corralled and contained and made complacent. Just with a few concepts, a few bubbling concepts can spread like wildfire across the country as it did with Occupy. To feel the potential.

Nico—Or Black Lives Matter.

Anohni—To feel the potential, or people’s dawning realization that they have more agency than they imagined.

“We’ve been infantilized and given the opportunity to forfeit responsibility. We build a firewall between us and the truth of our responsibility for those things”

Nico—Yes, hip-hop music has been a politically charged thing since the beginning of this; it comes out of a politically charged moment. I’m interested that this album is not just an indictment of structures of yourself, but also feels like a way out; thinking about it in this critical way opens up this next world of possibility. This is something you talk about a lot in your work: a space beyond, another world, and that space is one where the actual ecological landscape is radically transformed or the power structure of violent men is undone.

Anohni—That reminds me about what I’ve been thinking: the concept of reality. This idea that we’ve been raised to believe— in America especially—at least two versions of reality: a liberal one and a conservative one. It’s like we’ve lost hold of an empirical reality, of a basic truth. Which I would also equate with how you’re describing the changing face of nature, which is a physical reality—how many fish are in the sea, what’s the temperature, how many animals are in that forest, how many dead bodies are in that pile, what did he say? What did she say? Yet like 100 years of advertising in America and this most virulent face of 20th-century advertising have convinced us that reality is utterly subjective and to discount a reality. Almost to a point where you can have a conversation about climate, and there is always going to be a forum for the climate denier. It’s paved the way for the hopeless spread of disinformation and consequent disempowerment that is its result. It brings me back to the idea of a court of law. Everyone is operating in America as if the defending lawyer and prosecuting lawyer both have a good point even though you know one of them is telling the truth and one is lying. That’s true in politics: the idea that reality itself is subject to a political opinion when in fact there is usually a physical reality, and someone is lying about it.

Nico—Or is so uninformed not to know they’re lying.

Anohni—Whether they’re lying consciously or unconsciously doesn’t really make much difference. There is still going to be a physical reality and a reality that is transpiring. That’s what the song “Marrow” is—that’s the physical reality transpiring while we’re fussing around with our delusions, identity politics, tribal warfare, sky-God religions and dystopian patriarchal mythologies that are supposed to climax in apocalypse, broken children, and minds which are barely off the Savannah in terms of psychic or spiritual development. Yet with this tool bag of exponentially developing technological resources, it’s kind of a perfect storm.

The idea with the album was to try to connect the dots and establish a circle around a range of issues. All of the things that are in everybody’s orbit—on Netflix, when you open the newspaper, in your intuition—to see the ways in which those different things don’t exist in separate vacuums. The way Black Lives Matter was like people going at the issue of race in America with a broomstick—trying to keep the ocean at bay as if it was an insular issue.

Nico—As if it wasn’t intersecting with a million different things.

Anohni—As if the current situation wasn’t the direct fruit of trickle-down economics and that black people’s lives in America are worse than they were even in the early 80s, because people are more disempowered than they were then financially—in terms of access to opportunity and resources that will support them. Yet you saw all these working-class cops reverting to racism and blame tactics to try to deal with it, or as a response to their own frustration, which they can’t really even put a finger on.

Nico—Can’t articulate

Anohni—They can’t see that they’ve just been boiled like lobsters in a pot for 40 years by trickle-down economics, and there is a reason they now need two parents working full-time to pay a shitty mortgage that’ll never get paid off; the kids can never afford college; they’ve lost their pensions and securities. They were fired and re-hired as temps or lost their job when the corporation extracted the last resources from that chicken village and was off to the next one. Those people are looking across the tracks and saying, “There’s a Mexican stealing my job. Let’s vote for a billionaire who is promising to get rid of that Mexican.” Then they’ve got Fox News fortifying them with 40 years of disinformation.

Nico—It’s a hall of mirrors.

Anohni—It has everything to do with neo-liberal capitalism; there is a reason why America is very comfortable continuing to circle race inequality for the rest of its days—it’s almost a delight for the country; it’s not as if we couldn’t resolve the crisis of race and opportunity disparity if we didn’t set our hearts to it.

Nico—We’re addicted to the cycle.

Anohni—Why is warring and hating on each other in working and middle class communities of different races, ethnicities, and backgrounds useful? Who isn’t being addressed in that conversation? As long as working and middle class people are hating on each other pointing fingers, they’re never going to look at stinking rich people. Obama shut down Occupy in a single day. It was a gesture we hadn’t seen in America since the shutdown of the Black Panthers. It posed a legitimate threat to the existing infrastructure. You could feel it, even on Fox News—you could see the shock on the news reporters’ faces as they said these things about the “99 percent.” It was redrawing the lines in this really profound way; it’s not Republican or Democrat, it’s not 50 percent of people support corporations and 50 percent support social justice—it’s like 99 percent of people are basically being slowly syphoned and fucked over, and one percent of people are bathing in the fruits of their pickings. I remember the excitement in America for those few weeks when it was being reported in the media.

