ANOHNI Interview: On Hopelessness, Donald Trump and ‘inhaling the big picture’
March 4th 2016
ANOHNI is the powerful new electronic project of Antony and the Johnsons’ lead singer and songwriter, in collaboration with Hudson Mohawke and Oneohtrix Point Never. Harnessing the energy and passion of dance music, ANOHNI elevates some of the biggest issues facing the planet and humanity today: from ecocide and poverty to the drone war and the surveillance of individuals.
Announced as the first act for Vivid LIVE 2016, ANOHNI will bring her fifth album Hopelessness (released 6th May via Rough Trade/Remote Control) to life in a a series of immersive audio-visual performances in the Joan Sutherland Theatre at Sydney Opera House. FBi’s Serge Negus spoke to the artist about her new music, the state of US politics and ‘inhaling the big picture’.
You’re releasing Hopelessness this year. I’ve had a sneak preview of it and it’s a deeply political album. What were your main motivators behind writing these songs?
I just wanted to write songs about the things I am really thinking about all the time. I’ve written a lot of quite pastoral music in the past, and been very personal. But it’s sort of a ‘bigger picture’ to our lives that’s coming more and more into focus for people, and I wanted to see if I could create a soundtrack for that.
On that level, you address issues such as climate change, drone bombing and government transparency. Are those the topics that you think are the most important to be discussing these days?
I feel like there’s a whole network of issues – almost like an ecosystem, if you will, of things that we tend to take on one at a time. But it’s almost like a bar of soap: you take on one and then the other five are screaming for attention. Then you take on another one, and the one you were just attending to comes back even worse, you know? And I think that unless we deal with it as a system of interdependent problems that bottleneck and climax with ecocide, we’re not probably going to get anywhere.
So I think I was interested to try to sort of inhale the big picture, and represent a bigger picture of things through a system of songs.
The music and the lyrics are quite contrasting, in that the lyrics can often be quite dark but the rhythms are often uplifting. As a as musician, what’s the purpose of that for you?
I think it’s exhilarating to tell the truth, or to tell your version of the truth. And I really wanted to make it a dance record, almost like a Trojan horse in a way: something that had a sense of jubilance to it and then imbedded in it was some heavy content. Also I just wanted to challenge the medium of pop music, and see what’s possible for us to talk about in the forum of pop.
Do you think it’s more accessible to talk about these issues with pop music? Do you think having a broader audience for it is what more pop musicians should be doing?
I can’t speak for other musicians, but I know for myself I wanted to. My sole purpose for this record was to explore the limits of my sphere of influence and see how broad a conversation I could have with the widest number of people. There’s something contrarian and confounding about the fact that they are dance songs, yet there is a lot of energy that comes with dance music… if they were just mopey ballads, they probably wouldn’t have a quarter of the impact that they have as exhilarating dance tracks.
Totally – when I was listening to Hopelessness I felt this level of laughter coming out of me, because I was having fun whilst listening to lyrics about things that I really supported. Did you want people to feel like these topics could be addressed in a fun manner, if we looked at them in the right way?
Fun is a difficult word, but I think with great energy, with vigour, yes. That it can be activating. One of my biggest things was that I wanted to support other people who were thinking and perceiving things in the way that I was seeing and thinking about them. The number one purpose of the record is just to affirm people in their conviction that things are really off course. And it’s right to be thinking about that, it’s right to perceive that because that is what’s happening. It’s right to be dreaming about it and even be feeling overwhelmed by it.
The record is called Hopelessness because I think that, sublimated into the fabric of our lives, there is a lot of hopelessness. And hopelessness is a feeling, it’s not a fact.
For sure – I think I personally believe that hopelessness is a far more powerful concept than hope in itself. What does hopelessness mean to you in that sense?
Well like I said, hopelessness is a feeling: it’s a barometer of one kind of indicator of where we’re at. And feelings – like grief and every other kind of feeling – are to be moved through… it’s a space, you know, it’s not a fact.
And what comes after hopelessness?
That’s a really good question. I don’t think many people have really visualised that, because I think that a lot of people are feeling very doom-ish about the future. But I think part of this is to challenge that and as I said to try to inhale the bigger picture.
