Anohni :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

Anohni has been making transcendent, unearthly music for more than two decades now. Her latest album, My Back Was a Bridge for You to Cross, is perhaps her best yet, mining a rich vein of classic soul to deliver impassioned lyrics about love, gender identity, intergenerational connection, and the climate crisis. 

We spoke one Friday afternoon about her long-standing love for soul music, which she discovered first through new wave aficionados but later traced back to the source. The music was more than an aesthetic for a non-conforming pre-teen in strait-laced 1980s England, Anohni recalls. It offered a way to live and feel authentically. “Within my own life in the early 1980s as a kid, listening to Boy George on a cassette tape at my grandmother’s house, I was feeling these feelings in my chest that I’d never felt before,” she says. “Or I was hearing Allison Moyet and having this overwhelming physical experience of feeling.”

That thread of authenticity—of seeing the world as it is and cutting through its mythologies—drives much of Anohni’s work and, in particular, her focus on climate change. We talked about how she sees the world as interconnected across generations and species and how we shut that out, causing a pervading sense of unease and falseness. Her latest album is unlikely, underserved solace for the first real summer of climate cataclysm, when the facts of rising temperatures, raging wildfires and deadly storms broke through and overwhelmed disinformation. 

Yet even in crisis, music can convey and reinforce resilience. Says Anohni of her first brush with soul music: “Through a voice or through listening to music or by imitating this sound, people found that they could embody and manifest an expression of their lives that felt representative of what was really happening to them. As opposed to this intensely disembodied experience of being told that life was one way but feeling deeply, deeply that it’s another way.”  | j kelly

AQUARIUM DRUNKARD: I’m loving this album. It’s so beautiful. It has a wonderful classic soul sound to it, and I understand you were inspired, at least partly, by Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. I was wondering if you could tell me about how you first connected with soul music and why it spoke to you?

ANOHNI: The way I think of it now is that I first connected with soul music through new wave music. Through certain singers of new wave in the U.K. in the early 1980s. People like Boy George, Allison Moyet, Helen Terry, certain singers that were singing in the American style, in a soulful style. Even, at times, Annie Lennox. That was my first brush with the resonance of soul music, but at the time I didn’t understand what it was. 

As I got older, I started to understand more of the lineage of that sound and a trail of breadcrumbs led me back to Black American soul music of the 1950s and 1960s and into the 1970s. I started listening to Otis Redding and Nina Simone and also I loved jazz singers, classic jazz singers, and Ray Charles and Donny Hathaway and Marvin Gaye.

AD: Wonderful stuff. 

ANOHNI: Classic people. As I got into my early 20s, I started listening more to Donny Hathaway and that was when I first heard What’s Going On

AD: Was it the message or the way it sounded or some combination of the two things that really got to you?

ANOHNI: My ground zero as a singer was really Nina Simone just because of how visceral her approach to singing was. Marvin Gaye’s voice was so different, as was Donny Hathaway’s. There was a much more discrete emotionality to the tone and to the way they formed the sounds. At first, it didn’t draw me in as much. But as I’ve gotten older, I think I’ve come to understand and appreciate more of this kind of subtle undertow as a central emotional touchstone in the music. It’s more of a subtle undertow as opposed to something that’s riding on the surface of everything. It’s embedded. At first, it might seem almost disembodied slightly because when you’re singing about something so intensely sad, but singing about it with this bubbling brook of joy behind you, with this tone of gentle, persistent joy it’s disorienting. But it’s something I appreciate more and more as I get older. 

AD: Has this kind of music been a constant presence for you or is there something about right now that made you want to go back to it?

ANOHNI: I would say all this music is foundational for me. I’ve been thinking a lot about why as an English child I was listening to English 20-year-olds singing heartbreaking songs in American accents. I’ve been trying to understand what that meant and what had happened there culturally. I’ve come up with some theories about it…

AD: Such as?

ANOHNI: One of my theories is that when African American singers arrived in the U.K. in the 1950s and 1960s, they introduced what widely is now considered kind of a technology or modality based on a creative transformation of profound lived experience. They modeled resilience in music. Soul music gave an example of how to endure and even find triumphant self-expression within unendurable conditions. 

