Anohni, the truth-teller

Words by:
Photography: Anton Tammi
Styling: Lisa Jarvis
Set Designer: Griffin Stoddard
Hair: Ledora
Makeup: Maki Ryoke
Nails: Nori
Studio and Production: Neighbors Studio
Retoucher: Kiran Owal
3D Lettering: Andrew Cunningham
Photography Assistants: Roy Beeson, Julio Nuno
Styling Assistants: Dominik Radomski, Raphael Del Bono, Jody Bain
Producer: Amanda Buschmann
On Set Producer: Felix Cadieu

After years of silence, at least on record, the first thing Anohni sings on her new album My Back Was a Bridge for You to Cross is an order: “It must change.” She sings it like a mantra, or a kind of vocal warmup, her voice honeyed and horrified in turn. She repeats it four times, in case you miss how much she means it – in case your relief that she’s singing again might get in the way of understanding why.

She made that ‘why’ clear to me one fall afternoon, over a Zoom call that billowed from one hour into three, each full of engaged give and take. “The Doomsday Clock is about ten seconds to midnight, according to the scientists,” she says. Her camera was off, but her voice was giving visions. “The rest of the world is waiting for us to refresh our relationship with reality.”

ANOHNI wears: Veil: Jaime Morales

Like a lot of us in this beautiful, terrible world, Anohni had been feeling hopeless. The seeds she had planted in the New York underground in the 1990s – first, as a member of the “performance art cult” Blacklips, whose multimedia work was recently chronicled in a book; then, with her band the Johnsons, as a gentle chronicler of devastations, from the AIDS epidemic to the ongoing environmental apocalypse – had blossomed into a career of sold-out shows everywhere from Radio City Music Hall to the Sydney Opera House. Her 2005 album I Am a Bird Now, in which the closest thing to a mainstream pop song was the glorious Fistful of Love, a sort of Dusty in Memphis take on Master and Servant, won the Mercury Prize. Blind, the instant classic 2008 single with Hercules and Love Affair, found her playing a kind of Sylvester to longtime friend Andy Butler’s Patrick Cowley.

Then came Turning, a concert art film made by underground hero Charles Atlas. And Swanlights, a book of her own art, accompanied by one of a series of challenging and symphonic records with the Johnsons. Cut the World, a live album, is stopped in its tracks after a single song by an eight-minute spoken word discourse called Future Feminism. She duetted with Björk, Marc Almond and Yoko Ono, and covered Neneh Cherry. She made herself publicly visible as transgender and changed her name and pronouns. Manta Ray, her collaboration with J. Ralph for the documentary Racing Extinction, earned her an Oscar nomination. At the crest of this cultural swell, Anohni released her first solo record. Hopelessness, from 2016, was a furious infiltration of 21st-century apocalypse pop (think Madonna’s 4 Minutes, Britney Spears’ Till the World Ends, Kesha’s Die Young) which burned the fog off those songs’ death disco and named names in the smoke: Obama, who jailed the transgender whistleblower Chelsea Manning for years before finally commuting her sentence. Capitalism, which alienates us from the natural world, and suicidally sells it for parts. All the generations of violent men.

ANOHNI wears: Cape and Earrings: Valentino Haute Couture

Production by Daniel Lopatin and Hudson Mohawke tuned Anohni’s big ideas for big rooms, pitching up somewhere between Rihanna and Coil’s Horse Rotorvator. If the pop charts failed to rise to her challenge, if the Oscars failed to invite her to perform at their ceremony (prompting her to release a statement assuming the reason was her “singing a song about ecocide, and that might not sell advertising space”), and if by every possible measure the world was worsening – then perhaps it wasn’t a big surprise when, in 2017, she announced on Instagram that she was retiring.

Then that changed. As if going back to her roots, she made a pack of furious, goth-hued barnburners with Butler for Hercules and Love Affair’s outrageously underappreciated 2022 album In Amber. And this summer, My Back Was a Bridge for You to Cross returned Anohni to the warm, chamber-pop world of the Johnsons, with some added soul and psych courtesy of Amy Winehouse’s producer Jimmy Hogarth. Her voice, one of this world’s great resources, sounds unclenched in comparison to the snarl and sneer of Hopelessness. But her point of view remains unflinching.

