Music’s transcendent truth-teller talks subcultural beginnings, the “loathing and idiocy” faced by trans artists and the anger that fuelled the most exhilarating record of her career
Taken from the spring/summer 2016 issue of Dazed:
“I want to burn the sky, I want to burn the breeze,” sings an ecstatic voice that blazes out of the chaos. “I want to see the animals die in the trees. Let’s go! Let’s go! It’s only four degrees.” With an opening drumbeat that ricochets like a gunshot, experiencing “4 Degrees” – the first single from Anohni’s new album Hopelessness – is like an assault on the senses, hitting you in the heart and stopping you in your tracks. Variously honeyed, distorted and unleashed, Anohni’s voice caustically relays truths most people would prefer to avoid. But for the artist formerly known as Antony Hegarty, the truth has always been essential. This time, it’s amplified.
“Obviously, I’m spitting that stuff out with total vitriol and heartbrokenness, but I could definitely dance to it,” says Anohni. “I could scream with joy for that. At least I’m alive.” The bold voice that anchors this glittering record is a contrast to the gentle figure before me today, dressed in casual black Givenchy and kindly offering to make tea as we settle down to talk. Speaking with her is a synapse-firing experience. Everything connects in bright and often unexpected ways. Even the location of our interview – a quiet hotel just a stone’s throw from Smithfield meat market – carries an echo of her beginnings as an artist in New York’s underground during the early 90s. It was here, in Manhattan’s Meatpacking District and other disavowed spots around the city, that she and the Blacklips Performance Cult would stage their brand of musical theatre, often tossing blood and offal into the audience.
This new album, co-produced with electronic experimentalists Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never, is a radical wake-up call and an exhilarating sonic departure from the graceful torch ballads she is primarily known for. It also coincides with her recent decision to change her name from Antony to Anohni, a long-held private moniker – a deeply empowering step after years spent advocating for trans issues as a trans artist, yet still having to endure the pain of being referred to by a male pronoun. “I was always squirming with discomfort, because I couldn’t really show you who I was very effectively in a way you could understand, in a way that you would mirror back to me and accept,” she says. “That’s a big part of it, with being a trans person: simply being mirrored back and acknowledged, to be seen in a way that makes you feel visible.”
“The idea of the voice separating from the body is another sub-theme of this record,” the British-born, NYC-based artist continues. “(It’s about) the body being almost annihilated, about not being able to negotiate with it any more, especially in the presentation of the music. I’m working with all these ideas about avatars and the voice being the pure message, and how I never really felt comfortable giving you this body.”
Anohni’s commitment to telling the truth, to opening our eyes and keeping them open even when it might be painful to do so, is the thread that runs through her 25-year career, which takes in four studio albums with the band Antony and the Johnsons (one of which scooped the Mercury Music Prize in 2005), collaborations with the likes of Lou Reed and Björk, performance and visual art works, and her manifesto-cum-exhibition Future Feminism. “Anohni is the most courageous, visionary interdisciplinary artist I’ve ever known,” says longtime friend Kembra Pfahler, of The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black. “She’s holding our eyes open by way of song, words and artworks so we don’t miss the dying beauty and the quickly disappearing species. Her work has changed the way we see.”
“I come from the Aids era. What queens were doing on their deathbeds, besides feeling excruciating pain, was laughing their fucking heads off” – Anohni
Anohni’s history on the club scene – performing in those unloved spaces inhabited by “a sub-class of people that couldn’t really get along in daylight culture” – is precisely what gives her such a unique and clear-eyed vantage on the mainstream. “I come from the Aids era,” she says, with startling frankness. “What queens were doing on their deathbeds, besides feeling excruciating pain, was laughing their fucking heads off. The bitterest joke, the bitterest fun, can always be had when you’re telling the truth. I don’t see any conflict between exuberant dancing and telling the truth, because I’m dancing with rage.”
A few days before this year’s Oscars, Anohni published a searingly honest essay online outlining her reasons for boycotting the event, after she was nominated for best original song (for her collaboration on “Manta Ray”, from the documentary Racing Extinction) yet not invited to perform. “The truth is that I was not groomed for stardom and watered down for your enjoyment,” she wrote. “As a transgendered artist, I have always occupied a place outside of the mainstream. I have gladly paid a price for speaking my truth in the face of loathing and idiocy.”
In fact, Anohni has always had to fight to get her voice heard. “I spent ten years being told there was no way I was going to have a career because I was so effeminate,” she explains. Even when we spoke a couple of weeks before she posted the essay, she expressed her reservations about Hollywood, uneasy with the way it likes to “buff and puff” minority groups, and joked that she might pull a Marlon Brando if she actually won.
“My favourite moment from the Oscars was when Brando didn’t attend and sent a Native American woman to talk about Wounded Knee,” she says, with a glint in her eye. “She delivered a very unpopular and lengthy monologue about the injustice for indigenous people in North America. It was one of the greatest moments in American television.” In choosing not to attend the ceremony, Anohni’s actions and words came as a powerful counterpoint in an awards race fraught with controversy. “I enjoy that wild and reckless exhilaration that comes from naming my truth as best as I can,” she wrote.