Self-censorship that was so much a part of British culture, especially for working people. They didn’t have access to any kind of ecstatic processes prior to the arrival of Black American music—and white American music—but all leading from Black American music. Within my own life in the early 1980s as a kid, listening to Boy George on a cassette tape at my grandmother’s house, I was feeling these feelings in my chest that I’d never felt before. Or I was hearing Allison Moyet and having this overwhelming physical experience of feeling. I was noticing physically that a space was being forged for a much deeper and realer physical expression of what was happening emotionally and psychically to that singer, and, in proxy, to me as a listener. It was a way of being. There was a sense of survival to it. Kids especially in the U.K. were obsessed with music. I came from a culture where all the kids were obsessed with music and had been obsessed with music since that first American wave.

AD: Did you grow up in a city or the country or a small town?

ANOHNI: I grew up in the south of England. But I wonder if that obsession with music wasn’t born of that first wave of American music arriving in the U.K. and setting the imagination of British children on fire. Through a voice or through listening to music or by imitating this sound, people found that they could embody and manifest an expression of their lives that felt representative of what was really happening to them. As opposed to this intensely disembodied experience of being told that life was one way but feeling deeply, deeply that it’s another way. Having no outlet or roadmap or means to express that. The kind of psychotic petrochemical white world of the 1950s and 1960s that led to a youth culture explosion was hugely ignited by this looking at, observing and imitating other people who had a much more seasoned and lived access to self-expression.

AD: So, you’re a young kid. You’re listening to stuff and having a profound experience. Did you know at that point that you were going to make music yourself?

ANOHNI: No. I thought I was going to be a drawer. I thought I was going to be doing visual art, drawings and stuff. I spent most of the first ten years of my life drawing. It was really hearing Boy George singing that kind of changed my track. Boy George and Allison Moyet. I started to see that there was oxygen in that line of work. It started to feel like part of a survival strategy for me. That I could have an emotional life that was congruous with my lived experience if I sang. Especially as a trans kid

That was all wrapped up with this sort of presentation in the 1980s, this idea of gender variance and self-expression and emotions and the naming of them. Like to represent a transcendental kind of emblem of what that feels like. When Boy George sang, “Do you want to hurt me?” it became universal, a universal song, played hundreds of millions of times all over the planet, this super feminine, London Irish, post-teenager, he was probably 19 or 20 years old, singing with this voice like Smokey Robinson meets Millie Jackson. It was a message of disarming vulnerability but it almost weaponized vulnerability in a form that was not only completely taboo but sort of shameful and dangerous. And yet some of the kids who were post-punk were going in like that. The post-punk moment was a moment where everyone was grabbing all the tools that were available to them with little regard. Everything was about re-appropriation to express what was happening at the moment in that culture. 

AD: I’ve been thinking about how popular some of that outsider art was in the 1980s. Boy George and I’ve also been thinking about Sinéad O’Connor. These were massive artists and so different from what the culture was at that point.

ANOHNI: Both Sinéad and George were post-punks. Sinéad is probably two or three years younger than George and I’m four years younger than Sinéad. For me, they were young adults and I was a pre-teen. So I was watching with eyes like saucers. They came out of a very tough, misogynist British punk environment, which was not a very …

AD: Welcoming?

ANOHNI: Yeah, it was a tough gig. There were a bunch of queens and queers, which created offshoots. And also punk women created new forms. Siouxsie Sioux was a big person in that regard, who forged a whole new kind of world. But coming out of that basically kind of hardcore scene. But it wasn’t like the New York world of CBGBs which was kind of dopey and romantic. The U.K. version of punk was kind of scary and political and violent. There was a lot of street violence and gang violence. And they were very divided. They were fascist and anti-fascist. There were subcultural wars taking place. It was all tied up in class politics as well. It was mostly working class people, or the kids of working class people. So there was a lot to do with class. And class is more elusive to Americans.

AD: We have race instead.

ANOHNI: Well, you do have class in America, but we don’t think about it as much. In Britain everyone’s raised with this…

AD: We’re all temporarily embarrassed billionaires here.

ANOHNI: Exactly. In the U.K., class is more like caste.

AD: I just love the image of the title, My Back Was a Bridge for You to Cross. It’s so strong and full of love and suffering and endurance and resilience. I was wondering how you came to that image and what it means and especially who is the “you”? 

