Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
ANHONI lead landscape best fit exclusive

ANOHNI is reimagining resilience in the face of cataclysmic change

03 July 2023, 09:00
Words by Alan Pedder
Original Photography by ANOHNI with NOMI RUIZ

With her new album My Back Was a Bridge for You to Cross, ANOHNI invites us to a reckoning that will allow us to move forward into a feminine dream of the future. She tells Alan Pedder about waking up to what's really happening.

Things can’t continue as they are. You know it, I know it, ANOHNI knows it. In a world where harm and violence are endemic and ecocide is built into the system, things have got to change.

But how? When a frightening percentage of people (who, let’s face it, are unlikely to be reading this) seem so myopic and immovable, how do we turn that corner? With her soul-baring sixth album My Back Was a Bridge for You to Cross, ANOHNI’s intention is not to lay out a prescription but to invite people into her feminine dream of the future, a place where change is possible.

“In my imagination, the universe is like a primordial, female ocean, and everything is contained within that ocean,” she tells me over the phone from Amsterdam, explaining that this concept comes from the evidence of her own sensory experience of the world. “It’s the opposite of what I was taught, which was that it’s a male universe and a male spiritual paradigm, and that femaleness is just sort of a gateway through which male brilliance passes.”

For centuries, femaleness existed in a state of subjugation and inured deprivation – as less than half of a supposed binary – and in many ways that model still stands. For ANOHNI, seeing femaleness as anything less than a complete circle is what might plunge humanity into silence, or at least reinforce that plunge. “I think I’ve come to a point, as I’ve gotten older, where I just think [the idea of male universe] is a very nasty ruse that’s caused a lot of problems,” she says, pointing out that the archetype of femaleness exists within all of us, whatever our gender.

“I think it's time to dream differently about femaleness,” she adds, firmly. “Not just the blessing of it but its tremendous power and its ability to perhaps reorganise us as a species. It might help us to create new strategies to help us navigate the oncoming and existing crises that we’re facing.”


Describing My Back Was a Bridge… as a way of continuing conversations, not only with herself but with antecedents of herself, she’s putting it all on the line. No woman is an island, and ANOHNI’s awareness of her place on the cultural and ecological continuum has never been more important or central to her work.

Who might we have clambered over – advertently or inadvertently – to get to where we are now? Whose labour? Whose personhood? Whose safety? These are complex and staggering questions and exist in a fog of cognitive dissonance. Sure, we pay lip service to the ideas of complicity and choice, but how many of us can honestly say that we have the willpower and emotional wherewithal to really sit with the rawness of that self-interrogation for more than five minutes?

ANOHNI frequently references ‘resilience’ in our chat. It’s a word and an idea that seems to have fallen out of favour in recent years, with some arguing that it almost pathologises the use of strength-based thinking and absolves us of our responsibilities to each other as fellow beings. But ANOHNI’s notion of resilience takes what she describes as “a gracious, kind of athletic” form.

Learning to account for ourselves honestly is long-haul vagabondage through doublespeak and prevarication, and while strength has its importance it lends itself all too easily to falling into patterns of blame and/or denial. “Rather than shut down, I think it’s more beautiful and much more adult to imagine there’s a way to do it graciously,” she says. “To be resilient in a way that opens up the possibility that we might have more agency than we’ve imagined, to change our trajectory.”

BA3 Magazines credit Image by ANOHNI with Nomi Ruiz c Rebis Music 2023

There’s no getting around the fact that we, as Westerners, have benefitted enormously from systems that have strip-mined the vitality and cultures of those we have historically othered. Pretending that we’re not part of the problem isn’t going to get us where we need to go, not just as a culture but as a species, and time is ticking out. Drawing on the electronic music she loved growing up in the ‘80s, ANOHNI conceptualised her last album HOPELESSNESS as a danceable expression of sublimated rage (“in full war mode,” as she recently described it to Frieze), railing against our climate complacency and destructiveness towards each other. Unflinchingly so, even when spearing herself.

Arriving seven years later, My Back… does indeed continue some of those conversations. Songs like “It’s My Fault” and “Why Am I Alive Now?” can be read as laments on our self-destruction, while “Go Ahead” and “Scapegoat” echo some of the violence and nihilism of HOPELESSNESS cuts like “4 Degrees” and “Crisis”. But there are other conversations that ANOHNI speaks to as well. When it comes to making a contemporary political record, she holds up Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On as “really a kind of blueprint.”

Released in 1971, the same year ANOHNI was born, and informed by a period of huge societal, global and personal upheaval, What’s Going On proved to be a landmark, not just in R&B but in popular music more broadly. “I’ve really identified that album as sort of a centrepiece of my thinking about how to make a record,” she says. “And I think, honestly, it was also the inspiration for HOPELESSNESS. On [that record] he went topically, song by song, and identified a range of issues that cumulatively comprised a worldview. Which is sort of what I did, in a very different way, on HOPELESSNESS. Or what I tried to do, very clumsily.”