In that regard, is this a protest album?
I don’t know, I didn’t I write it with that intention. I think increasingly my presence, especially in the last few years, in interviews has been quite politically motivated – I have been really trying to use the forum of interviews to talk about things that I care about, as opposed to just resorting to the same sort of tired biographical tidbits. And then I just got to the point where I wanted that life to be represented in my songs, because I found that I was. So whether it is a protest record? I suppose yeah, it is a protest record.
Do you think that a lot of your music connects to young people, especially ‘4 Degrees’ and songs about climate and human rights? Is there a specific demographic for your music?
I think it crosses a wide spectrum. I think there are people thinking about a lot of these issues individually and collectively. I am always surprised by how people from so many different walks of life are actually having very similar thoughts about the way things are going down at the moment. You could ask your taxi driver and he’d tell you the same thing that a young college student would tell you. Through a lens of his own, through his own culture or imagery – but he’ll be coming to the same conclusions.
I play this record to people and they say oh I feel that way, I feel that way, I feel that way. And yet we don’t really spend much time raising a kind of collective consciousness, and affirming ourselves in that collective consciousness.
Do you think this is something that’s eventually going to boil over? A tipping point where there will be this collective consciousness between enough people that will actually start moving in the right direction? Or do you think that something needs to happen in order to push us to that point?
Well, I don’t think that people surrender. People don’t give us their money and power very easily, so I don’t think it will be a walk, you know, it won’t be a gentle snowfall of change. I think that already, things are reaching a kind of fever pitch. I think it’s just the beginning of something and it’s hard to really say what it is, what its going to be… Honestly I don’t know.
I couldn’t tell you what the future holds, but I am trained to stay in the present and to identify my truth. To, as best as I can, sort through the barrage of information that I am provided with through the media and through my own intuitions, and try to consolidate a perspective. As opposed to just walking away and giving up and living in a bubble of my own tiny private life, you know what I mean?
Yes. You said something very interesting recently – you said that identity politics can often be used as a smokescreen. What exactly do you mean by that?
It’s not to undermine the legitimacy of people and the struggles of many demographics of people. Obviously there is tremendous persecution in the world. It wasn’t that I was saying that wasn’t a reality, but rather I was watching how it [identity politics] has played out in America. I have been seeing how it is sort of a merry-go-round of issues, especially on election years.
There’s this quite menacing manipulation of working middle class people to vote for these giant corporate entities that are offered tremendous corporate backing and represent other corporate interests. And yet, they need to convince working middle class people to elect them in a democracy, so they revert to the conversation about ‘what’s going on with your neighbour’, you know? Is there a person of difference in your neighbourhood? What’s the dynamic between different demographics of people? Everything from reproductive rights to gun control, to race and gay rights. This season trans rights and trans consciousness is a very popular subject. Again it’s not to say that that’s not an important thing to focus on, especially as a trans person I am delighted. But I can’t help but think that as long as the population is preoccupied with these subjects, the people in power are sort of laughing all the way to the bank.
We are not dismantling the system that holds all of these pieces in place, which inevitably is what the Occupy movement tried to do, and I think it was the first really legitimate threat posed to the existing American paradigm of power in a long time. Probably since the Vietnam war – the last war that entered the living room through television. After that, the government realised they couldn’t let Americans see the reality of war, otherwise they wouldn’t sign up for it. And that was the last time that Americans ever saw the fruits of their country’s brutality. It just became pastoral, like a fireworks show that you’d see on Fox News.
Do you think that the media and corporations popularise issues that can become romanticised, while sweeping under the rug and covering up what they are doing?
Well, what Donald Trump is appealing to right now – the kind of ‘thug mentality’ of indebted working class white people in America – does he really care about those people? Or if he is he appealing to the evangelicals, or to this demographic or that demographic, who are they really? What are their platforms? Once he has harnessed those votes and secured them, who is he really working for?
