Anohni Isn’t Afraid of the Darkness

Anohni requested to meet at night. Street lamps cast a soft glow onto the trees of Washington Square Park in Manhattan, and speaking for three invigorating hours on a spring Friday after dark, she illuminated histories within it.

The uncompromising art-pop musician known for her otherworldly, multi-octave voice, her multidisciplinary visual art and her devotion to clarifying abuses of power will release her sixth album on July 7. But before the dawn of her idiosyncratic career, she arrived as a student in the Experimental Theater Wing at New York University in 1990, in the middle of the AIDS crisis.

“I had certain teachers who were dying while they were teaching me,” Anohni, 51, said, citing the queer film historian Vito Russo and Martin Worman, a member of the performance troupe the Cockettes, who sat Anohni down in the park to share cultural knowledge he feared might be lost.

“That impacted me,” she added. “It was my first adult breaths in the world. All these neural connections in queer avant-garde culture had been violently cut. There was no internet, and no one knew if those neural pathways were going to grow back together again.”

The title of Anohni’s soulful new album, “My Back Was a Bridge for You to Cross,” is a testament to the hard work of carrying stories through time. It underscores the roots of the imposing stakes and unwavering purpose that have long been synonymous with Anohni, but especially since 2016, when she released the politically unsparing electronic-pop album “Hopelessness” and was nominated for an Oscar (as a writer of the song “Manta Ray” from the documentary “Racing Extinction”).

Processing the deaths of several close friends, environmental destruction, alienation and the very tenor of oppression, “My Back” is also the first of the artist’s albums credited to Anohni and the Johnsons, combining the name by which she has been publicly known for about a decade and that of her amorphous chamber-pop ensemble, which released albums from 2000 to 2010. Anohni originally named the group in tribute to the gay liberation icon Marsha P. Johnson; her portrait adorns the new LP’s cover and the inside artwork features photographs of friends, including the former Johnsons member Dr. Julia Yasuda, who died in 2018.

“She’s a rare artist,” said Jimmy Hogarth, a one-time collaborator of Amy Winehouse and Duffy, who helped write many of its guitar-based reveries over two weeks in London in 2022. Sharing references such as Marvin Gaye and Jimmy Scott, the pair worked quickly and spontaneously to compose a fervent Muscle Shoals sound for Anohni’s pointed, long-gestating lyrics. Several vocal takes, including the elegantly groovy single “It Must Change,” were recorded only once.

“She’s a transmitter and a teacher,” Hogarth added. “She’s had visceral experience through her life. The sum of her experience is her expression and these words.”

Sitting at the park dressed in black with her bicycle beside her, Anohni emitted the warmth and expansive emotionality of her music in her gentle gaze and the frequent laughter that punctuated her fierce analysis of modern life. She said she hadn’t necessarily expected to make another record. “It’s so easy to completely tear yourself apart in this moment, to be so down on oneself as part of this whole thing,” she said. “I’ve been trying to figure out more gracious ways to move through that feeling in order to be more effective.”

One way was giving Hogarth a directive: “I want to make a record that specifically addresses how I came to be singing this way. What is this voice?”

THE SOUND OF Anohni’s music has changed, and in her lyrics, she calls for change. But, through the decades, her broader commitments — political, social, emotional — have remained remarkably consistent. Her dedication to “reckoning with ecocide” and “addressing collapse” dates back to plays like the surrealist “Miracle Now” that she wrote and staged with the Johnsons in the 1990s.

In conversation, Anohni rigorously dismantled capitalism, technology and corporate campaigns to suppress information. She called the mythology of Adam and Eve “fake news,” and the tech industry “the last phase of manifest destiny.” Patriarchy has “created a whole theology that deifies and exalts apocalypse,” she said. “There are no beneficiaries.” She traced a historical arc from Indigenous cultures where “there had been a dignified seat for trans people” to the centuries of “amnesia and genocide on those types of bodies” in the West with “the birth of Abrahamic religion.”

Laurie Anderson, a longtime friend and a collaborator, said she values the “painfully honest” nature of Anohni’s work. “The collapse of things is in the forefront,” Anderson said in a phone interview. “It makes people squirm. And it also makes them feel. She gets to the heart of it really quickly.”

The theme of the new album is “It’s time to feel what’s really happening,” Anohni said, quoting a statement emblazoned on the record’s artwork. The crucial word is “feel.” Steeled in conviction, the single “It Must Change” is a demand, a lament, a spell; a bid for humanization and empathy in “the way you talk to me” and “the death inside you that you pass into me.” California wildfires are pictured in the first frame of its video.