ANOHNI: There isn’t one “you.” It’s a gesture. One of the you’s is me. My focus in my work for a long time has had an ancestral focus in it. And also reaching forward into the future. Future iterations and generations. This idea of porousness, the porousness of the individual experience and that it’s actually connected to a longer line even though we might not want to recognize that. 

AD: What do you mean by “porousness”?

ANOHNI: It’s the idea that as individuals we’re not as much islands as we have been raised to believe. We’re an iteration of generations of people that came before us. We’re a new iteration of feelings and thoughts and gestures and material and biology that’s been pouring forth forever.The idea is that we might have some kind of creative access to all of the dreams that are inside everyone from every iteration of our ancestry, that we might be able to forge some access to that as a living experience, as opposed to an abstraction. But obviously I’m talking also about…Marsha P. Johnson is on the cover.

AD: Can you tell me more about her?

ANOHNI: She is someone I named my group after when I was in my early 20s. A different group. A performing group. She’s a human rights activist from New York City who passed away in 1992. She’s become a lot more famous in the last couple of years because there was a movie about her on Netflix, and now she’s widely heralded as a founding figure in LGBTQ/POC/trans homeless youth/sex worker advocacy. She’s a really important pioneer from the Village in New York City and someone who was always noted for being particularly “Jesus-y.” I would say she was like Jesus as a girl. People recognized her as a saint in her own lifetime. Other queens considered her a living bodhisattva. Like Agosto Machado talks about her as a bodhisattva. She had an angelic presence and she left an angelic impression on the people that interacted with her.

AD: Did you ever meet her?

ANOHNI: Yeah, I met her one time. I used to see her a lot on the street, but I actually talked to her just one time, just briefly. But I’d been told by my elders in the club scene that she was important. I’d been directed towards her, directed to respect her by older people on the scene. They felt that she was kind of a ground zero for a lot of us. A major source of inspiration. 

AD: And she was someone who offered her back as a bridge?

ANOHNI: Yeah, she’s a very good example of this. I think about it in every aspect. Across species and as an interdependent part of nature. I think about it in regards to motherhood. The bitterness of motherhood. The fact that oftentimes a mother will sacrifice her spine to her children to help them get from one place to another. To move with safety from a less safe place to a more safe place. She’ll offer her back as that bridge. That’s a part of the bitterness of motherhood. It’s a kind of a hardness within motherhood, the calcification of that spine so that it’s strong enough to bear the weight of others on it. 

AD: You touched on this, but I did want to ask you about the issue of climate change, which I’m hearing a lot on “Why Am I Alive?” and maybe it’s elsewhere as well. Do you want to talk about how you became interested in that and how you look at it? How did you get involved in climate advocacy and how do you think artists should be active in that area?

ANOHNI: I remember being 16 or 17 years old and reading articles. We’d moved to America and I was reading articles in the San Jose Mercury News predicting what weather would be like in 2020 or 2030. I still have this article. It was describing a lot of the conditions that we’re experiencing now globally, a lot of the cataclysm. That was when it first struck me. 

But even earlier than that, there seemed to be something that intuitively for me wasn’t right. It’s one of my earliest memories, thinking that there’s something not right with the way we’re living. I couldn’t articulate it.

In my early teens, I started to connect more with people with pagan practices, people in the Santa Cruz mountains, feminist pagan circles and Wiccans. They started to shed light on the idea that the earth was a living single body. The Gaia principle. These people were a little bit older than me when I was in my mid-teens. They really helped me to understand why was feeling so much discord between what I’d been told about the structure of the world and what it actually was. 

I’d been raised as a Catholic. The Catholic faith was always telling you that only human beings had a soul and that nothing else living had a soul. I didn’t understand how that could be. There was this idea that there was a special destination for human souls but nothing else in creation went to that same place. I didn’t understand how that could be true. A lot of the tenets of the religion were very alienating to me. It wasn’t until I met people who were talking about more feminine ideas about creation and the manifestation of the world and its spirituality as a single object that I began to feel more comfortable. 

But as soon as you inhale that idea, then you have to start to reckon with what is happening to nature. You have a different relationship to materiality in nature. It’s not just human bodies, but animal bodies, landscape bodies, mineral bodies, forest bodies, ocean bodies. When I studied Butoh in my early 20s, that really helped me get into a more animist approach to materiality. The idea that nature and the dance of atoms within all things is an aspect of creativity, and really, an aspect of femininity. It has an aspect of living essence.Everything has a value. 

