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"Why Is It Hard to Stand Up?": An Interview with ANOHNI

ANOHNI—formerly Antony Hegarty—discusses her new project, her name change, and the challenge of writing politically charged pop music.

Photo by Inez & Vinoodh

Last week ANOHNI—formally known as Antony Hegarty—dropped “4 DEGREES,” the first taster off her forthcoming album HOPELESSNESS, a collaboration between ANOHNI, Hudson Mohawke, and Oneohtrix Point Never. It’s a song that was initially teased in live sets earlier this year, but committed to tape it sounds even more glorious, vast, and rhapsodic: all glowering horns, beats like blows to the body, and keening strings that ratchet up the tension with each layered bar. And of course there’s ANOHNI’s vocal rising above the swell, fragile yet powerful, trilling her cataclysmic lyrics which point towards the overall themes she’ll be exploring on the full length album (out this coming Spring)—principally our effect on the environment. On her Facebook last week she released this statement:

“In solidarity with the climate conference in Paris,
giving myself a good hard look,
not my aspirations but my behaviors,
revealing my insidious complicity.
It’s a whole new world.
Let’s be brave and tell the truth as much as we can.”

It’s a protest song for sure, brandishing evocative lyrics that’ll make you stop and pause and consider the perspective from which they were written, the subject matter for which is bleeds into ANOHNI’s artistic output across disciplines. Currently she’s holed up in Berlin working on her forthcoming art show My Truth, a collection of paintings and photography that spans 10 years, which will make its debut this coming summer. We called up ANOHNI to find out more about HOPELESSNESS, her name change, the challenge of writing politically charged pop music, the refugee crisis, the American government's lack of transparency, the media's manipulation of its readers… and that’s just for starters.

Noisey: You’re now going by the name ANOHNI which has been floating around for a while, but what made you decide to adopt this moniker permanently?
ANOHNI:
I really decided to start using it a couple years ago and it's just been a slow process of sharing it with more people, and now I'm kind of pretty much full-time ANOHNI, so that's good. I just wanted to honor that part of myself. I’ve always been very clear about being transgender, and talking about it in my work, but I wanted to just take a spirit name, so I did it.

This year in particular transgender politics have really moved to the forefront…
Yeah it's definitely been a big explosion especially in the US. It's pretty amazing.

It's weird because it feels like we're making real strides in terms of awareness and discourse about trans people issues and gay marriage finally becoming legal in the States, but then at the same time it’s as if like we’re teetering on the brink of apocalypse. The other day I got on a plane from San Francisco and flew here to New York, and in those hours when I was up in the air there were those two shootings. Sorry this is a bit off topic, but…
No, no, I hear you, I hear you, and I think that's kind of part of the program really, it’s like as long as we're talking about shootings and identity politics, no one's going to talk about bankers and wealth and you know, the hoarding of wealth by an ever-smaller group of people. And that's really the conversation we should be having. I think in a way the American system likes to keep us busy, likes the working and middle-classes to be busy talking amongst themselves about interpersonal issues between working and middle-classes. As long as we don't start talking about the rich.

I think the biggest threat to the system was the Occupy, and they shut that down. That was probably the realest conversation that's happened in American politics and American media, in what? Probably since the Vietnam War. I think there's a reason why they keep having shootings and America refuses to move on gun control and why everyone's still obsessed with identity politics—whether it's race politics or non-gender politics, they shove gender politics into it, and I mean it's great, I'm excited that it means there'll be little strides for trans people, but you know, women's rights are being called back into question even in the most basic ways. Reproductive rights are being rolled back as trans rights are being rolled forward. It seems a little bit like, it seems a little bit like Whac-A-Mole or musical chairs.

Honestly I think it's kind of a little bit of a smokescreen. As long as we're talking about identity politics and shootings and terrorism we're not going to talk about the fact that, that there's ever less resources for most people in the world, and most of the money is being hoarded by a handful of whatever you call them. I know, that's probably a gross generalization, but that's how I see it.

When did you decide you wanted to create art that contains more commentary on the world—like in “4 DEGREES”?
I always had a consciousness about things to the extent that I perceive them. I'm not an expert on anything, but just reading the paper and being awake and alive in the world, just like everyone, we all see what's going on on some level, and I decided to try to integrate that a little bit more into my music. Although I've talked about the environment in my music for a while now.