ANOHNI wears: Cape and Earrings: Valentino Haute Couture

A piece of her art on the inner sleeve of My Back… makes it clear: “It’s Time To Feel What’s Really Happening”, implores her unmistakable script. We must face the degradation of the environment and the dignity of its inhabitants. It’s about looking out and seeing these emergencies. But also, looking in. “It means reckoning with our past, our seats of privilege, who we have been, what our bodies are made of, what we have endured, what our ancestors did to others,” she says, “to inhale a longer idea about our relationship to family, homeland and society.”


She’s begun to examine the roots of her own voice. “I perhaps represent a third generation of what some might call a British ‘blue-eyed soul singer,’” she says, referencing the long British tradition of white singers interpreting Black R&B and soul music, which might be said to have begun with Dusty, Tom Jones and Kiki Dee. Anohni grew up of British and Irish stock, in Chichester, on the south coast; her father was an engineer and her mother, a photographer. At her grandmother’s house in Kingston, she first heard second-generation blue-eyed soul star Boy George singing Culture Club’s Do You Really Want to Hurt Me. “George was a punk, working class London Irish queen,” she says. “My identification with him was so strong that I figured if I was feminine likethis, then I was supposed to be a singer. I began to emulate his voice long before I understood its origins.” When she was ten, her father’s job relocated the family to California. Voices from back home followed her. British singers like Annie Lennox and Alison Moyet, she says, “affirmed me in my conviction that I had a right to feel. They taught me how to express that feeling with power, grace, and, when necessary, cunning. There wasn’t a popular tradition of ecstatic singing in Britain. Elizabeth Fraser is the only singer I can think of who really shook one’s spirit with her voice, and could bring joyful tears to your eyes.”

ANOHNI wears: Headpiece: Valériane Venance, Neckpiece: Michelle Lowe-Holder

Anohni moved to New York City in 1990 to study experimental theatre at NYU and was turned on to Nina Simone and Otis Redding. “I began to sense a relationship between this music and the singers I grew up on, but I couldn’t articulate it at the time,” she says. “I never understood a voice as having moral authority until I heard Nina Simone. She was just telling the straight truth. By 1992, I was clinging to the balcony railings at Carnegie Hall, crying as I watched her sing. I never understood that listening to all this music and then writing my own songs might be a process of appropriation; I was ignorant to that concept. At that age, I had never allowed myself to consider that I might be a passive beneficiary of racism. I was wrapped up in my own struggles.”

These included the AIDS epidemic, felling queers and artists by the thousands. These included grim indications that the earth’s water and air were polluted beyond belief if not quite beyond repair; that nuclear war was possible; that much of the country she was living in, in the name of their god, considered queer and trans people as, at best, bedevilled. “I had fought bitterly for my belief that I should have the right to exist and express my feelings of being alive. These soul singers dignified that belief. I moved towards the voices that set me free.”

ANOHNI wears: Headpiece: Valériane Venance, Neckpiece: Michelle Lowe-Holder

The face of another freedom fighter adorns the cover of My Back…: the legendary activist Marsha P. Johnson, one of the key figures, along with friend and comrade Sylvia Rivera, in the modern LGBTQ+ civil rights movement, and a powerful advocate for those, like herself, who were living without housing. “I would see her on Christopher Street in the early 1990s, Anohni says. “Meeting these heroic figures and realising the extent to which they were still completely out on a limb by themselves, not supported in any way by the gay community, was kind of horrifying… but the gay community was racist and classist. I guess it seemed acceptable to leave these founders of our civil rights movement homeless in the streets, endangered and expendable.” Johnson’s body was found in the Hudson River in 1992. After Blacklips ended, Anonhi named a band after her. “At the time, her memory was still a cultural secret. I explained to every audience why the group was called the Johnsons,” she says. “I wanted to tell her story. As I went on, the story seemed to function as a kind of blessing for me. It affirmed what I cared about.”

