From Antony and the Johnsons to 'HOPELESSNESS': How ANOHNI Crafted a Call to Action

From Antony and the Johnsons to 'HOPELESSNESS': How ANOHNI Crafted a Call to Action
Photo: Alice O'Malley
Six years ago, ANOHNI released her final Antony and the Johnsons' album, Swanlights; her new record, HOPELESSNESS — out today (May 6) on Secretly Canadian — is a drastically different though no less thoughtful and beautiful record than any in her discography. And even though ANOHNI respectfully disagrees with the "rebel" tag, it's one of the first words that comes to mind after listening to HOPELESSNESS, which is electronic pop protest music of the highest calibre.

"'Rebel' is a beautiful word, but I don't know if I really deserve that word at this point," she tells Exclaim!

Imagine racing heartbeat drum machines, slow, hip-grinding bass, and piano that bounces coyly or breaks hearts or evokes stars spilling across expansive skies, juxtaposed with songs about drones dropping bombs, the earth's rising temperatures and environmental disaster, patriarchy's insidiously destructive tendencies, corporate greed and the one percent, identity politics and a scathing indictment of President Barack Obama's failure to live up to his election promises.

This is new terrain for ANOHNI as a songwriter.

"The album is called HOPELESSNESS, and obviously that's how I was feeling," ANOHNI tells Exclaim! "That was the space that I had gotten to, that was my emotional landscape, and part of my fight to get out of hopelessness was to employ new tools to express, for instance, anger, which is something that I had largely veered away from in my body of work with the Johnsons. I had spent a lot of time voicing despair and aestheticizing sadness, and an internal search for spiritual value. Those had been my concerns with Antony and the Johnsons."

But she doesn't believe that there's much relationship between the new direction of her music — specifically, her newfound ability to access anger — with publicly embracing her new name and using feminine pronouns.

"I don't think it's connected, honestly," ANOHNI says. "I feel like I've always been pushing away at it, I had just reached a point of critical mass. The body of work that I presented over the last 15 years with the Johnsons felt pretty much like a finished cycle. The aesthetic of the work and its approach to articulating concerns felt, from my viewpoint today, too passive."

ANOHNI says she wanted to make a record that put her in the role of participant.

"I'm alive right now, and if I can be useful, I want to participate. I want to be vigorous, to use and employ my sphere of influence. To participate in a meaningful way because I'm a part of humanity and we're freaking out right now. We're freaking OUT. So my pastoral catalogue, or whatever, which I love so much and which I'm sure I'll return to and which I'm so grateful for and has been very nourishing for me, but this record really comes out… I needed to be more vigorous in order to break free from the bondage of my own hopelessness. I needed to give voice to my truth in a more vigorous way, and that's why I went there. It's really a continuation of what I've always done, which is to make work to help myself."

Part of helping herself has been examining her own complicity in the systems and structures she's condemning.

"I often found myself coming up against things that were wrong as a kid and I was never one to acquiesce very easily to systems that felt wrong to me," she remembers. "However, obviously, as a consumer and participant in this culture, if I give myself a hard look, I've obviously made a lot of those compromises."

This is another reason why ANOHNI doesn't feel she deserves to be considered a rebel. In her mind, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning are rebels, whistleblowers who stood up at great personal risk to their freedom and well-being.

"I feel like this [record] is very much a contribution within the walls of society," ANOHNI says. "As opposed to outside the walls of society, which is a role I feel like I've experienced when I was younger. But this record is very much designed to move down the main thoroughfare of our cultures. It's about participating. All of us have that agency to suggest change and to participate and contribute and I feel like that's what I'm trying to do."

It's also why she sought out collaborators who could create sonic landscapes that would support, bolster and sometimes camouflage the thematic intensity throughout the record. HOPELESSNESS is elegantly ferocious in its quiet, palpable anger, but its weary frustration is kept in check, couched by electronic artists Oneohtrix Point Never and Hudson Mohawke's arrangements, which are lush, sexy and startling in their orchestration. The two musicians are capable of crafting massive, monumental canvases or retreating into tiny bird nest-like structures, spare and self-contained.

"I'm trying to look in the mirror, that's all, and I wanted to do it in a way that's sonically palatable to people, try to use a sugary sound," ANOHNI says. "I love that sound, too, I love sugar."

But HOPELESSNESS isn't just a Mary Poppins-style medicinal trick. It's the result of almost four years of ANOHNI's personal awakening, of asking herself one question over and over: what's really happening?

But she isn't trying to provide answers. She laughs a little, insisting that it's "participation," not "helping," because she's "as much — if not more — of a mess as everyone else.

"I'm just reading the paper and trying to absorb it intuitively as an artist, trying to be open. And obviously it's also coming through the lens of my own brokenness. It's not the truth. I'm not asserting this is the final truth on any matter. But it is an articulation of my pain in relation to what I perceive as true. My desire to participate in some way or give voice in an effort to help be a part of our evolution. That's what artists are supposed to do, at least in my mind. My idea of being an artist today is that. It's all hands on deck. Whether you're a nurse, a taxi driver, or an artist. We have to do something. Or, we can acquiesce and enjoy the ride."

Check out the video for HOPELESSNESS track "Drone Bomb Me" below.