We’ve Got A File On You: ANOHNI

Nomi Ruiz

We’ve Got A File On You: ANOHNI

Nomi Ruiz

We’ve Got A File On You features interviews in which artists share the stories behind the extracurricular activities that dot their careers: acting gigs, guest appearances, random internet ephemera, etc.

ANOHNI and her band the Johnsons came to broader public consciousness in 2005, when their heartbreaking second album I Am A Bird Now won the Mercury Prize and made the largest chart jump – #135 to #16 – of any recipient of the prize thus far. Though the Mercury honors the best album released in the UK by a British or Irish act, the English-born ANOHNI has resided in the United States for nearly her entire life. And though this striking, quiver-voiced singer may seem as if she emerged fully formed, her roots in the NYC theater underground run deep. A new ANOHNI-curated compilation, Blacklips Bar: Androgyns And Deviants – Industrial Romance For Bruised And Battered Angels, 1992–1995, sheds light on the Blacklips performance collective with which she cut her teeth as a performer in the ’90s.

The thread running through all ANOHNI’s work, aside from that inimitable vocal delivery, is its unwavering intensity. ANOHNI had a fruitful working relationship with Lou Reed for the last few years of that songwriter’s life, singing on his Berlin tour in 2006 and appearing on his live album Animal Serenade – and like Reed, whose Berlin and Magic & Loss should make any shortlist of the saddest albums ever recorded, ANOHNI never allows the listener to hide from the implications of her material. In 2016 she put out a fiercely polemical electro-pop album called Hopelessness with producers Oneohtrix Point Never and Hudson Mohawke, which interrogated the surveillance state, the climate crisis, and the horrors of modern warfare with the bluntness of a vivisection.

Last July came My Back Was A Bridge For You To Cross, her first album with the Johnsons in 13 years and perhaps her most unsparing and devastating work yet. Delivering on the promise of excellent early experiments in live-band soul like “Fistful Of Love” and “Thank You For Your Love,” My Back channels the “technology” of both protest-soul classics like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On and the UK blue-eyed soul mutations of Yaz and Marc Almond in the creation of music whose stated purpose is to make us “feel what’s happening now.” Her voice parches and dries as she sings from the perspective of a mother bringing a child into a dying world on “There Wasn’t Enough.” On “Scapegoat,” her vibrato-soaked voice approximates both the frightened bleating of a sacrificial lamb and the slow, inevitable slicing of a knife.

ANOHNI has only released six studio full-lengths in a little over 20 years, which is just as well; an ANOHNI record, with or without the Johnsons, isn’t something even the most ardent fans would want to subject themselves to every day. But she’s stayed busy, working as one of the resident house divas for the great gay disco band Hercules And Love Affair and collaborating with everyone from Oneohtrix Point Never to CocoRosie to Matmos to Willem Dafoe. Below, the singer speaks on her new record and a few of the most interesting random gigs from throughout her career.

My Back Was A Bridge For You To Cross (2023)

You’ve spoken of the influence of Marvin Gaye on the album. How would you say Marvin’s Christianity versus your animist perspective informs your different approaches to the environmental crisis?

ANOHNI: [Marvin] expresses both grief and also a sense of salvation and paradise in another realm as a final destination. And I don’t believe that there’s a paradise in another realm. For me, this is paradise, so — and I kind of say that on the record — there’s nowhere to go. There’s nowhere to get to. This is our world. No one’s getting out of here. That’s a very big difference. Marvin’s record is like a visitation of a beautiful planet that’s being destroyed and a song of sadness that could also accompany his exodus from that planet. And I don’t subscribe to a mythology that suggests that there’s any leaving nature. I don’t believe in leaving nature.

Blacklips Performance Cult (1993-1995)

You’ve said “Autumn Leaves” was your favorite song to perform with Blacklips. Why that song?

ANOHNI: I don’t know why I said that was my favorite one, but I did love singing it. I was just thinking about Edith Piaf this morning, and also Billie Holiday did a beautiful version of it, and Nina Simone did a beautiful version of it. I performed it once at La MaMa, and I performed it two or three times at the Pyramid. I used to do a song of mine called “Rapture,” and [“Autumn Leaves”] was kind of a sister song to “Rapture” in a way, because it talked about this sense of falling. That was a sort of broader theme of the song “Rapture” as well, but in “Autumn Leaves” it’s very personal. It’s, you know, “I miss you most of all when autumn leaves start to fall.” But I sang it in a very melancholy way, about the environment and about AIDS.