Just as Gaye came to realise that he had to put his fantasies behind him in order to show people what was just around the corner, hidden from sight, so too did ANOHNI. Rather than returning to the acoustic pastoral settings of her earlier albums – the Mercury Prize-winning I Am A Bird Now and its more lushly orchestrated sisters Swanlights and The Crying Light, all pre-ANOHNI, all with the Johnsons – she took all the frustration of HOPELESSNESS and turned it into something that’s both more expansive and more personal.

Take lead single “It Must Change”, for example. Recorded in a single vocal take with a band she assembled together with album producer Jimmy Hogarth, whose contributions to the British soul music renaissance include tracks with Duffy, Amy Winehouse and Corinne Bailey Rae, it’s a song of bruised but dignified protest. A love song, really, but where the subject of that love is our dying world and everything in it. “The truth is that I always thought you were beautiful, in your own way, that’s why this is so sad,” she sings, drawing out the last word so tremblingly high that it almost sounds paradoxically like ‘safe’.


“I tried to have a conversation, from a perspective of 50 years later, with the kind of prophetic insight that Marvin laid out in 1971,” she explains. “Our reality has already arrived almost past the future that he envisioned, so I sort of tried to imagine looking 50 years ahead from now. Like, where are we going from here, and what do people anticipate that this world is going to look like?”

Knowing she was trans from an early age, ANOHNI disconnected early on from “the suburban heterosexual fantasy” of how life was meant to go. For a kid growing up in West Sussex, in what she describes as “the petrochemical bubble of the early to mid-‘70s,” there was this expectation or ideal of life being long and peaceful, “just kind of growing old and soft and dying on a respirator at the age of 95 with a stock portfolio that you will to your descendants or whatever,” ANOHNI scoffs gently. “My empirical experience of living is a far cry from that fantasy.”

On occasions when her family would go to church, ANOHNI’s experience was largely rooted in confusion. Raised to think that only humans had souls – not animals, not trees, not the sky or stones or plastic or cars – she says she found it “insulated, disorienting and very disembodied” in terms of understanding what her relationship was to the rest of the world around her. “I didn’t really know what to make of it, because I couldn’t really understand why we were so differentiated from everything else.”

As she’s since discovered, ANOHNI’s world is a spectral one, “a super feeling-full, super-spirited and psychedelic space.” Binary opposites like life and death, darkness and light have no business there. She describes how she sees bodies transforming and dissolving, new ones arriving, and “people moving in trance.” “It’s vigorous and intense, but it’s a valuable and treasurable experience,” she says. “The kind of experience that I would say is sacred, and all those facets of it are part of that sacredness. Even in moments of cataclysmic change. Even when the most terrible things are going on. In my imagination, they’re all held within a sacred cradle of femaleness.”

"When people use violence or fear to extract an extreme response, it’s always diminishing returns."


As we digress into a discussion on the power of storytelling – who has that power, who does it benefit and what are their responsibilities? – ANOHNI returns to the subject of religion. When it comes to influential storytelling in the Western world, Christians have had the competition sewn up for much of the past two millennia. But, as she points out, theirs is a story that’s based on conforming to (and being controlled by, in some way) a narrative of destruction. “It’s all going to climax in an apocalypse that will promise us transcendence of our species and our final separation from nature, which is like a curse that hangs around our necks and drags us to hell or whatever,” she says, dryly. “That’s a really big story, and it's kind of embedded into our DNA through brutal reinforcement over many, many generations.”

She means that literally, by the way, citing genomic evidence from the grandchildren of Holocaust survivors that trauma can manifest in our genetic code, altering it in detectable ways. “I think it’s extraordinary,” she says. “And, to me, it’s an indication that every subtler iteration of that must also be true. That we carry stories inside us that, whether or not we have conscious access to them, inform our gestures, our points of view and our constitutions.”

This subtle trafficking of trauma down through generations is something ANOHNI says she thinks about a lot. She sees parallels with the emergence of “more and more virulent” technologies and the way they have irrevocably altered the way we function in society. From a storytelling perspective, she points to filmmaking as a good example. “Suddenly, certain classes of men – white men, for the most part – had access to projecting their own mythologies and overwhelming dreams into people’s minds, on a whole new scale,” she says. “Hollywood replaced the church, basically, and created this new veneer of supposedly secular, modern and supposedly rational dreams, like a thin skin over our lives.”

