Transgender singer Anohni tells Fiona Shepherd why her new album is more direct about politics and the environment than anything she’s done
The name Anohni may be new, a little exotic and relatively unfamiliar, but the voice is not. The tremulous tenor is instantly recognisable as that of the transgender artist formerly known as Antony Hegarty, born in Chichester, raised in San Francisco, based in New York and most hymned – until now – for fronting the chamber pop group Antony and the Johnsons, whose tender meditations on gender and identity have enraptured fans since the release of the Mercury Music Prize-winning I Am A Bird Now over a decade ago.
I really love this piece and I feel so strongly about it. It’s been intenseAnohni
Hegarty has been privately using the moniker Anohni for some time, adapting her birth name with little phonetic nods to her influences, including the Japanese dancer Kazuo Ohno, to create what she considers to be her heart or spirit name.
“I wrote it on the wall in my bedroom and stared at it for about two years and just said ‘Is that me?’” she says. “It’s a rite of passage that a lot of different trans people have undergone historically. It’s a way of taking responsibility for oneself. There was something quite passive about my previous work aesthetically and maybe there was something quite passive about continuing forward with my birth name, so it is an assertion of a self.”
Earlier this year, Anohni became only the second transgendered person to be nominated for an Oscar – and certainly asserted herself by boycotting the ceremony when it emerged that she would not be invited to perform her nominated Best Song, Manta Ray, from the environmental documentary Racing Extinction.
With the public unveiling of Anohni, Hegarty now prefers to be referred to in the feminine – although she has been quoted as saying she doesn’t feel “emphatically female”. Coincidentally, as it turns out, she has gone through something of a musical rebirth too, by drawing a line under her previous chamber pop style, and swapping the intimacy of acoustic instrumentation for a bolder, extrovert electronic sound in the company of her latest collaborators – Glaswegian DJ/producer Hudson Mohawke, who has worked with the stellar likes of Kanye West, Drake and Mark Ronson, and EIF veteran (well, he performed last year) Oneohtrix Point Never aka experimental ambient composer/producer Daniel Lopatin.
Anohni has previously provided guest vocals for both boffins and began working more closely with Lopatin on some new music with a view to releasing an album. “We were making more melancholic electronic pop songs but it wasn’t until Hudson came on board with his euphoric, galvanising sound that the record kicked up into a fully fledged dance record.”
The result is Hopelessness, a poetic, pumping and overtly politicised album and now an audio-visual concert presentation which the trio are touring round Europe en route to the Edinburgh International Festival, in which Anohni appears veiled and hooded in front of striking screen projections of women lipsyncing to the lyrics. The show harks back to her roots on the New York performance art scene of the 1990s, from where she struck up an working relationship with trans rights champion Lou Reed, as well as an earlier touring show, Turning, which celebrated strong female archetypes, and her song Future Feminism which suggests, like Ivor Cutler before her, that it might be time for the women of the world to take over.
“All my work has been political but I do think this is a different approach,” she says. “I describe the record as a kind of a Trojan horse, it has more of a seduction in its sound. I wanted it to be a pop record so I really moved away from the pastoral orchestral sound I’ve embraced in the past and wanted the lyrics to be much more transparent and vigorous and direct than anything I’d done before. I wanted to address the times we live in in a very vivid way and not dress that in any gossamer aesthetic.”
The album begins dramatically with the ugly-beautiful track Drone Bomb Me, written from the heartbreaking perspective of an Afghan girl who has lost all her family to war and is now pleading for her own mercy killing. Obama gives the outgoing US president short shrift on his human rights record in the form of a deep, dark, ululating mantra where the hope of 2008 has given way to hopelessness. But no-one gets off the hook, least of all Anohni herself.
“My work tends to reflect what’s going on inside me,” she says, “so as external as this record seems to be, it’s also incredibly personal because it’s about my relationship to things that we’re often encouraged to believe as abstract. We’re told that the collapse of the economy is more of a threat to our wellbeing than the collapse of the biosphere and we actually kind of believe it. It’s just unbelievable, a stunning willingness to be separated from the earth that seems almost delusional to me.”
Anohni’s commitment to environmental activism runs deep. Like Bjork, a former collaborator who appears to be an obvious influence on her work and aesthetic, she has woven together gender politics and green politics before on the Antony and the Johnsons’ album The Crying Light. One of this new album’s most anthemic tracks, 4 Degrees, was written for the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference in Paris but, rather than hold governments and institutions to account, she uses the song to question her own stewardship of the planet.
“The conversation about my complicity was important to me,” she says. “I’m here talking about the environment with you today, but I took a plane to get here. I think often about the disparity between who I think I am and the actuality of my footprint on earth, and I think about that dark space between those two people. There’s certainly lots of finger-pointing on the record but it tends to return back around to me as a taxpayer, as a consumer, as someone dependent on these systems for this notion of short-term gain.
“I have a porous relationship to culture and society. I’m a part of it, it’s not like I can really extricate myself from all of these systems, many of which don’t have the earth’s best interests at heart. In some ways it’s almost like an addiction when you keep going back for something that doesn’t have your best interests at heart.”
For all the gravity of her perspective, audiences have been uplifted by experiencing Hopelessness. As for Anohni… “Yes, I’ve experienced a lot of hopelessness,” she acknowledges. “But, ultimately, it’s not about hope or hopelessness, it’s about our behaviour – what are we gonna do?”
And if she were to ask that question of herself? “I don’t know,” she says. “I definitely feel like I’m in the middle of a process but all I can think of right now is finding a cave and going and lying down in it for a while. I really love this piece, and I feel so strongly about it, but it’s been very intense for me. I need some time to pull myself in.”
• Hopelessness, Playhouse, 17 August, 0131-473 2000 / www.eif.co.uk