Nico—It was thrilling.

Anohni—It was shocking; you could sense the potential for radical change. It was the same wave when we elected Obama and the whole world cried. He was given the Nobel Peace Prize just for giving stump speeches, because he evoked the great American leaders of the 20th century, like Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. What people wanted was a hero to lead them out.

Nico—Or a dad.

Anohni—It seems like we ended up realizing we wanted a dad, because I wasn’t going to put in the elbow grease beyond casting my vote. I was going to wait and see what he did. But the one thing I realized is how can you expect a system that has gotten us this embedded in dysfunction to extract us from that? It’s going to take a whole different kind of a movement or transformation. At the climate conference in Paris, Obama was giving his warm legacy handshakes and promising a 1.5 ̊C rise in temperature; In February it was 2 ̊C hotter in the Northern Hemisphere. We don’t even have a commitment on the table as to how we’re going to curb that.

I read this book by Jerry Mander, In the Absence of the Sacred. It described the emergence of 20th-century advertising and the ways corporations realized they could radically manipulate people’s sense of reality with it. When I went to Australia and was with the Aboriginal community, I saw that they didn’t have a dump because the concept of garbage was so new to them that they couldn’t actually fully comprehend it. They were building their houses with their plastic garbage. So many of the terms of our lives are sublimated givens that I can barely even imagine unpacking, as you say. Especially as an addict of first-world comforts and someone who fears the loss of my first-world comforts. This is the perfect means to create compliance. We’ve all been made compliant in this same manner with our computers and with all of these systems.

Singer Anohni tackles speaking out, oppression, and subversion with composer Nico Muhly

Digital Artwork Dreamer. Digital Capture DTouch. Hair Shay Ashual. Make up Isamaya Ffrench. Manicure Naomi Yasuda. Production AMP, Labs Production. Special thanks The Mercer.

Nico—I caught myself doing that to someone’s kids the other day: “These kids will shut up if I give them a candy bar.”

Anohni—Forget candy bar, it’s like give them a fucking Samsung, anything that we interface with. That’s the idea of this record: I cannot pretend that I can extricate myself from complicity. I am a part of this, and my body is a microcosm of the whole system, and the whole conflict exists within me. I cannot point my finger and say,“That one needs to be executed, that one needs to be executed,” because actually the whole thing is in me. The whole chasm of denial—the disparity between who I think myself to be and who I actually am—all exists within me. I wanted to do one thing on this record: model an investigation into that chasm of denial within myself.

Nico—This is connected to what you said before, the song “Another World.” Your work up until this point has been pointing towards this kind of investigation, but this is so explicit; it’s such a radical turn.

Anohni—“Another World” was almost too passive again, already a lost cause. It’s grieving for someone that’s dead, but it was like: “Why am I grieving when there is still life here? There is still stuff here, there is still fish in the seas.” There is still so much work to be done.

Nico—Not wishing for this annihilation.

Anohni—If anything, it’s almost playing into the bullshit, sky-God apocalyptic fantasy of an ascension to a paradise elsewhere, an ascension to a father God, as if the rational brain realizes the truth that it’s not rooted in nature.

Nico—It’s the return to God the Father in a garden, or somewhere else, and we’re not responsible.

Anohni—Where is the garden? I thought it was just a blistering, white hellhole with angels singing in eternity circling the stinking feet of our Father God [laughs].

Nico—Does the electronic idiom allow you to not be rooted, but it lets you break out of that compliant fantasy?

Anohni—I was becoming nauseated by my own passivity. I was scared to sing these songs. Every one of them scared the shit out of me and made me uncomfortable.

Nico—The song “Obama” is almost unlistenable as a song; it’s so weird-sounding.

Anohni—But I’m only reciting anything you could see on any Netflix documentary. What’s weird is to hear it in song.

Nico—Yes, in that register of your voice and in that unstable harmonic landscape.

Anohni—I’m just listing a few things he did: “You did some drone-bomb campaigns. You killed some kids. You executed Bin Laden without a trial; you didn’t offer him a Nuremberg. The only person you imprisoned for war crimes was Chelsea Manning for daring to mention them. I was the one that gave you my agency. I gave you that agency.”

Nico—Your shock at that realization is explicit. In that song you allow us the weirdness of that discovery.

