ANOHNI’s voice has been a salve to millions since the release of her band’s debut album at the turn of the 21st century. But in 2016, she weaponized it. Up to that point, her lyrics had always been prescient, often prophetic, but they were normally cushioned by the softness of her tone. On HOPELESSNESS, the only album she’s released under her mononym alone, her words were razor sharp, blistering with anger as she sang about drone bombings, global warming, and the other disappointments of the Obama presidency. That record’s production was pummeling, too, assisted by Hudson Mohawk and Oneohtrix Point Never in peak form, creating a sound that felt urgently of its time.
Seven years later, ANOHNI is returning with a statement that’s softer in tone than her last, but no less deliberate in its message. She’s still calling out injustices, from senseless cruelty toward trans people to our myopic obsession with creature comforts at the cost of our planet. But the tenderness is back, as is her band, The Johnsons. Recorded with prolific producer Jimmy Hogarth, My Back Was A Bridge For You To Cross places ANOHNI’s vocals over pastoral arrangements that recall the lushness of ’70s soul.
The record begins with “It Must Change,” a track about paradigm shifts and the breaking of binaries, and ends with “You Be Free,” in which an elder warrior on the front lines of the fight for universal civil rights gives the next generation permission to enjoy her hard-fought victories. The album’s cover art is a photograph of Marsha P. Johnson, the queer liberationist to whose memory ANOHNI has dedicated much of her career, including her band’s name. Smiling out from across time, Johnson’s face is a reminder of both the many achievements social activism has won, and the infinite work that remains to be done.
Last month, ANOHNI and I discussed motherhood, volcanoes, and the false dichotomy between darkness and light.
This Q&A is taken from the latest episode of The FADER Interview. To hear this week’s show in full, and to access the podcast’s archive, click here.
The FADER: The themes of the songs on My Back Was A Bridge For You To Cross generally feel much more universal than those on Hopelessness, which provide really explicit context for their messages. Can you walk me through the shift in perspective that led to this change of approach?
ANOHNI: Hopelessness is the most strategic record I’ve ever made. My intention was to disarm the listener. There was an aspect to the record which broke a tradition that people have of hearing my voice as a source of comfort or solace. Hopelessness weaponized my voice in a different way. I was taking on different points of view in the songs and holding my own hand to the fire… [talking] about my complicity as a participant, as a consumer, as a supporter of diseased systems, willingly or unwillingly. It’s impossible to pay taxes and not be monstrously complicit.
The record had a very hard edge to it, and a toughness. I didn’t know if I was gonna do another record after that, and I took several years to contemplate what to do next — if I was gonna keep doing music or if I was gonna work more on other things. This record came like a boon: On a whim, I called my label in London, Rough Trade, and asked them if they knew any producers that might wanna do a soul-based record, because the people who taught me how to sing — the first models for me, besides Kate Bush — were Boy George and Alison Moyet. They were singing in such a specific style, even with American accents… so convincingly, so movingly.
Those early songs of the ’80s… That was the first time I heard the affairs of the heart being expressed in a way that I could recognize as being alive, that mirrored how I felt inside. It’s taken many years to reconcile and understand, trace that trail of breadcrumbs back to the source: How did it come to be that a 20-year-old Irish queen in 1981 was singing with the voice of a seasoned Black American female vocalist? There was this incredible, bizarre, complicated, difficult lineage embedded into my first impulses as a singer that I didn’t understand for many years. I wanted to do something that circled that and started to talk about it honestly. It’s a conversation I can’t finish, but it’s one I always want to stand consciously beside. So I said, “Let’s make what they call ‘blue-eyed soul.’” Boy George was a blue-eyed soul singer, but it all came back to those amazing American musicians traveling across the sea in the ’50s and early ’60s and pollinating the culture, transforming the culture forever across Europe and across the world. I suppose that was my thought.
The record isn’t just that, but that was the starting point of dreaming about making a new record. [Rough Trade] recommended Jimmy Hogarth, who’d worked with Duffy and Amy Winehouse and a few other people I loved. We started a collaboration, and there was a lot of ease. We had a great rapport, and a lot of things just came to pass. I brought in about 10 years of writings I hadn’t delved into, because on HOPELESSNESS, the lyric content was really specific. The last time I wrote a record like [My Back Was a Bridge] was more than 10 years ago.
Did the less overtly contemporary themes of MBWAB unlock the temporality of the production with Jimmy, or was it more the other way around?