You explore your own accountability in “4 DEGREES.” What do you think are the first steps are for the average joe in terms of moving forward responsibly?
You know, I'm probably not a good person to ask that. I don't know how this is going to work. For me it was about using myself as an example, keeping the focus on myself, taking care of my side of the fence. It's not much good wagging a finger and then pointing at people and telling them to do it. What I've been wrestling with as an artist for a while is my complicity in this process and how difficult it is to disengage from it, if you want to participate in the modern world, and enjoy these luxuries that we are all so used to. And yet even with the best intentions in my mind, my behaviors are leading me down a different path. If you took a real inventory of what my carbon footprint was… of course the next practical step is to lower my carbon footprint, maybe change my career. It's a process and what I'm trying to model is asking myself these questions.

You’ve collaborated with two incredible producers on HOPELESSNESS. How did this all come together?
It took a couple years, little fits and bursts, and also the nature of the content, it was so different to me, and it took a while for me to process the whole thing in my mind as well, get my head around it and think is this really what I want to do. But I'd always wanted to do another dance record since I did Hercules… I love dance music, I love Hudson's music, and I love a lot of quite hard beats, so, it was kind of ironic that I’d never explored it more. And then I had a fortuitous connection with Hudson: He threw some tracks at me and it just kind of took off from there. I’d also had been working with Dan [Lopatin, Oneohtrix Point Never] for a while developing some stuff, so between the two of them we kind of put it together.

The title of the album is heavy and the lyrics are really dark too, but the music is so uplifting which makes for a beautiful dichotomy. Is this something that continues on the album as a whole? Can you talk through some of the lyrical themes you return to?
The songs address an array of current issues and the things that are all around us that we usually have to put blinders on just move about, and try to make things work in our day-to-day lives. I just took a step back and looked at the landscape of the modern world from my point of view, and addressed some of the things, especially things in America that are making me so uncomfortable. And also, that I'm complicit in as a taxpayer. As a taxpayer I've subsidized war efforts and drone bomb campaigns and it disgusts me. Also, there's this kind of myth that, this point has been widely accepted, that we can't really write pop music that has intense political content, the heyday of that is long gone. So I thought, oh what a fun challenge—and why not do it to dance music? Why not do it exactly as you said, make it uplifting, and embed it into something really pop and just to see how far we can take it. So it was really like a challenge to myself.

Have you been taking stock of the response so far?
I'm a little bit remote, but I saw The Guardian acknowledged it as a protest song and I was really happy about that.

Why do you think that protest music has become so uncool…
I don't even know if it's even uncool, I just think it doesn't exist, except in some far corners of underground hip-hop and it certainly exists in other countries. I'm sure you'd find some pretty good protest music in Burma. I honestly couldn't tell you the answer. Why is it hard for us to be vigorous? Why is it hard to get involved, why is it hard to feel involved, why is it hard to stand up? It's challenging. We're all facing this challenge right now, how do we participate? What's our relationship to the big system? How much longer is this going to go on? Where is this going and what can we do to affect it, if anything? And what's our existential relationship to it, and our psychic, emotional, and spiritual relationship to it? And what are we at this point? What are we doing? That's the kind of stuff that I have the luxury of being able to kind of sit and chew on. [Laughs.] Because it's my day job! So that's where I've gotten to. I just wanted to make something vigorous and really fun, and a little bit more confrontational. Although the goal wasn't to be confrontational, that's not the right word…

Thought-provoking?
Well, my goal wasn't to provoke, my goal really was to be as honest as I could, to say how I really felt, and to say the things that I speak and think all the time, but to put it in a song. This is the shit that I think about all day long, or at least half the day. [Laughs.] Let's hope I don't think about it all day long.

You would drive yourself mad! So are there going to be socially conscious, politically engaged songs that we're going to be dancing to in clubs?
I think it's a little bit more sort of edgier and more personal, so I don't know if it could be deemed as socially conscious, but it's veering from conventional topics of dance music, let's put it that way.