Anohni’s openness as a lyricist and performer can be an unsettling, transcendent thing to experience. But it’s that wild and reckless exhilaration, that commitment to telling her truth, which touches and draws people to her. “(Anohni) is a true poet, and only words of beauty come out of her mouth,” says Riccardo Tisci, creative director of Givenchy, who art-directed the video for the second single from the album, a piece of swelling, shimmering electronica called “Drone Bomb Me”. “That is because they do not come only from the brain, they come from the heart.” A love song told from the perspective of an Afghan girl whose family has been executed by drones, the video stars a weeping Naomi Campbell wearing custom Givenchy, lip- syncing Anohni’s doleful, voluptuous vocals. It’s a striking and beautiful testament to Anohni and Tisci’s close creative partnership, which goes back many years. “I can’t go to sleep if I don’t know how she is doing,” says Tisci. “She is like a light in my life.”
“Anohni is a true poet, and only words of beauty come out of her mouth... That is because they do not come only from the brain, they come from the heart” – Riccardo Tisci
For Givenchy’s SS16 campaign, Tisci invited Anohni to write a poem to complement the emotionally charged show he presented in New York on the anniversary of 9/11, celebrating his ten years at the house as well as the city which has been so important to him. “We wanted to have a cast composed of our family, the models I have discovered and worked with faithfully over the last decade – ‘the gang’, as we like to call it,” recalls Tisci. “And to make this gang complete, I needed Anohni.” The poem reads, “I am a child on the river and love waits downstream / A waterfall to steal my breath and change my mind”. It sits in her own neat cursive at the bottom right-hand corner of Mert and Marcus’s series of New York-set group shots for the campaign.
Writing it was a moving experience, Anohni explains, because it “suggests that it’s the things I don’t know about the future that can really change me. I say all these things and I’m so sure I know what’s going on, or I’m so desperately trying to understand what’s going on, but then love will strike you. It will hit you in a way... something will hit you...” Her gaze abstracts as she searches for the right words, and it’s one of the few moments in her highly articulate conversation where she is, briefly, at a loss. “God – God’s the wrong word – goddess or nature will conspire to transform you in a way you couldn’t have imagined.”
“The bitterest joke, the bitterest fun, can always be had when you’re telling the truth. I don’t see any conflict between exuberant dancing and telling the truth, because I’m dancing with rage” – Anohni
The loyalty that Anohni inspires in her constellation of friends – including Pfahler, Tisci, Laurie Anderson and the artist Johanna Constantine, whom she has known ever since she was a make-up-wearing teen raised on death rock, Kate Bush and new wave – is fierce. Her friendships and collaborations have a symbiotic quality, based on mutual appreciation of each other’s work and a deep sense of creative trust and freedom. “She’s so protective of me,” says Marina Abramović, who asked Anohni to compose the music for the experimental opera of her life, The Life and Death of Marina Abramović.
Anohni, in turn, inspires her friends to step out of their own worlds into completely different spaces. “I’m always rejecting this idea of feminism, but she did something to me I’ll never, ever forget,” says Abramović, remembering the talk she gave as part of Anohni’s 2012 Meltdown. “She asked me how I would feel about giving a lecture only for women. I never felt such incredible unity and this kind of female energy, this protection. At the end of the talk, I undressed completely and everyone stood up from their chairs and it was so incredibly moving. I remember nobody took photos, there were no snapshots or selfies – the moment was more important. It was Anohni doing this to me.”
There’s an inherent bravery in the way Anohni approaches her work, especially on Hopelessness, where she sings about difficult, frightening subjects like ecocide and drone warfare, even addressing the outgoing US president directly on the chillingly distorted track “Obama”. With the new record, she raises important questions about what we let in – and what we shut out – in order to survive. “Most of us are trying to shut out as much information as possible and (...) not take on board things we can’t change, which is very wise,” she says. “But, at the same time, sometimes you inhale the picture just before you go to sleep, and I would venture to suggest that 95 per cent of people, when they do that, are pretty darkly overwhelmed.” This refusal to ignore the bigger picture goes back to her desire to move through discomfort, to throw light on the things we so often block out. She has often cited Leigh Bowery’s embrace of embarrassment as a liberating principle in her life, helping her to move beyond the sense of shame that inevitably accompanies opening oneself up to an audience and showing them who you are.
“I always say about this album, you hear dancing, but when you hear the words, you hear crying at the same time. That’s the power of it” - Marina Abramović
As an artist long accustomed to clearly seeing things as they are, it is only right that we see her as she is. That state of intuitive vigilance is the only real condition, she thinks, for a subculture to exist in our diffuse, atomised world. When I ask whether she thinks that today’s New York could nurture a subculture like the one she came up in, she asks, “What is subcultural? It’s not dressing up in the way that dressing up in the 80s was subcultural. Lady Gaga sells that as fodder. The most banal fodder is a Leigh Bowery impersonation.
“It’s way deeper. What’s subcultural now is literally just a line of thinking, which is trying to be eyes wide open, in my view. It’s no longer attached to a specific demographic or specifically downtrodden groups of people, it’s much more free-floating, and you don’t know where you’re going to find it. To me, that’s subcultural, and it can take many guises. It can be beautiful, it can be exquisite. It could take almost any form.
The form it’s currently taking might just be the most vital of Anohni’s entire career. “It’s one of her best works,” says Abramović of Hopelessness. “I always say about this album, you hear dancing, but when you hear the words, you hear crying at the same time. That’s the power of it.”
Hopelessness is released May 6 via Rough Trade Records
Hair Shiori Takahashi at Streeters, make-up Mathias van Hooff at Management + Artists using Bobbi Brown, photography assistants Phil Hewitt, Tommy Davies, Lee Whittaker, fashion assistant Inês Bizarro
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