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—It was 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 yes. 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; can I use the other six on my record?” And it developed from there.

NicoNico—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 digestible—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 and racial injustice in America.

Nico—Definitely race, poverty, and associated issues.

Anohni—Some of the songs have more of a cruel flip, but some are very direct. “Execution” almost has a sneer to it, while “Drone Bomb Me” or “4 Degrees” are very pure points of view, from my point of view ultimately. The approach is one I have utilized for a long time, expressing a confounding level of vulnerability in order to disarm a perpetrator. Or to address my own complicity on “4 Degrees.” I’m always surprised when people say, “That song is so ironic,” because it’s not; I am trying to give voice to the narrative underpinning my day-to-day behavior as a consumer, as opposed to the narrative of my idealized version of who I am or what I represent. 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 within our own imaginations. 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.” We claim not to be responsible even though we paid for those bombs to be made. We deny our personal responsibility for the government that we are paying to operate on our behalf or represent our 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 a strong indictment of his tenure as President; I also wanted to examine how—like children—we believed in him. I allowed myself to take a passive role, even though I voted. I felt I had fulfilled my role as a citizen and retreated for the most part. But once you start kicking out those walls, kicking down those presumptions, and dismantling the ways you’ve been corralled and made complacent, new concepts can start to bubble up, spread like wildfire across the country. Occupy was a beautiful example of that—a profound and burgeoning renewal of people’s sense of their own agency.

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

Nico—Or Black Lives Matter. I’m interested that this album 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—We’ve been raised to believe— in America especially—that there are at least two versions of reality: a liberal one and a conservative one. It’s like we’ve lost hold of our collective presumption that an empirical reality binds us all together… a basic truth. The changing face of nature is a physical reality—how many fish are in the sea, what’s the temperature, how many animals are in that forest, how many people were killed in the assault on Iraq, what did he say? What did she say? But 100 years of virulent advertising and the corporate spread of “disinformation” have left many feeling that reality is utterly subjective. We are all barraged by a constant stream of propaganda, often urging us to discount or dismiss a more empirical reality. The lying about climate science by the government and corporations is the most toxic example of this. I feel that all the other issues we are facing in society ultimately fold into one another and climax in ecocide. People are given false consumer choices as to which version of reality they want to believe. but one is simply lying, while the other might be telling something closer to the truth. And both options are presented by corporate media as equally weighted. It’s as if empirical reality itself is subject to a political opinion when in fact there is just a physical reality, and those who are lying about it.

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

Anohni—Whether they’re lying consciously or unconsciously doesn’t really make much difference. The song “Marrow” describes the physical reality of eco-collapse that is quietly transpiring while we fuss about with our delusions, our tribal alliances, apocalyptic sky-God religions and dystopian patriarchal mythologies. It’s a fucking hoax, designed to divorce us from the earth, to loosen our commitment to the earth, paving the way for wealth extraction. Fundamentalism is on the rise in the US and abroad. Wealth extractors are glad for us to avert our eyes heavenward while they plunder the ground below. But our mental vulnerability combined with exponentially developing technologies have created a perfect storm. On “Hopelessness,” I tried to connect the dots and draw a circle around a range of issues, to explore the ways in which those different issues were interconnected. Steve Bannon said that as long as we are focussed on feminism and Black Lives Matter, he would always win on a platform of economic nationalism. As painful as it is to acknowledge, part of our descent into identity politics in this country is a malevolent strategy that has been conceived of and stoked by the far right. To focus solely on reproductive rights or trans rights or Black Lives Matter, without tracing the underlying intention of these assaults on human rights back to corporations who seek to strip the last remaining wealth from the earth and its inhabitants, is like people trying to keep the ocean at bay with a broomstick. These things are utterly interconnected.

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

Anohni—As if the current situation wasn’t the direct consequence of Reagan’s lie about trickle-down economics, and as if most people’s lives in America aren’t worse than they were even in the early ’80s, in terms of access to opportunity and resources that will help them flourish. And now, thanks in part to Trump’s decision to inflame racial conflict, some white cops and communities are even more empowered in their embrace of racism, scapegoating, and blame tactics. A similar thing happened in Germany prior to World War II. Trump’s constant reiteration of the danger that Mexican and Central and South American immigrants pose is his version of Goebbels’ “Big Lie.”

Fox News junkies can’t see that they’ve been boiled like lobsters in a pot for 40 years, and they can’t hold onto the more insidious reasons why they now need both 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 their region and left them in the dust. Those people are saying, “There’s an immigrant somewhere, stealing my job. Let’s vote for a billionaire who is promising to get rid of these immigrants.” And their Fox News and Facebook feeds keep them plied with false evidence of this.