Are you still based in New York these days? Or are you just international now?
I'm based in New York, but I'm moving around a lot right now. I’m working on a bunch of different kinds of projects and I'm very fortunate to be in Germany right now. I'm really enjoying Berlin.

Love Berlin. It's such an inspiring city and it draws interesting, creative people to it. Also the food is so good. Every time I’m there I eat my way around that city.
Yeah I never really knew it before. Also I think Berlin, the people, they’re more transparent, and Germany's a more transparent country. They’ve had to be, in a weird way, because of the history of the country. So in a funny way they kind of have a seat of moral authority within the EU at this point. They're doing the right thing over and over again, when everyone else isn't. While America's taking 10,000 Syrian refugees, even though we're pretty much responsible for the entire crisis in the Middle East, Germany's taking half a million. Europe is absorbing all these people who have been put into crisis by American foreign policy and Americans don't even really acknowledge that. They have no idea. And in Europe, Sweden and Germany are the two countries absorbing these giant masses of people that are fleeing for their lives from 25 years of horrendous American intervention in the region. The thing in America that's so horrible is that no one tells the truth in the media. The media is full of bullshit, so you just feel like you're living in this giant lie.

Totally. I recently spent some time with an older member of my family who watches a lot of Fox News and she's regurgitating what she hears and the information is so skewed and partisan, but it’s tough to really argue it out with her because the opinions are so fixed, the attitudes so ingrained.
You just have to keep your radio on Amy Goodman and you'll be fine. I love her. It's like you just have to find the one or two sources of people that are interested in telling the truth. I think it makes you feel better if you hear people saying the truth that you recognize. That disparity between what you feel to be true and the lies that the media's telling you can really make you sick, and I think that does make a lot of people in America really crazy. That transparency, it really doesn't exist. And you know, Obama ran on a platform of transparency and during his presidency the NSA scandal happened. And we elected him and that was one of his war cries: I'm gonna create a transparent government. And then during his reign the most horrific revelations of spying on every citizen in the history of the world, practically, came to light. The ambiguity, the mixed messages, it's like an advertising campaign that they developed after World War II in America, this idea of—well, if you put enough disinformation out there, put everything and its opposite out there all the time, people just back away in confusion and they stop trying to participate. I think that's the job of the American media: to just make people feel so confused about what they should be focused on that they just give up.

Yeah people are baffled.
Yeah, because people, Americans, want what everyone wants—they want things to be OK. No one wants the environment to collapse, no one would wish it to happen, except for maybe a few like super demented, mentally ill, late stage alcoholic-style businessmen. You know what I mean? No one knows how to flip the switch, but one day they're going to find that little switch and things are going to happen. It happened with the Berlin Wall, it happened with the collapse of the Soviet Union. We've seen it in our own lives—massive change can occur. Unexpected change can occur.

So even though your album's called HOPELESSNESS you still maintain some shred of optimism?
If I really felt hopeless I probably wouldn't have bothered making a record. I called it HOPELESSNESS because I’ve had to move through a lot of hopelessness. Grieving is a part of getting with the program: let me grieve, let's grieve what's going on. I think a lot of people feel hopeless and powerless, I know I’ve spent a lot of time feeling both. That doesn't mean it's a fact that we're hopeless and powerless, but it means that's how we feel. Let's acknowledge the feelings, let's move through it. I'm just trying to be clear, I'm just trying to figure out what's going on for me.

Do you think that music can still spark change?
I don't know. But I know music sparks change in me. I know that when I hear something, it can make me feel more alive. I don't know how effective topical music is, I have no idea—this is like a pilot program, I've never tried this before so we'll see. It's about participating. I'm a musician, my sphere of influence is music, I wanted to participate as vigorously as I could, and I wanted it to engage me artistically, so that's where we're at. I'm really excited about this record. It's a crazy record—it's really wild.

ANOHNI + Hudson Mohawke + Oneohtrix Point Never Tour Dates:
Fri. June 17 - Barcelona, ES @ SONAR
Tue. July 12 - Ostrava, CZ @ Colors of Ostrava
Fri. July 15 - Turin, IT @ Flowers Festival

“4 DEGREES” is out now on Secretly Canadian.

Kim Taylor Bennett is an editor at Noisey and she's on Twitter.