INTERVIEW

Anohni’s ‘Hopelessness’ squarely calls out capital punishment, torture, government surveillance and our continual reluctance to take responsibility for the destruction of our planet.

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It’s the beginning of March, three days after the Oscars have taken place in Los Angeles. At the fulcrum of the world’s most high-profile awards night, Leonardo DiCaprio walked up to the stage, orchestra billowing in the background, to pick up his statue for Best Actor after six times of being nominated. With the global media’s eye fully trained on him he thanked his friends, family and The Revenant’s cast, but like the devastating final twist of a Hollywood movie, he then told everyone in the decadent old theatre, and those watching at home, that our collective inactivity was murdering our futures.

“Climate change is real, it is happening right now,” he said, looking into the camera. “It is the most urgent threat facing our entire species, and we need to work collectively together and stop procrastinating.” He continued: “We need to support leaders around the world who do not speak for the big polluters, but who speak for all humanity.”

DiCaprio was clapped offstage, and the race to the cloakroom and the after-party vol-au-vents began. But from the ceremony, it wasn’t those incendiary comments that generated the shares, the memes and the re-grams. Instead, it was Chris Rock’s cutting jokes about diversity and a screengrab of Leo holding his prize with a sly middle finger.

For all the comparative headlines it spawned, it felt like an almost hopeless stand. One of the most influential voices on the planet, atop the ultimate platform, telling humanity that it’s on a precipice, and the reaction was hardly even a shrug.

Anohni was also nominated at this year’s Oscars. She decided not to attend. ‘Manta Ray’, the song she co-wrote with J.Ralph for climate crisis documentary Racing Extinction, was up for ‘Best Song’. In the week preceding the event, Anohni explained in an online post her reasons for staying away. She got as far as the airport before choosing not to travel.

She had not been asked to perform, unlike other nominees Sam Smith, Lady Gaga and The Weeknd. Some media outlets reported that she was one of two performers to have been cut (not true). “The producers seemed to have decided to stage performances only by the singers who were deemed commercially viable,” she wrote.

“I tried to force myself to get on the plane to fly to LA for all the nominee events, but the feelings of embarrassment and anger knocked me back.”

“I want to be clear – I know that I wasn’t excluded from the performance directly because I am transgendered. I was not invited to perform because I am relatively unknown in the US, singing a song about ecocide, and that might not sell advertising space.”

Her post went on to explain that she felt it was a symptom of a much greater issue.

“But if you trace the trail of breadcrumbs, the deeper truth of it is impossible to ignore. Like global warming, it is not one isolated event, but a series of events that occur over years to create a system that has sought to undermine me, at first as a feminine child, and later as an androgynous transwoman. It is a system of social oppression and diminished opportunities for transpeople that has been employed by capitalism in the US to crush our dreams and our collective spirit.”

“In the United States it is all about money: those who have it and those who don’t. Identity politics are often used as a smokescreen to distract us from this viral culture of wealth extraction. When we are not extracting wealth from nature, we are extracting it from the working and middle classes.”

It closed with this line: “I want to maximise my usefulness and advocate for the preservation of biodiversity and the pursuit of human decency within my sphere of influence.”

It was a powerful, inspiring fuck you.

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But now it’s 72 hours since the Oscars, and we’re sat in a central London hotel lounge that Anohni at one point aptly describes as “the sandwich room”.  The surroundings are old fashioned and vaguely quaint. As we chat, the room fills up with business meetings. An hour in, a harpist begins playing cover versions in the corner of the room, providing a juxtaposed backdrop to our conversation. Before our interview begins, Anohni politely asks if she can record it on her smartphone, and for the first ten minutes of the conversation, she sketches in a gold notebook as she talks, before folding it away.

“I was surprised by how positive the reaction was, generally speaking, more in America than England,” says the 45-year-old, speaking softly about The Oscars.

“I think it was good in the end; I was glad with the way it all worked out. I’d much rather participate in the way I did than to attend. It was more useful in a way. Standing there just being another stuffed shirt would have been really un-useful and it would have sent a weird message.”

In person, Anohni is pale skinned, has an infectious laugh and, on a couple of occasions breaks into a hilarious impression of an American accent that sounds like a Texan farmer. She’s softly spoken (her own accent is a mix of Chichester, where she was born, and New York) but direct, well-informed, highly engaged and obviously willing to confront and articulate her feelings on the very biggest of topics.