“There’s an idea I was raised with in misogynist postwar Britain that feeling and rational thought were opposed,” Anohni said. “Thereby, femaleness was a lesser intelligence, because femaleness was the archetype connected to intuition and feeling. But that old modality — of rational thought, secular thought, clear reason devoid of feeling and intuition — is over. It’s not sustainable. It’s a hoax.”

“My role was pretty simply outlined for me as a kid, which was that I was to advocate for the feminine, for feeling, that my war was going to be: We have a right to have feelings,” she added. “And furthermore, our feelings are just as valid a way of thinking as your rationalizing. They might be clearer.”

The incandescent ballad “Sliver of Ice” reflects one of Anohni’s final conversations with her close friend and collaborator Lou Reed. It was written in the immediate aftermath of his 2013 death, and explores a notion he expressed about the heightened sensory experience of tasting ice. “Now that it was becoming rarer for him, he was treasuring those experiences.”

Anohni first met Reed via the producer Hal Willner during sessions for Reed’s 2003 album, “The Raven”; Reed eventually brought her on two world tours as a backing singer. “Every night he introduced me with shining words to these walls of heterosexuals all over the world,” Anohni intoned, as a drummer in the park bashed away in the distance. “He was a tireless advocate for me. He’s a big part of why I had a career.”

She said that her 2005 breakthrough, “I Am a Bird Now,” had been recorded and widely dismissed by labels before Reed intervened. “No one was going to touch it because of who I was,” she said. “It would be hard to explain how homophobic the music industry was at the end of the ’90s into the early 2000s. But Lou forced people to listen to me.” During those early years, “I was doing this performance that disarmed people with almost weaponized vulnerability,” she said. “It was all survival strategies for me. How do you survive?”

In those days, Anohni admitted, she was more star-struck by encounters with Anderson, Reed’s partner and “an omnipresent voice” in Anohni’s household growing up. At 12, she wrote a school report on Anderson’s album “Big Science,” which she presented to her heroine decades later at Carnegie Hall. Anderson asked to take it, and returned it two months later with a letter grade: A.

Today, Anderson counts Anohni among her best friends. “She’s really one of the smartest people I know,” Anderson said. “Her point of view is coming from a lot of her pretty radical ideas about who’s doing what and why. And she’s always right, I have to say. I often ask for her take on things.”

AS A CHILD in the “petrochemical postwar bubble” of Chichester, England, “Boy George’s voice was a lifeline, and Alison Moyet’s was the same,” Anohni said, referring to the Yaz singer. “I remember sitting at my grandmother’s house, staring at the radio, listening to those songs come out, and crying, and not knowing why I felt that way. It was like there was permission to feel.”

Those English voices taught Anohni to sing. Making sense of how they drew from what she calls the “technology” of Black American soul music is a part of her current project. “I brought that to this album as an unfinished conversation, trying to understand where I come from and what I’m made out of,” she said. That notion electrifies the explosive “Can’t,” a heartbreaking narrative of refusing to accept a loved one’s self-inflicted death. “There’s something about the alchemy of mixing agony and joy that is a magic technology, a survival technology,” she said.

Anohni’s mother was a photographer and her father an engineer whose profession brought the family to Silicon Valley when Anohni was 10. By her early teens, she had rejected “a lot of Judeo-Christian stuff that was in my family.” Communing with redwood forests impacted her connection to nature profoundly. She entered a subcultural crowd interested in consciousness raising, “feminist pagan practices” and LSD. Anohni said certain of those experiences “helped me understand that the paradigms I had been raised with were constructs, like a really constricting filter, and I was trying to squeeze reality through this keyhole that I had been offered as the only way to see reality. And it just wasn’t that way.”

Among the binaries Anohni has more recently debunked for herself is day and night. “All days are night to me,” she said matter of factly. “When I realized that the blue sky was just an illusion, and behind, it was always night, that was a big deal.”

Before setting off from the park just after 10 p.m., Anohni paused to touch the needles of a tree, pressing them between her fingers to unleash their fragrance.

She has been mulling over Earth’s possible deeper dreams. “Maybe this whole thing, life, emerged because she was lonely. Biodiversity, animal and plant life, the beautiful complexity of the biosphere — why would she be motivated to create so many oases of tenderness if not to soothe herself? But I wonder if she doesn’t have it all figured out,” she said. Maybe Earth herself is still learning.

“It’s a new feeling I’ve been having.”

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