The way I performed in those days was very different than the way I’ve performed more recently, maybe with the exception of Hopelessness, but in a very different way. I was a more self-conscious performer, and I was trying to sing more athletically than I’ve ever tried since. I would push things as far as I could take them emotionally and physically. When a song worked, it really worked, and when it didn’t work, it was a disaster.

If someone asked you that question now, about what your favorite song was to perform with Blacklips, what would you say?

ANOHNI: That’s as good as any; I loved that song. Blacklips wasn’t a place where I did that much [after a certain point]. Although I did write some plays and stuff, my job there was also very administrative. I didn’t have time to focus that much on my work as things progressed in Blacklips, so [other than] for the first few months, I didn’t perform that many of my songs or my music. And then for the next two and a half years it was just this crazy cavalcade of a bunch of other people’s ideas and some of mine.

What was a typical crowd like for a Blacklips performance? Was there a group of regulars, or would a lot of people be coming in and out?

ANOHNI: It would have to be a pretty nocturnal crowd because it was so late at night on Monday, so you couldn’t really have a day job and come. There was a certain group of regulars, maybe 10 or so people that would come most weeks, and then a smaller group that came every single night. Howie Pyro was one of the biggest regulars that we had; he was in the band D Generation. It was a pretty small audience that sometimes got bigger. When one of the more popular presenters was doing the show, someone like Lulu or Lily of the Valley, they always pulled the biggest crowds.

Singing The Hook On CocoRosie’s Rap Song “Smoke ‘Em Out” (2017)

How did you end up singing on “Smoke ‘Em Out?”

ANOHNI: They just mailed it to me and asked me to do a chorus. We have a long history; we used to tour together in the early 2000s. I used to be their opening act. I would go do little piano numbers or keyboard numbers before they would do their big shows. And it was a lot of fun. They were really inspiring. Are you a fan of theirs?

I forget which video it was, but I first found them through this video where they’re walking through this haunted-looking mansion and there were deer heads everywhere. And I was just like, “who are these people? I wanna find out.” [The video in question is for “Lemonade.”]

ANOHNI: They’re really under-appreciated in America. They’re really amazing live, they’re really inspiring to see live. They’re the only band who, night after night, I used to sit on the side of the stage and just watch them. And every show was so different and so full of emotion, and they were so good at making live events really be live – they knew how to kind of evoke the present, like work with the present. And they’re very fearless. I know they’ve inspired a lot of artists they’ve worked with just because of their fearlessness, which some people have berated them for. But I honestly think they’re important.

Do you think that people outside of America have had a more positive reaction to their work or understood them better?

ANOHNI: Definitely all throughout Europe, they’re very, very popular, and I’m sure in pockets of the US they’re popular too, but I don’t know.

In the summer of 2010 there was this giant oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and they released an album called Grey Oceans that season, and it was just one of those sort of synchronistic moments. I remember Pitchfork gave them something like two stars out of 10, and they just said, “We’re basically giving it two stars because we don’t understand this.” And I led a whole campaign where I got all these artists to write their reviews of it, like Yoko Ono, Nico Muhly, and St. Vincent. I think we may even have published it on Stereogum. There was a guy, Brandon [Stosuy], who was a writer for Pitchfork, but also I think he used to write maybe for Stereogum too. And we published it as a kind of rebuttal.

[Note: Grey Oceans received a 5.1 from Pitchfork. It was The Adventures Of Ghosthorse And Stillborn that received a 2.3. Stosuy claims to have written a positive review of Ghosthorse for Pitchfork which was pulled and replaced with a negative review “at the eleventh hour.” The rebuttal to Pitchfork’s Grey Oceans review was indeed published on Stereogum.]

Rehearsing With Lou Reed (2006-2008)

Lou Reed had a reputation as a sort of curmudgeon – did you find that was true working with him?

ANOHNI: I would never use the word curmudgeonly to describe him, because he’s so dynamic. He is very volatile, he is very emotional, and very intense energy and sometimes very, very warm energy. He just had it all, like he was intense across the board. I was always really careful rehearsing with Lou. I just never wanted to be told to do anything twice. I think because of my history rehearsing with musicians where I have to tell them if they would do something that I liked, I’d be like, “Please do that again,” and then they wouldn’t know what it was and they couldn’t repeat it. And if I got them to repeat it, then they would repeat it and then the next rehearsal, they wouldn’t remember it. And that was my experience so much in rehearsal that I was determined never to be that musician.

