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Anohni: “There needs to be a reckoning”

The singer who rose to fame with her band Antony and the Johnsons on her mentor Lou Reed, transphobia and the need to resist society’s “brutal system of binaries”.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

When she was at school in California in 1989, an 18-year-old Anohni heard something that still informs her thinking today. Her teacher, Vito Russo, a queer activist and author of the 1981 book The Celluloid Closet, told her: “You can’t be an Aids activist without being a feminist because homophobia is built squarely on the shoulders of the loathing of women.”

The connection hadn’t been obvious to Anohni Hegarty, the English-born musician and visual artist. Best known as the lead singer of Antony and the Johnsons, she is now known mononymously as Anohni. When we spoke over the phone in early June, we were talking specifically about misogyny and transphobia, rather than homophobia. “But they are intersecting circles,” she said. The worsening of women’s rights is happening “in tandem with this campaign against trans bodies”.

It’s most obvious in the United States, where Anohni, who was born in Chichester in 1971, has lived since she was a teenager: in June 2022 Roe vs Wade, the Supreme Court ruling guaranteeing a right to an abortion, was reversed. Since the start of this year, a record number of anti-LGBTQ bills have been introduced at the state level. There has been friction in the UK too. In January the Scottish Parliament passed legislation that would make Scotland the first part of the UK to introduce a self-identification system for people who want to change gender – but Rishi Sunak’s Westminster government blocked it. The week after I spoke to Anohni, the news of Carla Foster being sentenced to prison for terminating a pregnancy past the legal limit reignited calls to decriminalise abortion in the UK.

People might like to pretend that the issue of trans rights has only really been on the agenda in recent years, since “the provocation of ‘they/them’,” said Anohni, who knew she was transgender from a young age. But “this is witch-burning stuff. This is as old as the hills. This isn’t a new conversation. That’s why I call it an iteration. It’s genocidal cycles that wax and wane depending on the temperature. And the only way to really stop it is to look at it systematically, to get far back enough from it that we’re no longer just trying to function within a system, but we’re looking at the system itself. That’s something that’s really frightening to any society. You’d rather stick with things you know than step off into what feels like the unknown.”

Since 1992, when she founded the avant-garde drag theatre group Blacklips in New York City, Anohni has used her art to challenge norms. With Antony and the Johnsons she performed melancholic, pastoral music, singing about gender fluidity and breast amputation in her distinctive vibrato. She received commercial and critical success: the group’s second album, I Am a Bird Now (2005), won the Mercury Prize. More recently, her first solo record, Hopelessness (2016), was a damning indictment of the current age of climate catastrophe and political greed, sung atop blitzkrieg beats. It secured Anohni’s reputation as a vital political voice.

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On 7 July, now as Anohni and the Johnsons, she will release My Back Was a Bridge For You to Cross, a record that flirts with jazz and soul, her voice richer than ever. It isn’t quite as pointed as Hopelessness, but lots of the same themes – systems in collapse, ecocide, the importance of personal relationships during tough times – emerge lyrically.

[See also: The tragic case of Carla Foster shows why abortion should be decriminalised]

Anohni spoke in little more than a whisper, often taking long pauses to find an appropriately forceful adjective, or to work out how to articulate a connection between two ideas. Having a conversation with Anohni is like listening to an emotionally intelligent philosopher searching for solutions to humankind’s greatest problems. “For me it’s not theories as much as feelings,” she said.

Her approach is both emotional and political. “Maleness has us in a chokehold,” she said. For centuries the “archetypally feminine systems of perceiving and understanding and thinking were grounds for being excluded from conversations of reason. You know, the whole thing about women being cast as hysterics and too emotional to be able to conduct a civil conversation, too emotional to participate in governance, too emotional to make rational decisions about the future or the species.” And where has the patriarchy got us? “It’s that unemotional, unintuitive, unfeeling, rationalist viewpoint that’s designed a world that’s on the brink of total collapse. To me, that’s the male archetype in full throttle.”

The arts aren’t an escape from that, Anohni said; she doesn’t see a recording studio or exhibition space as a sanctuary. Rather, art “is one of the few areas where we’re allowed to use different systems for communicating and perceiving what’s happening around us. It’s one last bastion where rationalism hasn’t eradicated the forum. The arts, and creativity, is one last corner of our society where the expression of feeling is celebrated rather than denigrated and shamed.”

My Back is a Bridge For You to Cross is a deeply felt album. On “Sliver of Ice”, a slow, sensual song, Anohni sings: “Now that I’m almost gone/Sliver of ice on my tongue/In the day’s night/It tastes so good, it felt so right/For the first time in my life.” Lou Reed, the American musician who died in 2013, was Anohni’s “advocate”, her champion in the early days of her career, and these lines were something he said to her shortly before he died. “He said that he was surprised to experience a rapturous feeling from simple things in the last months of his life. That visceral feeling of being alive was much more meaningful to him when he realised that it was seemingly going to be over soon.” It’s a song about an intense emotional response to a bodily sensation.

Anohni made this record with Jimmy Hogarth, a producer who has previously worked with Amy Winehouse and Tina Turner. An inveterate collaborator, Anonhi developed Hopelessness’s distinctive sonic landscape with the electronic producers Oneohtrix Point Never and Hudson Mohawke. She has written with and for Boy George, Rufus Wainwright, Björk and of course Lou Reed. When we spoke she was in Amsterdam preparing to showcase the third iteration of “Future Feminism”, a collaborative exhibition and performance series that was first shown in New York in 2014.

Collaboration gives Anohni “community”, she said, in a rare straightforward, single-word answer. I asked her to elaborate. “I think this overvalued idea about the individual is a scam.” She paused. “I think eventually what matters is interconnectedness. We feel better in community, with other people, with the rest of the world, the rest of nature. We’re part of this. I don’t exist separate from it. But a lot of us have been raised to somehow think that we’re separate from the rest of it, which is a curse, really, isn’t it?”

[See also: Annie Ernaux’s acts of revenge]

The title of the new album refers to Anohni’s debt to those who have gone before her – such as the trans activist Marsha P Johnson, whose portrait graces the cover – and her determination to continue that work for future generations. “Everything I am, everything I have learned, everything I say, everything I know, comes from people that knew it.” She doesn’t buy the idea of the singular “genius”, arguing that this idea has helped bring the world to this point of collapse. “His heights of brilliance” – and it would always be a he – “have been our downfall. I couldn’t give a shit about his heights of brilliance. There needs to be a reckoning. All these boys poured from women’s bodies, they hold women hostage.” She is suddenly breezy: “I’m just not into it.”

Anohni understands that she has an “obviously marginal, seemingly extreme point of view”. But as a trans femme person, she also exists as a “particularly vivid embodiment” of the idea that there may be another way, beyond the patriarchy, beyond male rationalism. “That’s the magic of this particular predicament, this particular way of being: it innately dismantles some of this crap. It poses a profound threat.”

She has long understood that our society will “disqualify from the conversations of reason” anyone who leads with feelings, with intuition. “That’s been the work of my life, to contest that idea, since childhood. My work has been to say: actually, we have a right to see things differently than the way you’re telling us it is. Maybe this brutal, enforced system of binaries isn’t the way that reality is laid out. Maybe things are much more spectral.”

My Back Was a Bridge For You to Cross” is released on Rough Trade Records on 7 July

[See also: To protect abortion rights, don’t let the UK ditch the ECHR]

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