All of those things were dawning on me as those first reports started to be rolled out in the mainstream newspapers. They weren’t really censored at first. In 1986, 1987, 1988, the conversation in the main newspapers was talking about what was going to happen. They were syndicated around the U.S. Then a disinformation campaign started shortly thereafter. 

By this time, I had become a young adult. I was suddenly in a very different kind of urban environment where there was so much death and those two issues became married together in my mind. AIDS became a kind of microcosmic experience of eco-collapse or what was being forecast and which was already taking place within biodiversity. 

It had been happening for decades, the collapse of biodiversity. Marvin Gaye, for instance, was singing about it by 1971. It wasn’t a new idea born of the late 1980s. It was an idea born a hundred years ago. They were talking about it during the Victorian era. The beginning of the industrial revolution. We were just at a different point on the line. 

My eyes were opening and I was taking it in. When I was in college in 1989, there was the hole in the ozone. I just remember distinctly moving to New York City and I took a class on feminism and ecology taught by Karen Malpede who is a playwright. She was also a big influence on me. And I remember walking outside after class one day and just feeling for the first time that the quality of the sunlight had changed. In 1990. I had a physical feeling that something was happening on a scale that my parents couldn’t conceive of. 

My parents were raised to believe that it would be impossible for humanity to impact something as huge as the climate of the earth. My parents had had the experience of London being filled with smog. But ecology was considered more of a local environment. That was what people were concerned with. Is our river clean? Is our sky clean? But then with the anti-nuclear protests, for the first time, people had to reconcile with the fact that we could have a global impact. We were facing a nuclear Armageddon. Those women—the protestors were mostly women—were the first to visualize that. 

But by the early 1990s, everything was so steeped in denial. The Moral Majority had already had ten years head start. The corporations jumped on board with the Moral Majority with their disinformation campaigns and their think tanks, and then those corporate think tanks really defined the next 20 years of popular American thought and consciousness about global warming. So if you were a kid or a young adult who had absorbed the first wave of information, the plug was pulled. Maybe every two months, there would be a small article on the cover of the New York Times saying that the polar ice caps were going to melt. But it was disembodied. The paper wasn’t holding a space grave enough, with the gravity that such a statement seemed to mandate. 

AD: I just wanted to go back to what the role for an artist like yourself is. Can you cut through the disinformation?

ANOHNI: I’ve been thinking about all this. I’ve been thinking about my grandmother. I remember in 1987 or 1986, going to visit my grandmother, and she was laughing to me that she was going to have to knit sweaters for the birds because she had read in the paper that they were forgetting to migrate. She had a sixth grade education. She was a washerwoman from Ireland. And she seemed to have more clarity about what was happening than her sons, who had Ph.D.s. Just by listening to the local lore, whatever was in the newspaper, and observing what was happening outside. 

I’ve thinking a lot about that as I listen to Vandana Shiva, the Indian eco-feminist and philosopher. She’s very beautiful and articulate. She says that knowledge is contained in the peasants. The peasants know and the women know and the indigenous people know. I thought that was a beautiful way of framing knowledge because the word that came to me the other day was “common sense.” You know? 

The disinformation goes back to the founding mythologies of the Catholic Church. How powerful does a mythology have to be that it can disorient people’s understanding that female bodies create male bodies, that boys’ bodies pour from female creativity, and are entirely composed, at birth, of womens’ bodies. How powerful was the disinformation that even women started to accept that their role was just as a portal through which maleness poured. That femaleness was just a passing station through which male genius and male spirituality poured. 

You think about the level of common sense that people would have to abandon. They would have to abandon their empirical observations of the world in order to acquiesce to that idea, over how many centuries. And under what duress? Watching how many people be executed for not co-signing those ideas? I mean, women being burned at the stake. How did we become so compliant, so easily, so willingly? To abandon our empirical perceptions of reality. To a point where it’s like now, we’re living in the lobster pot. In the space of 20 years, global warming has gone from something people had no interest in exploring or they underestimated or denied, to this kind of resigned acceptance of its inevitability. They skipped the whole part where…

AD: We figure out how to fix it?

ANOHNI: Or even more, what’s our empirical relationship to this? How are we physically, mechanically invested in furthering this cataclysm to unfold? It’s almost like there’s this disembodiment. I feel like it’s such a huge theme, this disembodiment. Like there’s reality and there’s what we’re told, and what are people going to run with? 