It seems so painfully obvious that those people are just being manipulated, that we are all being manipulated in a way. I started noticing it at the end of the 80s with the Reagan-Bush years. Every election cycle, right before the general election in the US, there would be a renewed conversation about gay rights in the America. It was what I started calling a knee-jerk moral, a fake moral issue. It was an issue that Republicans could galvanise giant swathes of a bigoted population into voting for them with, when they were really voting for corporations.
As far as these working and middle class people were concerned, they were voting for this moral agenda which was to stop gay people teaching their children in public schools. But in reality, they were voting for the deregulation of capitalism in America, the dismantling of unions and the eradication of the net which should take care of people.
And how do you escape that manipulation?
I don’t know. It’s just something that has been occurring to me recently. I know it is a bold statement and people can easily misinterpret it, but I just think it’s that thing of the 99% versus the 1%. We are so easily divided and concurred, when actually it’s like the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain. And that little Wizard of Oz might be Rupert Murdoch – he might be one very rich man sitting behind a little curtain with a megaphone. A handful of stinking rich people are inheriting this power and extracting ever more of the world’s wealth.
Income disparity has become so much more extreme in the last 30 years. There is an amazing documentary called ‘Inequality For All’ about economics in America. I learned so much from watching it. In really simple terms it described how, starting with Reagan, this new economic agenda has progressed and has now become almost a model for the world.
In your songs on the new album, you speak about this idea that the rest of the Western world has become America, and the rest of many other parts of the world have become America. Is that what you mean by that?
Again it’s about the stealth of virulent capitalism. Most of us are sitting around still thinking that we belong to countries, but in fact corporations are more powerful than most countries. There are corporations that are much wealthier than many countries in the world. And this idea that America doesn’t observe land boundaries anymore, this concept that America is actually the virulent conclusion of manifest destiny… it’s this virulent consumption of what remains and the climaxing in this final phase of what I call ‘trickle up’ economics, which is just the hollowing out of income for most people in the world.
When I was a kid, I had one parent working and that parent could earn enough money to pay the mortgage on an affordable house. Now I look at my brothers, and you need two parents working full time to pay an extortionate mortgage, then there is no money left over for anything else. And that’s the best case scenario! Life has gotten much more difficult for most people financially… I see the effects all around me in America. I see so many young people burdened with incredible debt just to go to school. Debt that’s the size of the cost of a house, just to get an undergraduate education. That wouldn’t have happened in my parents’ generation, when people were still enjoying the fruits of post-war and had comparatively socialist policies of taking care of each other. Of supporting the community. That was of primary value to society: the idea of investing in and supporting the community.
Do you think our society now is less compassionate and caring?
I don’t think that people now are any less compassionate and caring. But I think that we’ve let it get away from us. Through a series of manipulations we’ve been convinced to advocate against our best interests. Why is it that poor people continue to vote for people that don’t have their best interests at heart? I mean, that’s an amazing idea: the very stealthy, nasty idea that people are manipulated into voting against their own best interest. Yet that’s what happens every election year in the US. I mean, this time we’ve got Trump running – and I almost feel like I am in war Germany! The level of bigotry is through the roof. The level of volatility and resentment is through the roof. It’s scary in America, I would say, it’s pretty scary.
Just to finish up, you will be performing at the Sydney Opera House as part of Vivid Live in May. Can you give us a bit of an insight into what you’ll incorporate into that show?
Well, it’s electronic music – it’s very, very different from anything that people have seen me do before. It’s going to be a live presentation of the songs with some very interesting visual components. There will be a series of portraits playing in tandem with the concert, portraits of different women… with this idea that my body would almost be annihilated if my body and voice were separated. What would be an aspirational body that I could then assign my voice to? I’ve been playing with this idea a lot in developing the ideas for the live shows.
WHAT: Anohni at Vivid LIVE
WHEN: May 27-31, 2016
WHERE: Sydney Opera House, Joan Sutherland Theatre
HOW MUCH: From $89 through Sydney Opera House
Update – Watch the video for ANOHNI’s new single ‘Drone Bomb Me’ featuring Naomi Campbell:
‘Hopelessness’ is out Friday 6 May through Rough Trade / Remote Control Records.