Honestly, I do feel the themes on the record are utterly contemporary. It’s the same story; I’ve never really wavered. I always think of myself as an accumulative artist, even if the shifts seem more or less vigorous. I don’t really see a difference between the material on this and the material on the previous record. I would say that this record has a note of tenderness and self-reflection, and an idea about interiority that the other record was brutal with. I’m interested more and more in what I’m thinking of as structural activism, and that’s what the [new] record is trying to address: the brokenness of the broadest structures — theologically, mythologically, sociologically, hierarchically — in terms of how we’re organizing ourselves collectively in a way that is promising the end of species.
The whole of the universe is a giant womb of primordial darkness, and there are these tiny fires burning in it… like diamonds inside a mountain.
On “It Must Change,” I love the counterpoint between your spoken and sung vocals, and the idea of light as “fire in the darkness” is also such a poignant and self-evident way of looking at the world in general. It both complicates and simplifies things: On the one hand, it resists the easy dichotomies through which we’re taught to see the world. On the other, it necessitates the active creation of that fire as the only alternative to succumbing to the darkness. Is that how you see it, or am I totally misreading that?
Everyone’s gonna have their own thoughts about a provocation like that. In my imagination, the idea that light isn’t the opposite of darkness, but rather the child of something that occurs within darkness, is a beautiful way of re-imagining the way things are laid out.
I was raised in a Catholic framework in which the whole world was built on opposites. It was this conversation that emerged from the last five years of conversation about gender identity… looking at the semantics of gender and this idea of two genders, this oppositeness, as if it was a fact; and then realizing that, in other cultures, it wasn’t organized that way; and yet, in our fanciful, supposedly rational take on the world, it’s our forensic thought that there’s only two genders. It’s actually more a product of 2,000 years of evangelical Christianity than it is a product of reality.
Once I started thinking about that, I started applying that to other ideas about opposites that I deal with all the time in my thinking, and I realized how much this notion of opposites constricted my way of seeing. All my life, I was raised to think there were, 12 hours of light and 12 hours of darkness. That’s a many-centuries-old thought that those are two equally weighted opposites. But when you think about it in a different way, you realize that the whole of the universe is a giant womb of primordial darkness, and there are these tiny fires burning in it… like diamonds inside a mountain. Diamonds aren’t the opposite of a mountain; they’re something that exists within a mountain. It’s the same thing with male and female: Maleness and femaleness may not be opposites. Maleness might be something that exists within femaleness.
We’ve been raised for 2,000 years to believe that men are the equally weighted opposites of women. There could be a totally different way of laying out that paradigm that imagines that actually we’re all women; we’re all made of the Earth’s body; we’re all made of primordial darkness, and from that fire emerges and creates this beautiful new paradigm of maleness, a subset of Her body. It’s a totally different way of dreaming about our relationships, and it dismantles the idea that men and women are A) unfathomably different from each other, but also B) hierarchically organized, and C) ultimately each other’s enemies or predators.
If men’s bodies could listen to the fact that they’re made of women’s bodies, a new humility might emerge — a reckoning with what’s happening empirically rather than this horrible, 2,000-year nightmare that’s climaxing in an apocalyptic, suicidal exit from creation. There might be other strategies that we could reach for, ways of thinking, ways of understanding the world that’s organized around us that might help us to make different decisions.
That’s a lot of words for a couple of sentences in the song, but that’s what those sentences mean to me. That’s what I’m saying in that song when I say, “It must change.” It’s like we have to find a new way of dreaming that we don’t even have the words to wrap around yet. Everyone I know thinks that within 100 years, there won’t be a reasonable life on Earth. I’ve not heard one person counter that point of view. If we really are in such a final embrace, it’s worth dreaming in a more extreme way about new ways we can manifest or organize ourselves to try different approaches.
When I think of a feminine principle, I don’t think of some pastoral, toe-bound, milk-maid idea about femaleness.
The song that comes next, “Go Ahead,” fells like the flip side to the more constructive “It Must Change” philosophy. It’s a track where someone’s resigning themself to the destructive nature of a relationship, whether with a person or society at large. Where do you see this one within the larger arc of MBWAB.
I believe in motherhood. I believe in the power of a mother that in times embodies [the Hindu goddess] Kali. I believe in the power of volcanoes. When I think of a feminine principle, I don’t think of some pastoral, toe-bound, milk-maid idea about femaleness. If an Earth, if a body, if a mother… If her son has a knife to her throat, she knows her blood’s gonna go back into the ground.