I think he appreciated that in a weird way, that in the development process that I didn’t let everything fall away. A lot of times in rehearsals, musicians let a lot of their ideas just escape because they don’t collect them. When you’re improvising or experimenting, it’s a real skill to be able to sort of retain the development of the ideas from a rehearsal from rehearsal to rehearsal. And so I always wanted to be that musician for Lou that would retain everything that he liked and, and reproduce it for him. And he had a soft spot for my voice, kind of like [Bob] Wilson as well. They had a soft spot for me. So they treated me really good, you know, better than everyone else got treated. Is that weird to say? It’s just the truth.

Do you think that working with him made you a better collaborator and a better musician?

ANOHNI: I don’t mean he treated me better than everybody else, but I just mean he just treated me with soft gloves. I think he also knew that if he came in too hard on me, I would just shut it down. You know what I’m saying? Everyone has their own way of working, and I don’t really respond well to being pushed, so that’s why I work triple to be on top of it so that person never has to put me in that position. The times when he did try to push me — like live on stage, for instance, like if he would be pressuring me to do a solo or something and I didn’t feel like I could — it was always a disaster, you know? I couldn’t do it. I would just shut down. I would freeze. And I think he got to know that about me and sort of accepted my output.

Generally speaking, he was very kind to me, and a very loving friend. If he was your friend, you really had a friend. He was loyal and had your back. If he liked you, then he really liked you — you were in his graces, and you felt it.

Working With Oneohtrix Point Never (2010-Present) Including Hopelessness (2016)

You and Daniel Lopatin first collaborated on a version of “Returnal” from Oneohtrix Point Never’s 2010 album of the same name. Can you tell me how the two of you connected and how your voice ended up on that song?

ANOHNI: My memory is he just asked for me, and I said yes because I was interested in his work, and then he’d already had the whole track prepared. I didn’t know he was a pianist, but he was; he tracked that piano himself. He had it all mapped out for me. All I had to do was sing it. And that was our first sort of introduction. He released it as a single, and then we became friends. He’s a really fun, funny, quirky, super clever, sensitive person, and very fun to talk to. We did a bunch of other projects over the years — he did little remixes for me here and there — and then we decided to make an album together.

I understand before Hudson Mohawke joined as a producer, the album was going to be more new-age. Is that accurate, and do you still have any demos and recordings from when the album sounded like that?

ANOHNI: I really used to love this one soundtrack called Queen Millennia. It’s a Kitarō soundtrack for this one Japanese film, and I used to use it for soundtrack material for a lot of the Blacklips shows and the Johnsons shows. I used to just love how idealistic it was, and I love the emotionality of some of those songs. They’re so pretty and so sweet in a way, and celestial, and I knew that Dan for different reasons probably liked the same stuff. So we talked about doing something like that, and we were thinking a lot about the Blade Runner soundtrack and having some very kind of twinkly sort of sci-fi sound – this was around 2010 or whatever. But then we were wrestling with different material, and it just took a while for us to find the right material.

And then you were on Oneohtrix Point Never’s “Black Snow” from 2018 — I had no idea you were on that song until recently.

ANOHNI: He totally mixed me out of that record, but I loved that session. We had a really good time with that session, but he should release the versions actually recorded one day. I sang the shit out of it for him because I really wanted to do good for him, but he does love to mix. My thing would be to go in and do like triple or quadruple harmonies and make beautiful passages for him, but he didn’t really want anything that direct. He does like four cutups of everything he ever touches. It’s like he makes you a shepherd’s pie and by the time it’s finished it’s like some kind of Brussels sprout foam or something.

Creating The Music For An Experimental Opera With Willem Dafoe, Marina Abramović, And Bob Wilson (2012)

You worked on the music for the opera Bob Wilson’s The Life And Death Of Marina Abramović. Do you have any good stories about working with Marina, Willem Dafoe, or Bob Wilson?

ANOHNI: Marina’s one of my closest friends, and we became friends about 20 years ago. She’s a great person, and she’s kind of like family to me. So she asked me to do that thing with Bob Wilson, and I love Bob Wilson but I hate theater. But I said I would do it, and it was hard. Golly, it was so hard. But I did learn a lot while I was doing that. I learned how to stand still again, which I hadn’t done for a long time.

Why was it hard?

ANOHNI: I’d just forgotten how to stand still on stage as a performer, and Bob just told me to stand still and just to sing a song. And I’d gotten to a point where I had all this body language that I was unconsciously doing while I was performing that I thought was kind of part of my process, but then I realized I didn’t have to do it anymore, and it was such a relief. And Bob taught me that. He gave me confidence, he gave me a lot of confidence. He was really supportive of me, always encouraging me. And he’s such a titan, you know?