We’re here today to talk about ‘Hopelessness’. Despite its tagline, her fifth studio LP is inspirational. In fact, it’s more than that. It’s an earthquake of an album, unexpected, brutal and one, I imagine, with a lasting impact. It’s the kind of work that’s so stirring, angry, majestic, beautiful and thought-provoking that it will either have tears streaming down your cheeks, or have you banging on the gates of Downing Street. It’s an album that gets into your head and gnaws at your subconscious.

You’ll have heard ‘4 Degrees’ by now. Performed live last year at Barcelona’s Primavera Sound and released in late 2015 – it’s a shocking and sarcastic wake-up call about humanity’s nonchalant attitude towards the destruction of the environment. “All those lemurs and all those tiny creatures / I want to see them burn / It’s only 4 degrees,” she sings. It’s rightfully been recognised as a protest anthem (“People aren’t used to hearing me say ‘bring it on,’” she tells me later. “It’s confounding expectations a bit by taking a sort of reverse psychology approach to the subject matter.”).

And there’s ‘Drone Bomb Me’, a Trojan Horse of a dancefloor track. It’s a love song, maybe from the perspective of a 9-year-old Afghan girl whose family has been killed by a drone bomb. The lyrics go: “Let me be the first / I’m not so innocent / Let me be the one / The one that you choose from above / Drone bomb me.” It’s both euphoric (musically), damning and desperately sad.

These, though, are just a hint. ‘Hopelessness’ is an album that takes aim on politics, surveillance, foreign policy, torture and capital punishment. Most striking is how there’s no soft cotton-padding around Anohni’s lyrics: they’re direct, urgent and thrillingly provocative.

‘Obama’ – “When you were elected / the world cried for joy / We thought you had empowered the truth telling envoy / Now the news is you are spying / Executing without trial / Betraying virtues / Scarring closed the sky.” 

‘Watch Me’ – “Watch me in my hotel room / Watch my iris as I move from city to city / Watch me watching pornography / Watch my medical history.”

‘Crisis’ – “If I tortured you brother / In Guantanamo / I’m sorry / Now you’re cutting heads off innocent people on TV.”

The 11 tracks are, as Anohni has stated, an artist “speaking her own truth” and testing the parameters of her sphere of influence. It’s an LP as intense as the character of its architect. She may be slightly shy in her demeanour but these songs do not hide from themselves.

“I found myself increasingly making these pastoral albums, but then talking about these really vivid issues in interviews,” she says placing her teacup back on the table. “I just thought I want to write songs that say exactly what I’m really thinking.”

“When I was writing the lyrics I was so shocked. Am I really singing this? It felt scary to sing because people often associate my voice with a kind of comfort in a way… I’ve always thought that something that scared me was probably a good indication that it’s something I should explore.”

Besides perhaps MIA, there are few other artists at a comparative level making such forthright statements.

“I am scared,” she tells me. “I’m still scared about it because I don’t know what the repercussions of saying this stuff in a pop song are. I haven’t seen it happen before. I don’t know what to expect. I just thought, life is short, and we should try and do as much as we can while we’re here.”

Musically it’s her most accessible record to date. ‘Hopelessness’ began as a conversation with Daniel Lopatin (producer Oneohtrix Point Never) three years ago, intended as something more “soundtracky”, before Ross Birchard (Hudson Mohawke) joined the collaboration.

The production is bombastic and, at times, confrontational – a full immersion into an electronic world fans had a taste of with Anohni’s 2008 collaboration with Hercules and Love Affair’s ‘Blind’. The jagged teeth of the lyrics mesh with the cinematic production in an astonishing way. The idea, for example, of ‘Drone Bomb Me’ being DJ’d at an Ibizian summer pool party is almost thrillingly subversive.

“I love dance music,” she says. “I love electronic music. I grew up in the early ’80s – in those days, as a kid, you were really reacting to the sort of grimy yesteryear-ness of guitars. Guitars at that moment were almost considered completely tacky. Electronic music was so crisp and future-forward.”

She recalls being a fan of voices like Boy George and particularly Alison Moyet’s work with Essex synthpop duo Yazoo. “I remember hearing her voice on those records when I was 12 years old, and being shocked by this feeling I had inside when I was hearing it. I hadn’t felt that way before, I didn’t know what it was. I thought I was going to be sick.”

In a way, this album has been a long time coming – it’s where issues and influences Anohni has been thinking about “forever” converge. It’s certainly a huge evolutionary stride if you’re only familiar with the songs on her 2005 Mercury Prize winning album ‘I Am A Bird Now’ and her work since then (2009’s ‘The Crying Light’ and ‘Swanlights’). While sometimes the subject matter has been spiky, the delivery has almost always been pastoral.