Gradually, filmmaking became an extractive system in itself, ANOHNI argues. Through mining people’s emotional lives and “sort of violating them” in creative ways, directors like David Lynch were able to provoke extreme responses not easily forgotten. “Just like someone might plant a flag on top of a mountain, [filmmakers] could mark a person and say, ‘You’ll remember that fear. That was the fear that I created in you,’” she says. “And people would remember, but they’d never fall for the same trick again. When people use violence or fear to extract an extreme response, for instance in cultural materials, it’s always diminishing returns. It’s extractive in that it’s not sustainable.”

It's not a huge leap from there to the ravenous maw of fake news and its appetite for destruction. There are only so many times the social contract can be broken before people simply stop reacting. ANOHNI compares it to a deadening of a series of nerves that had previously been firewalled off. “When that firewall breaks down and we cross a line that the community had decided that we weren’t going to cross, we just become numb to it,” she says. “I think there’s been a lot of that kind of storytelling in the cultural world, and a lot of it, to my mind, is an abuse of power that’s been accumulated on an imbalanced platform that favours certain kinds of guys. It’s like applying a kind of war strategy to mass dissemination. It’s creepy and rapey and terrorising, in a way, and I’m so very sick and tired of that dynamic.”

It's time, then, for a reckoning, she says, in the cultural world and beyond. Picking up where Marvin Gaye left off, the core tenet of My Back Was a Bridge… is a phrase that appears in the artwork: “IT’S TIME TO FEEL WHAT’S REALLY HAPPENING.” Not just to watch or read or write about it, but to sit with it, absorb it, let it sink into your bones, your DNA. “I feel like, especially now, when everyone is so depleted and exhausted and confused and unable to discern what’s really going on, it’s a great time [for society] to become more accountable,” she says.

But what does accountability mean, really? For ANOHNI, it’s being held to our own truths, the silent, cannibal truths that exhaust and deplete us, as deeply buried and ugly as they may be. It also means holding space and taking responsibility for a whole process. Our short-sightedness won’t serve us; look around, It never has. Progressiveness is so often just another story, another thin skin over our lives. If we’re truly to progress as a people, we have to look much further ahead.

Consider the culture of the Edo period in Japan or the Iroquois law of seven generations, for example, where new ideas and technologies were weighed against the benefits they offered far beyond the lifetimes of those who introduced them. “I’m very influenced by that idea,” she says. “I think it’s such a beautiful counter-notion to the way that we function under capitalism, which is that we strip people of their memories and of their histories and of their understanding of where they are or what’s really happening, in order to make them more compliant as consumers of materials that they don’t understand in terms of the harm attached to those materials.”

Anohni 02

Of course, the cherry on top of our likely doom is that those who introduced many of the transformative technologies of the 20th century did so with full knowledge of the consequences. Or at least they knew far more than they let on. ANOHNI recommends a book on this called In the Absence of the Sacred by the improbably named Jerry Mander, an ‘activist-adman’ and author who, when he died this past April, left a legacy of deep anti-corporatist thinking.

“Companies did exhaustive, many years long studies and created very accurate assessments of how technologies like the telephone would transform society,” she explains. “They knew that people would stop living so close together because they could have intimate conversations from farther away, and they knew that this would support the emerging automobile technologies and support a petrochemical century. Basically, they made these lists of pros and cons, advertised the pros and buried the cons in a deep dark hole, so that by the time regulatory systems had caught up with them as a corporation, there was no going back.”

It's the same story that we saw with the internet, which ultimately serves corporations, government and the military far more than it serves us as individuals (I say this as an extremely online person), and now it’s rolling out again with AI. “It’s just so tragic,” says ANOHNI, exasperation creeping into her voice. “It’s the brazen willingness to acknowledge that it’s a dangerous technology that doesn’t understand itself, yet we’re just shoving it like foie gras down the throats of all our cultures and our children.” She sighs. “It’s just a very ‘fuck it’, suicidal approach to ingesting, and forcing others to ingest monetised new technologies.”

Interestingly, ANOHNI also uses the word ‘technology’ when talking about the great Black American soul singers that the sound of My Back Was a Bridge… owes so much to. Although her family moved to Northern California in the early ‘80s, a lot of the music that she was absorbing at the time was coming out of the UK. She learned to sing from listening to people like Annie Lennox, Alison Moyet, and especially Boy George, who guided her into a whole new universe of feeling and “changed the direction and the course" of her life.

“I remember listening to those songs on the radio when I was 10 years old and my heart just bursting,” she says, tenderly. “George was only 19 or 20 himself at the time, so it was really just babes teaching children how to live, how to express themselves and how to survive. The way he was embodying songs like ‘Do You Really Want to Hurt Me’ was so sexy, so resilient, so cunning and so brilliant in its transcendental kind of passivity. And yet it was manipulation, and it was a navigation of hostile waters.”

