ANOHNI: “I was taught to sing by Boy George, Marc Almond and Elizabeth Fraser”

In 2016 ANOHNI released Hopelessness, an album fundamentally about the climate crisis and the destruction of Earth. Seven years on, Greg Cochrane meets the New York-based artist to tell her how much their previous meeting affected his life, and to ask if anything has changed, beyond her transformation into a soul musician on new album My Back Was A Bridge For You To Cross

There’s a book by Naomi Klein called This Changes Everything (2014). It’s about how when you immerse yourself in the history, injustice and the frankly terrifying absoluteness of the climate crisis – our own extinction event – it changes everything. You can’t go back. Can’t unlearn the unfolding reality. 

People often talk about having a personal This Changes Everything moment. Mine came in 2016. Stuart (Loud And Quiet editor) invited me to interview ANOHNI, formerly Antony and the Johnsons, because I love her music, particularly her bombastic reinvention on Hopelessness, an album that featured collaborative input from producers Oneohtrix Point Never and Hudson Mohawke. Some of it was obviously about climate change (‘4 Degrees’, ‘Why Did You Separate Me From The Earth’) but it was also a collection about war, repression and surveillance. 

I met ANOHNI in what she wryly described as the “sandwich room” of a high end central London hotel. I vividly recall walking back into the Loud And Quiet office later that day. “How was the interview?” said Stuart. I inhaled deeply, puffed air through my cheeks, raised my eyebrows and slowly nodded. “It was… a lot.” Had I been conversing, or hit by an ideological juggernaut? To me, the conversation, majoring on the theme of climate, was an earthquake, the tremors of which I still feel now. I mean, sure, I knew about global heating, I knew we were driving some animals and possibly ourselves to extinction, but we’ve got decades to get on top of this, right? Wrong. So wrong. 

Less of a conversation, more of a personal reckoning. I felt naivety, guilt, dismay. Then positively fired up. In the days and months after our meeting, my stomach remained twisted and my brain kept circling: if everything is at stake, why doesn’t everyone know about this? Why isn’t it headline news? Or even news at all? I talked to friends. I talked to family. I even called up climate scientists and psychology experts to find out. 

I started talking a lot more to musicians about climate. It turns out a lot of them were feeling the increasing urgency of this, but didn’t know how and where to surface those thoughts. People just like me, going through some kind of dawning, confronted with a million questions and scrabbling to find some agency. 

Seven years later I’m looking back on all that’s changed. I started a venture that’s about exploring and working with people and voices in the fields of climate and culture. I started a podcast called Sounds Like A Plan (now three series in) about how the music community is responding to the climate crisis. I wrote for NME, Kerrang!, Alt Press, The Guardian and my beloved Loud And Quiet about the environment and music. I’ve interviewed Radiohead, Aurora and Brian Eno on the subject. Given lectures to journalists from countries around the world. Travelled to COP26 in Glasgow with my one-year-old son, and watched Greta Thunberg speak in an enraptured crowd. 

This all came from Hopelessness, and a life-altering encounter. So as ANOHNI prepares to release another extraordinary album – her most accessible yet, rooted in soul music, called My Back Was A Bridge For You To Cross – we got to meet again. 

GC: Hi ANOHNI. The last time we met was momentous for me [outlines all the reasons above]. I want to pass on my gratitude for that. 

A: That sounds wonderful. I can’t believe that it would be me, but I’m glad if I was in any way catalytic. What have you noticed? How do you assess the last seven years in climate awareness? 

GC: Funnily enough, that was a question I had for you! It’s hard to give a holistic answer. We have come a way, but it depends on different geographies and demographics. Speaking about journalism, I think some mainstream news outlets have put resources behind climate reporting, but I don’t think they’ve got to grips yet with how it intersects with everything. I think that’s the next piece. 

A: I recognise what you’re saying. It’s as if there’s a safety in attempting to continue to compartmentalise something that’s actually all consuming at this point.

GC: Yes. I’m frustrated that we’re not further along with that. 

A: Are you friends at all with George Monbiot [British writer known for environmental coverage]?

GC: I’m familiar with his work, but I’m not in touch with him. Are you?

A: Not actively. I’ve had messages with him in the past. I hugely admire him. I think it’s important to try to stay in touch with other people doing that work for justice in order to sustain some kind of level of wellness. 

You need support when you’re doing work like that, because it can be quite lonely, gutting work to do by yourself.