But that play was bonkers, ridiculous. And Willem Dafoe is like the funniest person in the world, and also tirelessly positive and enthusiastic and generous of spirit and curious and humble. And he’s such a pleasure to be around. It was a funny team, you know? But I didn’t really like dressing up like that. It’s not really my cup of tea.

It’s interesting what you say about standing still. The first time I really had an image to go with your voice was when I saw the Lou Reed Berlin concert film and you came out and did “Candy Says,” and you were doing all these expressive body motions that I found very moving actually.

ANOHNI: I think I just started to become a pastiche of myself in a way. I started assuming I had to do it, it stopped being about freedom for me and started being about just a — a way I presumed I approached being physical in space. At the point when I met Bob, it was a relief for me to have someone just say: “You can do this. You can channel this and be still.” At that moment, it was actually concentrating my energy in a new way.

The hands for me were always a place where if I could find release in my hands, I used to think I could find more release in my voice. You keep your emotions in different places in your body at different points in your life, and for a long time, a lot of feeling was in my hands, in my wrists. And so I was always searching my hands for my voice in a weird way. I don’t know if that makes sense, but then at a certain point I got to a certain age and suddenly I didn’t need to do that anymore. And now I’m like a rock, I’m a stone, I’m just a stone.

How do you think standing still has affected the way you sing?

ANOHNI: It did for a while in my last period of performing, especially orchestral shows, which was probably like 10 years ago. It was just like a relief to be able to feel like I had support from the space around me and be able to hold that visually in my mind without having to physically represent it. You become kind of a channel. Bob was really good because his aesthetics are so formal, and his pursuit of theatrical, physical forms is so formal. It’s very exacting and it’s sort of the opposite of reckless freedom. It’s like a corset, like a really tight corset. It’s almost like wearing a brace, you know what I’m saying? If you have a brace on your leg, your leg gets stronger in that form, maybe even stronger than it was originally.

But also my approach to being on the stage had changed at that point. I was less convivial at that point on stage. I didn’t want to do any more people-pleasing on stage. There had been a period where my stage persona was trying to counter the intensity of the work with chit-chat, just trying to set people at ease. But I got to a point where I didn’t wanna do that anymore.

Turning Down An Offer To Perform At The Paralympic Games (2012)

ANOHNI: When I Am A Bird Now was released [in 2005] I was surprised to find that one demographic of people that were drawn towards it were people with disabilities, because they related to the idea of transcending the body, of the spirit transcending the body form. That was really unbelievable to me as a sort of underground New York performer. It was something I hadn’t expected and really touching to me, honestly, because I had correspondence with some of these audience members that was really moving. And that played out to a point where I was asked to sing one of my songs from that record for the Paralympic Games in 2012.

And I was feeling like I didn’t want to. I didn’t want people to feel obliged to relate to me as a trans person. It was a little bit of low self-esteem or whatever, but I felt like I didn’t want to presume that it would be like a welcome space for me, which I know is a weird thought. So I said to them, “I don’t know if I’m the right person to sing it.” So then they were like, “Then maybe we should have Boy George sing it,” and I was like, “No, no, no, have a normal person sing it, like just have like a young woman sing it.” And they found this girl Birdy, who’s this English young woman singer, and she’s a piano player. She’s incredible. And she sang this song of mine called “Bird Gehrl,” which was the last song on my most successful record.

She sang it better than I ever, ever could have. And it was for the main ceremony. It was for the opening ceremony of the Paralympic Games, which is a huge, huge event. There’s thousands of people dancing around and it’s kind of like the Super Bowl but bigger, and they had this dancer, David Toole. He didn’t have legs, but he was just a beautiful dancer. Very, very expressive. And then they flew him across the whole skyline, they elevated him. He did this dance that was one of the most shocking things I ever saw.

Writing a song in your SRO, in your tiny room in 2000, in 1995 or whatever, just with one tiny world of your own imagination in your mind’s eye, and then for it to go all the way from that little spinet piano in a single room with a sink in it to this young woman singing it for the Paralympic Games with giant symphonies and thousands of people dancing around and this incredible dancer being elevated across an entire stadium – it just was one of the most amazing things I ever had the privilege of being a part of.

We rely on reader subscriptions to deliver articles like the one you’re reading. Become a member and help support independent media!

more from We've Got A File On You

Please disable your adblocker or subscribe to ad-free membership to view this article.

Already disabled it? Click here to refresh.