Nico—It’s a hall of mirrors.

Anohni—It has everything to do with late stage virulent capitalism; there is a reason why the US government has been encouraging deepening the racial divide in the US, and promoting the hatred of women on a daily basis, transphobia, etc.

Nico—We’re addicted to the cycle.

Anohni— As long as we are hating each other, we’re not going to look at stinking rich people in their faraway communities. Obama and the FBI shut down Occupy across the country in a single day. It was a profound and devastating gesture, that in a small way echoed the brutal suppression of the Black Panthers. Occupy was beginning to pose 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 a vivid and simple way of redrawing the lines that divide Americans; suddenly it was not Republican or Democrat, or 50 percent of people supporting corporations and 50 percent support social justice—it was 99 percent of people being slowly syphoned of life blood, and one percent of people luxuriating in that blood. I remember the excitement in the US for those few weeks when Occupy was being reported in the media.

Nico—It was thrilling.

Anohni— The potential for radical change was suddenly palpable. I had the same feeling when we elected Obama, and the whole world cried. He was given the Nobel Peace Prize just for giving good stump speeches, because he evoked the great American leaders of the 20th century… 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 once 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 manipulate people and ply the public with narcotic goods while hiding the possible long terms affects of those goods on people’s lives and environments. A couple of years ago I went to the Western Australian Desert to spend time with the Martu Aboriginal community. I noticed that they didn’t have a way to get rid of garbage in their remote community, and yet they were being plied with a constant stream of plastics, which were being flown in for their consumption. And there is no way to be rid of these plastics besides burning them. It all just blows around in the streets, in a tiny village in the middle of the desert. Consuming in the Western style requires that the community endure the consequent presence of these materials. But unlike those in most of the Western world, the repercussions of consumerism aren’t being hidden from them in some faraway dump.

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—Give them a smartphone. You may as well give them heroin. I cannot pretend that I am not complicit. I am a part of this, and my body is a microcosm of the whole system, and the conflict exists within me. The whole chasm of denial—the disparity between who I think myself to be and who I actually am… I wanted to model an investigation into that 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” started to feel too passive. I was grieving, but there is still stuff here. There are still fish in the sea. Grieving something that was still alive began to feel decadent. There is so much work that can still be done.

Nico—Not wishing for this annihilation.

Anohni—If anything, it’s almost playing into the bullshit, sky-god apocalyptic fantasy that this world has to collapse in order for the chosen “saved” few to ascend to a paradise elsewhere.

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 of heaven? I thought it was just a blistering, white hellhole with angels singing in eternity while shrimping 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 listed 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 the execution of a Reuter’s journalist. And I helped to give 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 more disappointing that other presidents, simply because I actually bought it. I campaigned for him in his first cycle. I was telling everyone that someone heroic had arrived! He was a feminist; he was going to do us all good; his wife was so brilliant. Little did I know, she was going to be relegated to the vegetable garden.

But he ended up being a typical Democrat president: reasonable, educated, intelligent, repugnantly bipartisan, repugnantly compromising in the fashion of Bill Clinton before him. He’s following almost a blueprint for how a Democrat is to interface. He campaigned on a platform of 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 for the children of Sandy Hook; what about the kids being executed every week with his drone campaigns? I wonder if every president has to ultimately accept the fact that he’s going to have to kill innocent people? They have to hedge their bets and hope they’ve killed the least amount possible? 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. Non-violence is a thing.


“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—Germany is the only country in the European Union besides Sweden that has shown any kind of moral authority in responding to the latest refugee crisis we had a large hand in creating. Obama is sitting at SXSW telling everyone that he thinks America is pretty great! Meanwhile Europe is cracking under the weight and strain of failed, brutal American foreign policies. I 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 then it was for oil and resources. And what is fucking Trump saying now? We’re going to go in and get the rest of it.

Nico—It’s wild.

Anohni—Now Trump says, ‘I won’t disclose my war strategies.’ I fear his plan is to send a nuclear bomb to Syria. One of his campaign bylines was ‘the first person since Truman with the courage to send a nuclear missile.’

Nico—That’s scary as shit.

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

Nico—For the last 50 years.

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

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

Anohni—In Europe it was the same. The recent 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. 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.

Anohni—I’m interested to see what happens with the Sanders movement. 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. People wanted an out. It makes sense to want an out from this system.

Nico—You want to opt out.

Anohni—Do we want a fast or slow train to hell?


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 to come, and enjoy the sinking ship. But 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?

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