GC: Yes, some days working principally in climate can feel meaningful, and other days you feel like you’re not making any progress at all. The feelings are quite extreme.

A: The truth is that all of the gestures are meaningful whether or not they’re absorbed or seem to affect change. When you’re fighting a good fight. Just as in every example of courageous activism, there’s a lot of smashing your head against the wall. That takes a real toll on the provider. It’s not necessarily like a sweet reward. Oftentimes, it’s a brutal response to a courageous gesture, and you just keep doing the work. Just make sure you have enough support.

GC: Yes, I’ve put the communications of people I admire into my network to help build resilience. That’s useful to me. Anyway, I wanted to start by sharing my thanks. 

A: It’s meaningful that you’d tell that to me. I’m just an artist. You’re in a much more actively politically engaged field than I am. I’m more of a muse to the field that you’re part of, so if I can be of use then that’s my best foot forward, if I can be of support or use or inspiration to people who’re doing activism on the ground, then that’s the best possible application of my work.

GC: I’m a huge advocate for how music can be a gateway into climate for some people. It’s underrated, and so full of potential. It engages people on a level that perhaps something like clean energy may not. 

A: And yet clean energy and music are very much the same thing, as a pure form. There should be a musicality to clean energy. I know that sounds cheesy, but it should be embraced as like creativity and motion. 

A lot of the ways that we’re led to engage today, and have been led to engage for decades, have been designed to alienate us from our physical form – from a visceral or physical understanding of what’s really happening. 

Like, the way we as people consumed colonial goods from the colonies, whether it was sugar or tobacco, or gasoline or high tech. There’s this process of infantilisation. That it seems like it’s almost necessary for one as a consumer to almost blindly ingest the goods in a guilt free way. But also in an ahistorical way. You’re no longer aware of where the things that you’re taking into your body come from or you’re no longer aware of where the things in your life come from. Especially in England. There’s a big reckoning happening in England and across Europe about its dependency – like the foundational aspect of slavery on the wealth of Europe. Its position as a “first world” region, it was all about domination and colonialism. A lot of the children, especially after World War II, were reorganised to forget that narrative. We were raised to believe our parents were the heroes of the Second World War. And that barbarism has ended and that a new age of civility is reigning supreme and that we were weirdly ahistorical. 

We were being raised on BBC programmes that told us we were innocent, and we weren’t really challenged on how did we get here? 

Now it’s 30 or 40 years later and everyone’s really being challenged in England, really to a point where things are becoming super polarised. 

It’s overwhelming in a way. Like, how we’re going to talk ourselves down off the ledge? Because, as a species, we’re really broken. That’s part of all of our bodies, metabolisms and biologies. It’s ancestral, ancient and it’s deep within us. It’s a huge challenge we were facing seven years ago and it’s even more of an obvious challenge now.

GC: We haven’t created the spaces to be able to hold these huge thoughts and conversations…

A: My friends talk a lot about how the language isn’t even there. There isn’t a semantic structure to support these neural pathways. We need to embrace people who have other ways of thinking and dreaming. Other ways of organising themselves semantically. Why aren’t we asking for more help from indigenous leaders to think about what’s really happening? To try to come to grips with a different strategy moving forward? Because, at this point, I’m not seeing a game plan on the table – and it’s been the same for 20 years. There’s promises and governments making gestures that are obviously hollow. But nothing is on the table that’s going to prevent a collapse of biodiversity. 

I think we need to be reaching further out of our toolbox now. We need to be reaching with more humility towards people that have a different grasp or spectral understanding of what’s really happening. Not just physically but spiritually. 

I’m talking about reaching out to indigenous communities all over the world to help us.  The only two things that I can see that could be of any deep use to us is a dramatic shift in the number of women who are in systems of governance. And then even more importantly to restore to the high seats our people with the highest vistas of understanding, to a sustainable relationship to the rest of the natural world. To ask them now to be our teachers because that’s what we need. That’s knowledge that we eviscerated. 

This is a pipe dream maybe but it’s still possible, because those people still exist. For as long as they exist there’s hope that we could make a shift. 

I mean, you go to a Davos conference, and then they bring like a few people from the Amazon to just decorate the hallways while the corporations are in the back room making the most malevolent decisions on behalf of the planet.

GC: I went to the UN climate conference COP26 in Glasgow, in 2021, and it felt like that. 