It’s also the first to be released as ‘Anohni’ rather than ‘Antony and the Johnsons’.

“It was something I was exploring in my private life, changing my name for a long time,” she explains. “I don’t really want to use the name Antony anymore, I haven’t used it for a few years. It just made sense.

“I remember in 2005 when I won the Mercury Prize and there was one interviewer, like, ‘Why do you wear make-up? Why do you hide behind make-up?’ I said, ‘Actually I’m showing you more clearly who I am by wearing make-up. It’s actually giving you a clearer window into my spirit.’ I think it’s the same for transpeople when you choose a spirit name. It gives people another indication of your nature.”

On her official website the homepage is now divided in two, Anohni and Antony and the Johnsons. It says ‘archive’ next to Antony and the Johnsons and I ask if A&TJ is now a closed chapter?

“Not necessarily, I might do a tour as Antony and the Johnsons – it’s my band’s name. It’s sort of like James and the Giant Peach. I don’t use the name Antony anymore but in a weird way I like the idea of it becoming a band name. It’s quite abstract. I like the idea that it’s not me.”

I ask if she would do an Anohni and the Johnsons record in the future?

“No, I would do an Antony and the Johnsons record in the future if I did The Johnsons, because that’s the name of the group, but then it would be Anohni sings in Antony and the Johnsons. That’s my name – Anohni is my real name and it has been for a few years in my private life. It’s as simple as that really.”

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On the day of our interview, the news agenda is dominated by Donald Trump’s US presidential campaign. The previous day it was about a row over retirement age, the day after, Brexit. Since then, take your pick, terrorist attacks, health scare scandals, celebrity deaths, the threat of nuclear war, tax evasion and a thousand other pressing topics. They’re things most people care about. But, such is life, they tangle with personal issues on a daily basis. Trying to digest the Big Picture and these immediate challenging issues can, meshed together, feel unfathomable.

‘Hopelessness’ approaches some big issues – like the US death penalty or President Obama’s presidential tenure – but Anohni also tries to frame them all in one overriding problem. The album is, she says, an exploration into the idea of “human brokenness”.

“Racism, endgame international corporate governance, trickle-up economics, ever-greater wealth disparity, fundamentalism, extremism, corrupt foreign policy, weapons trade, fossil fuel, endgame mineral extraction, stealing and raping earth… It bottlenecks in ecocide,” she says. “It all draws together into a bouquet that you could call ecocide.”

The definition of ecocide is the destruction of the natural environment, especially when it’s deliberate, and it’s her way of thinking about humanity’s position in an holistic way.

She continues: “Because we’re used to addressing those issues each individually, we get overwhelmed after about three of them. But if you can hold space for it, I’ve started to see it as sort of a bouquet that you can call ecocide. A bouquet of co-dependent conditions.”

These “co-dependent conditions” manifest themselves in the stuff that’s everywhere every day. Trying to get a job, a mortgage, to have a family. Anything like that. Products of the systems and lifestyles we inhabit, which, Anohni says, all continually come back to the environment.

“How can we ever hope to change our trajectory if we’re not capable of being honest with what our trajectory even is, or what it is that’s happening?” Anohni says. “We’ve got this almost whack-a-mole approach right now where it’s like, ‘there’s racism! There’s income disparity! There’s income collapse!’ Almost like moles popping up in a field. By the time you get over to it, it’s gone and it’s something else over there, and you’re running around a field like a chicken with its head cut off trying to address the big picture.”

The future Anohni paints is a scary one, mostly because it’s one of stark realisation. There are seven billion people in the world right now. There’s projected to be 9.6 billion by 2050 and we haven’t figured out a sustainable way of feeding them all. Recently, NASA also warned of a “climate emergency” after global temperatures recorded a significant rise, blamed on human-generated greenhouse gases. It’s estimated that 30% of species will be endangered by the middle of the century.

“This is probably what’s differentiated this time from most of the other times, any other time in human history. In the past, we’ve had capacity to destroy our local environment, and we’ve done that many times, but it’s only been since WWII that we’ve started to have the ability to do the whole planet in,” she says.

“I can’t bear the idea because I don’t have any faith in all these heaven systems and paradise-elsewhere systems, 17 virgins waiting for you… or a bunch of white budgies waiting for you in heaven or whatever. I just think that the best things that we’ll ever find are all the things that are suddenly disappearing while all this crap is preoccupying us.