The paper today [says] the North Sea is five degrees Celsius hotter than it should be and they’re fearing a mass die-off of coral, kelp, seaweed, and fish. The North Sea never gets hotter. It’s the last bastion of cold water. The fact that the North Sea is five degrees Celsius is too hot and it’s the beginning of the summer… She’s saying, “Go ahead. Cut my throat. See what comes next. Watch the oxygen disappear from your atmosphere. Watch yourself starve to death from a lack of oxygen. I can’t stop you. Go ahead.”
You’ve acknowledged that people rely on your voice as a source of comfort. The song I find most comforting on this record, ironically, is the one that deals with Lou Reed’s death, “Sliver Of Ice.” The idea of finding beauty in something as simple as an ice cube while you’re reckoning with the immediacy of your own mortality is so powerful to me. Do you believe finitude is what gives life it’s meaning?
The word “life” is weird. It’s a binary setup, the way we think about it. Life and death are supposed to be opposites, but there’s things I’ve heard from other people that don’t lay it out that way. When I went and worked with the Martu in the Western Australian desert, they wouldn’t have said that that was how it was.
I don’t have any sense of how this all plays out. It’s not so much meaning that I’m interested in. It’s not really the meaning [that Lou] was expressing to me; it was the gratitude and the rapture, a sense of aliveness. It was being in the present. He was viscerally experiencing sensation. If anything, meaning was getting in the way of his feeling of being alive.
“Why Am I Alive Now?” deals with the desire to stop living because the world keeps getting worse, but that sentiment is undercut a little by the urgency and the aliveness of the music it comes with. Would it be a stretch to consider the relationship between the music and lyrics of that song as fire in the darkness?
The music has a big part in the meaning of that song. It’s this unfurling, lush tapestry. There’s a sense of abundance — this proliferation that’s the backdrop to a sense of loneliness in the face of these times. Of any song on the record, that one is in conversation with the legacy of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, where he went topically from song to song and accumulated a worldview in the course of an album. That was what I tried to do with HOPELESSNESS. But on [MBWAB], that song in particular was trying to address that record across the bridge of time.
What’s Going On was recorded in the early ’70s, which is now by environmental standards considered a lush paradise. We hardly ever even go back to 1970 as a baseline because it’s considered a time of abundance. But in his prophetic view, he could see the writing on the wall. Here we are, 50 years later, and everything he sang about is as if it were today, except amplified exponentially.
Marsha P. Johnson, for me, is Jesus as a girl.
“You Be Free” is a perfect closer. “Be free for me” is such a simple, beautiful sentiment, and one that reflects the cover star of the album, Marsha P. Johnson, who did so much work so that others could be free. I was hoping we could close this out with the story of you kissing her hand on the day she died.
I moved to New York in 1990 as a student and lived by the West Side Highway. The West Village in the ’70s and ’80s was a gay mecca. Marsha was a very visible figure on Christopher Street [back then]. When I came to New York, I was directed towards her as someone to respect, an elder. She was considered a saint in her own lifetime — that’s how people described her. Other queens loved her. She was particularly generous of spirit. She was known to panhandle all day on Christopher Street, and when someone would come ask her for something, she’d give all the money she got that day to them.
I’ve heard her and [fellow trans rights activist] Sylvia Rivera say in interviews, “We’re not free until everyone’s free,” which is a classic motif of the Civil Rights Movement. But to hear it coming from the mouths of homeless sex workers — people afforded the lowest tier of freedom in American society, who were the shock absorbers for the worst excesses of the loathing of women, of racism and homophobia, who had no access to things that most people take for granted — that’s what I would call Jesus as a girl. Marsha P. Johnson, for me, is Jesus as a girl. On the song “River of Sorrow,” which I wrote right after she died, she’s walking on the water between the piers.
There’s a crazy disparity between how much respect she commanded in her lifetime and the lack of care she received. That’s something that we all have to live with — that this woman who’s been deified in the 30 years since her passing died with nothing, and yet she was the Rosa Parks of this particular branch of the human rights movement in America. I saw her all the time on Christopher Street as a student, but I met her at Gay Pride and I kissed her hand and I told her I loved her and I thanked her. That’s the only interaction I ever had with her, and she was super gracious to me. It was peak-AIDS, 1992 New York, a very deathly time. It was expressions of joy but with a veil of death over everything. That was how it felt as a kid arriving in that moment.
She passed away a couple of days after that, and it hit me at a certain point in my very young life where, because I was still looking for family and for reason and connection, I wanted to carry that story, so I’ve carried it from then to now. That’s why I decided to call the record Johnsons again and have a picture of her on the cover. All my work has had some relationship, broadly, to this notion of sacred ancestry and the ways that’s informed me, aspirationally and otherwise. I don’t believe in everything being so separate. Things are quite porous.