The musician Anohni — formerly known as Antony Hegarty, of Antony And The Johnsons — is known for her melodic, piano-driven music and her unique, beautiful voice. On her new album, the first solo record she's recorded as Anohni, she uses that voice in a different way.
"I was beginning to feel like my work was too passive and my participation was too passive," she says. "I wanted to raise my voice. Because I feel like raising your voice is the antidote to a sense of powerlessness. I mean, hopelessness is a feeling, not a fact."
In fact, the album is called Hopelessness. And it's a protest record, about disappearing forests, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the use of drones and global warming. Anohni recently spoke with NPR's Kelly McEvers about the shift to writing explicitly political songs, and how she makes protest sound so beautiful. You can hear their conversation at the audio link, or read an edited version below.
Kelly McEvers: I want to talk about your voice. It is this beautiful, melodic voice. When you hear a song, you feel like you're in a warm pool somewhere, and safe and peaceful. And then you're talking about the burning of the forests, and you're saying "I don't want your future." It's this really interesting contradiction, where the words do not make me feel safe. They make me feel very worried about the future.
Anohni: Yeah, but it's not my words that are worrying you; it's the reality of what we're facing, you know? And that's what I'm trying to hold space for. I'm trying to open my heart to hold space for reality as it stands today; to try to understand what's going on, what's really happening, what's my relationship to it.
Do you worry about being so overtly political in your music, and that there could be backlash?
Do you think I should be worried?
You know, I'm really more thinking about this in terms of participation. These are issues that are in everyone's mind. Everyone can feel that the climate is changing. Everyone knows that this nuclear thing is way out of control. Everyone knows that species are perishing, that income disparity has reached a breaking point. And, honestly, we have such a clear choice: We can either sit back and let this play out and let the story be written in the stones, or we can try. We can try again.
But it's interesting: What you're saying is that it's one thing to have a protest slogan or to be a talking head on the cable news, and it's another thing to take those ideas and turn them on their head a little bit.
You know, people trust my voice. And my expertise, honestly, is not political science; it's emotion and expression and presence. If I let my guard down, this is the space; this is the world that I inhabit.
I want to talk about one more song on this album, "4 Degrees." This is a song that I would totally dance to, but it's about global warming. So I can imagine being on a dance floor with abandon, but this is really provocative, right? You're putting the person who would be singing along with you in the position of singing, "I want to see the world boil, it's only four degrees, it's fine — global warming? No big deal!"
You know, the idea was to give voice to the narrative that underscores the reality of my behavior, rather than my intention. My behavior is as a participant in this culture, and as someone who enjoys fossil fuels, comforts. So I'm not being ironic when I sing this; I'm actually singing the song of my body, as opposed to the song of my intention.
Wow. So you're calling yourself out.
This is my song. This is our song. This is what we actually think. None of us want this to be happening, but we're all doing it. On this record, I'm trying to crack my own denial. Because if I could get a clear sense of who I actually was in relationship to the world around me, I finally would be forced to change.
I read somewhere that you were scared to sing some of these lyrics. Why?
Well, because, as you said: People trust my voice. The timbre of my voice as a singer has been a source of comfort for people, and these songs aren't comforting in theme. They end up leaving you, as you said, feeling disquieted. And the truth is: That is how I feel, too. For me right now, I'm not looking for music that makes me feel better so I can go to sleep at night.