I think it defines this sleeping soul, which pretty aptly describes me and almost everyone I know on some level. We’re still asleep, because we can’t seem to wake up to our causal relationship to the undermining of our life source. Only a suicidal animal would seek to doom future generations and would seek to author the demise of creation. What kind of a mind is in such a stress position that it thinks that’s the right option? To me, that’s what I want to talk about, Why can’t we imagine another way forward? Why our response to this in the face of our sugar lumps of consumerism and petrochemical comforts will always trump the sirens calling us in the future and now increasingly in the present. The denial has become the primary mechanism underscoring our momentum forward. Even to engage in the day to day, even to go to the grocery store, we have to engage in denial. 

I see this playing out with Sinéad. Everybody lionizing Sinéad…[earlier] if you’d asked anyone about Sinéad, three-quarters of them would have told you she was a crazy woman. I never heard anyone, only me, actually, I’m one of the only people I know to say that Sinéad’s decision to to convert to Islam was a gesture of radical empathy at a time of unprecedented Islamophobia in Europe, especially against women. She converted to Islam at the same moment that Denmark banned Islamic women from wearing burkas in public. Two years before COVID, when everyone had to wear a mask. You know, but two years before that, Islamic women had been banned from wearing masks. 

AD: That’s a complicated subject because wearing a burka is not always a free decision for women. 

ANOHNI: You could say that, but the idea of decreeing on their behalf what they could be allowed to wear…What Sinéad did was primarily identify with and offer support and love to Islamic women with that gesture. But it was at the cost of the loathing and derision of all Western society. It was considered another one of her madnesses. In the beginning of this year, she got an award in Ireland, and she said, from the stage, “I love all immigrants. All immigrants are welcome here. I love you all very much.” And in Ireland almost every village is overwhelmed with Ukrainian refugees.

But my point is that it’s only now when she’s gone that people become comfortable with naming her as an ethical cornerstone. But while she’s alive, it’s too threatening. It’s too dangerous. There’s a correlation between our cannibalistic consumption of popular figures and our unwillingness to co-sign their ethical gestures. Our hunger to eat their values posthumously is a kind of denial. We have this set of disembodied values hovering somewhere in our imagination, but we’re trapped in a cycle of unsustainable, unethical choices. There’s this weird parallel in watching people respond to Sinéad’s passing. How many more times are we going to do this? It reminds me of the Lady Diana thing, where people were just eating her alive and then she was coronated as a saint.

AD: Have you thought about your own legacy? How would you like to be remembered, if at all?

ANOHNI: I don’t think my legacy is that important, to be honest. I don’t really care about legacy. I care more about the present. I care about right now, but I don’t care about what people think of me and I doubt people will think of me.

AD: I bet they will.

ANOHNI: When people die, I watch how it works and it doesn’t last. It peters out. The system is so broken. We’re really not well. We’re not well as a species. 

The Iroquois law of seven generations says that you don’t introduce a technology that you can’t guarantee will have a beneficial effect on a child born in seven generations time. But in order to do that, you have to remember seven generations of your family story. We’re training ourselves not to remember one week of our own story. We’re just shortening and shortening our memory. 

I watch the sheep in the field, and they can’t remember the door they came in through. And if you watch a sheep, she starts to panic because she doesn’t even know what door she came through, how to get out of a place she walked herself into. It reminds me of us. We’re literally shortening our memory cycle. 

They call it a diminishing baseline in science. The grandmother sees 200 birds on the line. The son sees 100 birds. The grandson sees 10 birds. The great grandson sees two birds. Each generation believes that’s the normal amount of birds. But if the grandmother remembers that her great, great, great grandmother saw 5,000 birds and keeps that memory alive and injects that memory into her grandson, that’s seven generations. So then the seventh generation child is thinking where are the 5,000 birds that I never saw? There’s no child asking to see an empirical expression of nature that they haven’t experienced themselves. It’s a malevolent design. This is fucking evil design, and it’s designed to increase our complicity and compliance as consumers in a death cycle. 

How do we dig out? I don’t really care about my legacy but what

but what I want do to in media and in conversations with the public, I want to ask can we even imagine changing? At this point it’s a fantasy. Can we even imagine changing that dynamic? Can we fix this level of brokenness or are we just terminal at this point?

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