“We turn around and ask ‘What were the Germans thinking in 1942?’ That’s what they’re all going to be saying about us, ‘What was humanity thinking in 2015? For that matter, ‘What were they thinking in 2000?’ ‘What were they thinking in 1990’?’ Because we knew all this crap then. It’s been a quarter-century of us not acting on this.”

Maybe the key and the thrill of ‘Hopelessness’ is that it’s an uncomfortable record. Uncomfortable because it demands the listener faces Anohni’s truths, but also front-up to our own complicity. Anohni lives in New York. Later this year she has chosen to take ‘Hopelessness’ on tour. Starting in the US, she’ll travel to Sydney, Europe, the UK, and back to America to play shows. That touring obviously has repercussions.

“It’s not easily resolved,” she admits. “It is a conflict. I don’t know how to resolve it.

“It has made me change the things I do already. You keep making subtle adjustments to make yourself comfortable. I saw this chart about how many barrels of oil you burn when you take a flight, if you’re flying to Australia, it’s like 15 barrels per person or something unbelievable. There’s no way around it, even people working within these [environmental] fields as advocates find that their footprint is abhorrent. The obvious conclusion is to stop or try to work within in a sort of… in a recycle-y type way.”

She thinks for a moment: “I don’t know honestly, I haven’t resolved it. Obviously I’ve decided to move forward with my campaign, so for today I don’t know if I’m an enemy of the earth. I may be an enemy of the earth even today.”

Leonardo DiCaprio’s call to arms was saying that humanity is at a crossroads. Ecocide has been a pressing issue for 25 years, but humanity has focussed on some of its co-dependent conditions deemed to be more important. ‘Hopelessness’, and the inevitable discussions that surround it, can conjure a very doomy, depressing outlook. There are a couple of moments in the conversation where we both sit in silence trying to articulate the enormity of the topics or pause to take it all in. Having said all of this, Anohni does have belief in a brighter future.

“It’s actually an incredibly exciting idea that we’re being asked to evolve in a really profound way, collectively,” she says. “We’re not just being asked, we’re being required to do it – or to perish. Actually it’s an issue of survival.

“There’s a tremendous opportunity for us to evolve. Really we have no choice but to evolve, we’re really at a crossroads – we’re either going to keep moving forward in the way that we’re going to finish up sadly at the expense of everyone else, or we make a shift.”

I ask what she thinks it will take to create mass awareness? An event?

“Events themselves…. Obama being elected was an event. The Arab Spring was an event. The fall of the Berlin Wall. The collapse of the Soviet Union was an event. One event doesn’t do anything. You have to light up a series of events like a Christmas Tree and it needs to sustain over a giant period of time, I imagine, in order to effect a lasting shift. Especially when you think about how cross-cultural it needs to be, or how international that series of events needs to be… We’re asking for nothing short of a miracle. Miracles happen. Amazing things happen all the time. So, yes, I think it’s possible and I think it will require a miracle.”

I tell Anohni that I think that’s a scary thought.

“I want to affirm people,” she says. “If they’re feeling hopeless and scared, it’s absolutely appropriate to feel that way right now when you look out on the world and look out on the media that we’re being forced to ingest.

“Those are feelings, they’re indicators, another set of primordial indicators that we have to help us make decisions. Fear is supposed to help us know that we’re facing something dangerous. We are facing something dangerous and are also stewards of biodiversity – we’re not even just here to advocate for ourselves anymore. We literally have the weight of the only life system that we know of as our responsibility.”

Articulating Hopelessness:  Anohni on the key issues broached on her new album

Surveillance
We’re living in a society that’s very geared towards containing us using insidious fear. Containing and controlling us. Just going through an airport is enough to make you shut the fuck up. When I go back to the US now they do iris scans for everyone even if you’re a citizen. Like twenty years ago that would only have been reserved for criminals. How quickly we’ve succumbed to this idea that we need to volunteer our privacy in order that they can best protect us – it’s a creepy relationship with a paternal protector.

Housing
Everyone is living off the fumes of probably your grandparent’s generation, in terms of assets and the trickle-down benefits. You’ve got a whole generation of kids at 30 still living in their parents’ house because they couldn’t afford to buy houses as working middle class people. No-one is calling the elephant in the living room? Why can’t anyone buy a house anymore? You know what I mean? How can it be that what were slums are now being sold for half a million or a million pounds? My grandmother’s house, they were so poor, and they bought a house in Surbiton [south London] for something like £7,000 and it was like everything. They sometimes didn’t have money for food. Now that house is worth just this extortionate amount of money. It just doesn’t make sense to me because what would a family do now that were in my grandmother’s situation? An immigrant family? Like, my grandmother was an immigrant, what would a family like hers do today? They wouldn’t buy a house for sure. I read an article recently, which said we no longer encourage young people to buy houses. It’s no longer tenable to buy a house, we encourage them now to rent. And I was like, “Well, what the fuck was that all about!?” It’s sort of like serfdom. It’s like we’re sinking back towards serfdom.