Anohni—To me Obama was 100 times worse than the others, because I bought it. I campaigned for him in his first cycle round. I was telling everyone that the Messiah had arrived! He was a feminist; he was going to do us all good; his wife was so brilliant, she was going to be even more of a leader than him. Little did I know, she was going to be relegated to the vegetable garden.

He ended up being a typical Democrat president: reasonable, educated, intelligent, repugnantly bipartisan, repugnantly compromising in the fashion of Bill Clinton before. He’s following almost a blueprint for how a Democrat is to interface. I can’t even give him that much innocence; he campaigned on a platform of transparency. He said he was going to create transparency, but under his watch the NSA [mass surveillance] thing came out.

Nico—And the Freedom of Information requests are through the roof, and none of them are being granted.

Anohni—It’s super dark. He’s crying fat tears over Sandy Hook and children, just like those being executed every week with his drone campaigns. I was wondering if every president has to ultimately accept the fact that some day he’s going to have to kill someone? They have to hedge their bets and hope they’ve killed the least amount by killing that amount? But is that the one they give the Nobel Peace Prize to? Martin Luther King nominated Thich Nhat Hanh [the Buddhist monk] for a Nobel Peace Prize, like non-violence is a thing.

Nico—Right.

“How can you expect a system that has gotten us this embedded in dysfunction to extract us from that? It’s going to take a whole different kind of a movement or transformation.”

Anohni—And Germany is the only country in the European Union besides Sweden that has shown any kind of moral authority in responding to a refugee crisis that we—at least two-thirds—created as a country. Obama is sitting at SXSW telling everyone that he thinks America is pretty great! Meanwhile the whole of Europe is heaving under the horror of the fruit of American foreign policy.

I fucking went to the protests in 1991 when George Bush Sr. was going into the Gulf War. This has been going on for a quarter century. Everyone knew it was for oil and resources. And what is fucking Trump saying? We’re going to go in and get the rest of it.

Nico—It’s wild.

Anohni—Now fucking Trump says, “I won’t disclose my war strategies.” It’s obvious his plan is to send a nuclear bomb to Syria.

Nico—That’s scary as shit.

Anohni—And you’ve got poor white people thinking this billionaire is going to lead them home, suckered into thinking that the cause of their problems is their poor neighbors and not the fact that they’ve been maliciously and systematically stripped of agency and opportunity.

Nico—For the last 50 years.

Anohni—That was put in place after World War II for a reason. There is a reason why our parent’s generation did so well—because they were all living under the fruits of post-war socialism and a network of support for people to get an education and get ahead.

Nico—The G.I. Bill [which provided a benefit to army members], right.

Anohni—In Europe it was the same. The Guardian article about millennials was really great. I mean, how many people do you know with at least $50,000 debt just for going to school?

Nico—A bunch, I was one of them.

Anohni—You’re one in a million who now actually earns some money!

Nico—Exactly. It all goes right into my HMO [insurance], for fuck’s sake.

Anohni—Well, the part that isn’t being sent off to do more drone bombing.

Nico—Right, that part. They left me some to buy sneakers.

Anohni—My dad’s sister is a Lutheran pastor—generally a right-wing person. She lives in West Virginia, and after a decade of mountaintop removal, fracking, her three kids are literally right now at a Bernie Sanders rally. One of them took a semester off to work in the coal mining areas helping kids with congenital deformities. It’s interesting to watch things reconnect, realizing that being complicit in these systems of government structures is fucking us up. I’m interested to see what happens with the Sanders movement, because it reminds me of the build-up with Obama.

Nico—Yes, it’s the same push.

Anohni—I’m scared that it’s going to be similar. Nico—You’re scared that he would end up in the same boat as Obama if he were to win?

Anohni—It’s hard to know. I remember when Obama was running, it was the Obama versus Hillary people. Now it’s Hillary versus Bernie people. Really? This is what we’ve come to? Divide and conquer. We went through that with Nader. People wanted an out. It makes sense to want an out from this system.

Nico—You want to opt out.

Anohni—It’s: do you want a fast or slow train to hell?

Nico—Right.

Anohni—I’ll vote for the slow train. But it’s no option. It’s a big question because people are staring at this system which ostensibly is the only way forward. We’re trying to figure out how we move forward with these existing systems. The real question is, when is this finally going to stop? It’s going to be a much more uncomfortable transition than we could ever imagine. Or we can succumb to the very uncomfortable reality of what’s become, and enjoy the sinking ship. Or like what does it mean? What kind of a risk are we capable of taking as artists? What is our responsibility as artists in this conversation? Check in, check out.

This conversation first appeared in Document’s Spring/Summer 2016 issue.

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