A: Our indigenous leaders are the people with the most insight. Westerners aren’t reaching to them for insight, they’re just reaching to them for news porn or whatever. One thing that’s become clearer to me: with Hopelessness I was really railing against the machine. I really have to say, I feel so sorry for us now. I feel sorry for those men in power. There’s a tremendous poverty of the soul that I think many people in the white world experience now. An existential void. Lack of connection. A spiritual despair. A lack of understanding of who we are, and where we come from. It’s a terrible poverty and kind of a disease. 

It’s not like 30 years ago when I was reading the articles by all the elders saying, “this is what’s happening” and no one was even listening. Everyone knows that this is like the end times. It’s not like we’re at the beginning of the end, we’re right in the very middle of it. 

It’s not really a cause for shock anymore as much as it’s a cause for grieving now. Now is definitely the time to grieve. Now is the time to start crying. And for people to awaken to this crying feeling and to cry for the world and to stop what they’re doing and cry as much as they can. And to get together in circles and grieve. That’s power. Like, feel what’s really happening, even if it’s just grieving. Let’s do it as collectively as we can. There’s power, movement and collective agency in that.

GC: How did you feel about the responses the album Hopelessness elicited? 

A: It was almost impossible for me to assess the impact that it had because I was in the eye of it. It was only in the years later that certain people approached me and said that was useful to them. 

It was actually kind of a harrowing experience for me. Not that it was a particularly dangerous thing to do but I felt like I put myself quite far out. But I was extremely proud of it, and very glad I did it. I love all those songs. I thought maybe that I was doing more of an intervention but what I learned was that I was sounding the bugle for people that felt the same way I did. 

GC: And how have your thoughts and feelings on this changed in that time?

A: It’s been a changing of gears: from attempting to address my complicity and being in an onslaught of confrontation, to sort of seeing this as a system of disease and illness. That we’re actually in the grip of. Something that’s really grave. I saw the invention of a new word: neocide. 

GC: Neocide? 

A: It’s the genocide of future generations. I think it’s a really powerful word. And I think that depression, that suicidal depression, is considered an illness. In the medical field they can talk about it as an illness. I would say that we are in the midst, as a species, of a suicidal depression. 

GC: Lyrically, My Back Was A Bridge For You To Cross connects with me in many of the same ways as Hopelessness. Musically, it’s obviously different – a soul, folk album. 

A: The sound of the record really emerged from the collaboration with a guy named Jimmy Hogarth, who’s the co-producer of the record. We were really compatible and had a really good time. It’s the first record I’ve ever made in London. It felt like a very English record to me in a funny way, although obviously really influenced by American music. It was a joyful record for me to make. It wasn’t a record I expected to make. I didn’t know if I was going to make any more records. This was sort of a boon.

GC: Do you mind telling me more? 

A: I guess I had a bit of a dark night of the soul, and I wasn’t really sure if I was going to return to public engagement.

GC: When did you find yourself writing again? 

A: It was incremental. It was mostly just the curiosity of the creative process. Now, this part, getting back into a public conversation, has its own challenges that I’m trying to move through. The music was made without so much thought about a conversation with the public. It was just made because I felt to make it. 

GC: Why does it feel like an English record? 

A: Because it was made with English people. A lot of it is built on English tradition and histories of English music. I was raised on English music. I was taught to sing by Boy George, Marc Almond and Elizabeth Fraser. 

GC: Do you think you will perform these new songs live? 

A: I don’t know this time. 

GC: You’ve said a couple of the songs on the album are a response to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, half a century on from its release. Were someone to do the same thing, have a conversation with some of the songs on your new album in 50 years’ time, what type of conversations do you imagine them having? 

A: Let’s say what I hope the conversation would be? I hope it will be a conversation about people in Europe figuring out reparation and forgiveness. How to forgive themselves, and how to create effective reparation for the rest of the world that they influenced and that they’ve decimated. 

And that we’ve begun to start reeling in some of the worst aspects of diseased systems that we’ve perpetuated around the globe. Through no fault of our own individually, but collectively from which we all benefit. 

And that we figure out ways that ‘the West’ can be of service to the rest of the world in finding a sustainable way forward for all of us – as a species and as a planet. 

That we have a seismic change in our collective consciousness, that will inevitably include and probably be predicated on a shift from patriarchal to more matriarchal systems of governance. And that means numbers – 70% of people in seats of power will be women. And men would find humility to follow their mothers and their sisters and to trust their mothers and their sisters to do what’s in their best interests of the family. And that some of these men will be talked down off the ledge. 

That will be my dream. 

Photography by ANOHNI with Nomi Ruiz