ANOHNI wears: Cape and Earrings: Valentino Haute Couture

Today, with documentaries and endless Instagram infographics, Johnson is more known than ever. “There’s a problem with the way the LGBT community has now deified Marsha’s memory, but not reckoned with the fact that we did nothing to support her. We let her go.” She says this simply, furiously. She says this and makes it clear that she – and I, and likely you – did this. “Our willingness to strip-mine the lives and dignity and privacy of artists is another whole reflection of the brokenness of our society. You could have that conversation about Amy Winehouse. But they didn’t do it to Leonard Cohen and they are not going to do it to Mick Jagger.”

The use of Alvin Baltrop’s lovingly illuminated photograph of Johnson on the sleeve of My Back… carries on Anohni’s tradition of inspirational cover stars, including I Am a Bird Now’s iconic portrait of Candy Darling by Peter Hujar, and Naoya Ikegami’s portrait of Butoh innovator Kazuo Ohno on the cover of 2009’s The Crying Light. “Kazuo’s work indicated that I could imagine widening my experience of empathy for everything around me, even inanimate objects. I could tap into the feeling and atomic shaking within a mountain, chair, fish, drop of water, ray of sunlight,” she explains. If truly honouring Johnson’s legacy requires us to expand the boundaries of identity politics to encompass racial, class, and environmental equality, perhaps in Ohno we see how that expansion can unite us with the natural world we seem so hellbent on destroying. “The core of my work is Another World,” Anohni says of The Crying Light’s prophetic centrepiece. “Trans is a lens through which these songs pass through, because the songs pass through my voice. But these songs seek to address global realities. Recently it has felt confining to be entirely contextualised as trans, because it gives my work the aura of being trans-exclusive, when that’s not its intention. I go back to my Oscars rant: we are being used. These conversations are being pushed forward by corporations and media to distract the general public from other things.”

ANOHNI wears: Neckpieces: Michelle Lowe-Holder

Anohni now includes new songs in that core, devoted to those other things. One is the woozy Scapegoat, in which she commands: “Take all of my hate/ Into your flesh and body,” her voice undulating like waves of radiation. It’s as if the vulnerable bottom of Fistful of Love has flipped to become a power top. “Christianity has promised people that if they do their god’s work, peace and joy await them in death. What a powerful manipulation of human vulnerability,” she says. Blue-eyed soul has its roots in gospel; there’s evangelical fervour in her furor at what the churches have done. “People think that if they hurt or control vulnerable members of their families and communities, they’ll feel better. But after they have forced a raped teenager to give birth, or punished a trans kid by refusing them healthcare and arrested their doctors, they will still have to work three shit full-time jobs and still won’t be able to afford childcare. Their kids will still die from fentanyl overdoses, and they will still lose their jobs at Walmart to automated tellers. The unions their grandfathers fought so hard for will still be dismantled, and they will still be boiled in lobster pots of physical and virtual addiction. It is a system of massive and malevolent design.”


Near the album’s end, she places a track of radical beauty and uncertainty. Why Am I Alive Now? glitters with soft percussion and swooning strings, building sonic connections between early 70s Marvin Gaye (another big influence on the album, she says), mid-80s British soul like Everything But the Girl and Johnny Marr in his prime, and the languorous psychedelia of late-era Kate Bush. It goes down easy, but she’s singing of difficulties, of the return of that old hopelessness. Or, perhaps, of how refusing hopelessness doesn’t guarantee comfort. “I don’t know much of anything,” she sings, “except that you will take my life.” Death comes to us all, it’s just a question of at whose hands.

Why Am I Alive Now? embodies clear-eyed uncertainty using blue-eyed soul technology, and in that way, points to possible resolutions of Anohni’s vocal histories. We all must do our reckoning. “We’re in transition now, as a species. We are privileged to sit at this moment where a wall separating us from a more honest reflection of ourselves is crumbling,” she says. In that way, My Back… is a portal, and the only way out is in, then through, then into the future. We’ve been talking for so long but her voice is still so strong. “I’m trying to visualise change,” she says. She must. And so must we.

My Back Was a Bridge For You to Cross is out now via Rough Trade

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