President Obama
I feel like I was naive – I thought that he would be the silver bullet – and joining that mass moment, the mass hysteria that he evoked in us and he did… that’s why he was given the Nobel Peace Prize within a month of taking office, because he had evoked the heroism of the great American leaders of the 20th century. Martin Luther King and probably Robert Kennedy. He described a very high moral standard that he’d be reaching for as president. He was elected on a campaign of transparency and closing Guantanamo Bay, and we didn’t expect that that would mean the NSA scandal and execution of every future terrorism suspect overseas. I can’t speak to him as a betrayer. I’ve been thinking about this the last couple of days, it’s more about my naivety and how infantilised I’ve become that I’d expect to elect a man to look after me and to look after this world.

The US Election
I’m much more sceptical about advocating a specific candidate, for Hillary [Clinton] for instance, because I walked into that trap with Obama and I really live to regret it. I really campaigned for him when he was on his first election cycle when I was doing my tours, when I was doing my press. I had this very idealistic view, but I learned a lot about myself through that process. Again we’re faced with potential, a really volatile fascistic totalitarian candidate versus a dynasty of sallow bipartisanship, which is always like the finger-in-the-dyke kind of model for me. The finger in the groaning dyke – that seems to have been the Clinton’s dynasty. Maybe something good will come of it, but I feel like they move too slowly. It’s like what Nina Simone said in ‘Mississippi Goddamn’ – “We don’t have time for this”. The problem is there’s no more time.

The Death Penalty
You look at the death penalty in America, that’s another subject on the record. America is still executing people because they think they’re innately evil and the only way to punish them is to kill them. Whereas in Norway they have that guy who killed all those kids on that island and they have that whole sort of very public processing of what had happened where everyone cried and they even gave him a forum to speak. They treated him with dignity. That was an incredible model, what they did, and it was in such stark contrast to the American model where they gave that Boston bomber boy, who was just a teenager, the death penalty. He’s just like a kid.

And the good news? 

Ecocide expert and author of Why Our Brains Are Wired To Ignore Climate Change George Marshall on why records like Anohni’s can make a difference

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Giving people statistics doesn’t do anything. They don’t engage people or they go over their heads. Or, if people do internalise, they can rapidly move into a sort of indifference or cynicism. The big issue is how do you create the opening for people to even think or engage with these issues.

There’s a really important role for the arts, generally. Part of the problem with this, psychologically, is that there’s never any space to talk about your fears. A lot of people who work on the issue have become convinced that if you just talk about it in terms of doom and gloom you lose people, and there’s good reason to believe that – if you say, ‘we’ve got to take action because otherwise we’re all fucked and we’re going to die,’ people just don’t believe you or they move away.

The role of the arts and the role of powerful personal voices – I think that’s what’s great with songwriters. To be a kind of conduit for other people’s’ feelings, it’s important. I can’t see where else in society anybody has the ability to do that, to speak for us. We can’t do it through religion, and politics is all bullshit. Those of us who really care about this, when we try and raise it with people, we just find the conversation just dies; it doesn’t want to go anywhere. The role of artists who say, ‘no dammit, I am going to talk about this because this is important’, the crowbarring open of the topic, it’s important. I can’t quite see how it happens otherwise.

Climate change, species extinction, deforestation, or any of these big issues – they all have issues of silence around them and we’ve faced issues of silence in the past around things like sexual abuse, gender issues, racism, the attitude towards gays, for example, where silence has been a huge deal, where you didn’t talk about it. With all of these campaigns the key thing is for campaigners but also for artists to speak out and say ‘no this is important’. They’ve always been on the forefront of making that happen. I think that applies in this case as well. This is another area of social silence, which needs to be crowbarred open.

Change absolutely comes through artists like Anohni and the influence she has, but it also happens through the influence of people who might be nothing like her. It happens through a progressive man preaching in a mosque, or it happens through a conservative farmer talking at the national farmers union. You need people talking at all levels, in different ways. We move forward because all of those conversations start to overlap. Take the model for what has happened with gay rights, or with attitudes to race, that’s been based on exactly that – conversations happening at all levels. It takes a generation; we’ve got a long way to go. But the shift on those issues has been phenomenal in my lifetime. I share Anohni’s confidence that things can change.