Although she didn’t know it at the time, many of the songs she loved were essentially electronic iterations of earlier songs by Black American R&B groups like The Spinners and The Ronettes, “in terms of progression and melody.” British artists, from the Rolling Stones to the Bee Gees, had even begun to sing with affected American accents, and Boy George was no exception.

ANOHNI laughs. “George was this Irish queen from London singing with this extremely textured, beautiful, feminine, soulful voice, and within that voice was all of this knowledge and technology that had arrived to British shores from America in the ‘50s. And I just kind of inhaled it all without really questioning it.”


As a teenager, growing up in San Jose, she gradually began to understand the origins of that technology, starting with the jazz greats like Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, then mapping her way through the cream of American soul and R&B singers like Otis Redding, Etta James, Aretha Franklin and Donny Hathaway. “Then, of course, there was Nina Simone,” she says, and I can almost feel her smiling down the phone.

There was an electricity and freedom about those soul and early rock and roll albums that, as she points out, would have felt almost fantastical to her parents’ generation. “You can’t imagine how drab and clouded and grey England must have been after the war,” she says. “My dad grew up in a cloud of smog, you know? People were just stepping out of the first iteration of this really atrocious industrialisation, and then here came this expansive, expressive music from a group of people whose experience was so far from our own as British people and Irish immigrants in the UK, which is what my family were. And yet it was so nourishing and life-giving. For me, personally, as a kid it was a lifeline.”

In the spirit of continuing conversations, with My Back Was a Bridge… ANOHNI set out to pay tribute to that loaned heritage and to investigate her own relationship with “soul-based singing.” In some respects, it’s what people in the ‘60s might have called a ‘blue-eyed soul’ record – though quite what people in the ‘60s would have made of a song like “Go Ahead” with its screeching lemur sample (yes, really) is anyone’s guess. “That’s what they used to call an English appropriation of soul music,” she says. “But a kind of successful appropriation of soul music, performatively speaking, because of a lot of English artists became very great singers. I wanted [this record] to open up a conversation and to talk about the gift, really, of this legacy. People were looking for a model of self-expression and resilience in the face of untenable circumstances, and they found it in American soul music.”

Of course, ANOHNI recognises that we are living in vastly different times where hopefully most people do understand, on some level at least, what appropriation is. She recognises, too, that the view of multiculturalism within pop music in the early ‘80s might be considered naïve by today’s standards. Of course there’s room for reappraisal, always, but we shouldn’t go too hard on the artists of the time. “I think they were links in a chain, you know,” she says. “They wouldn’t have been able to articulate that [appropriation] any more than I’ve only just been recently trying to articulate it. I think it was such an unconscious sort of process, and it was a different time, culturally.”

"We can’t continue to tolerate the systemic support of harm. That's got to stop.”


That’s not to say that the idea of diversity didn’t exist then. ANOHNI points to Culture Club in 1983, who were made up of a Jewish drummer, a Black British bassist, a white guitarist from Essex, and Boy George up front wearing Kabuki makeup and a Hasidic-style hat. “The idea of multiculturalism in that moment was sort of a paradoxical idea,” she says. “It was an expression of paradise, from an urban point of view, and the melting pot was the dream.”

For a sense of what was really happening in the early ‘80s, she suggests the video for “Ghost Town” by The Specials as a primer. “You see the young people forming a unified front and saying, ‘This isn’t our system. We have another vision of the way we’re going to be together in cities.’ There were all sorts of different versions of that, but I think it was beautiful in its own way. It was a beautiful idea. We’re in a very different time now, and it’s so complex, but I wanted to circle and honour the length and the time and the source of the form.”

When we speak, ANOHNI is in the middle of an intensive collaboration with the Holland Festival, who invited her on board as this year’s ‘associate artist’. There’s a curatorial element to that, but she says what’s been most interesting to her is getting involved in the festival infrastructurally, to “kind of stage a bit of an intervention.” “I’m trying to illuminate for them what this transaction might entail from an artist’s point of view,” she says. “My question is, what is the mandate of care? And that’s been really complicated, but we’ve had lots of interesting, difficult and insightful conversations.”

TE1 general use credit Image by ANOHNI with Nomi Ruiz c Rebis Music 2023

These days, when ANOHNI gets involved with any cultural institution, there’s a very conscious effort to get them to take stronger ethical stances and not leave it to the artists involved to “walk the plank in the public eye.” “I think there could be more accountability in the transaction from the point of view of the hosts,” she says. “Rather than leaving it to the journalistic branch of culture to make whatever kind of mincemeat or celebration they want of each artist.”

Perhaps most of all, she wants her work, both in and outside of music, to be useful. She wants it to be recognised not as the work of an original artist but as the work of an artist who’s the sum of all the artists who have nourished her. In that sense, she compares herself to a river being fed by multiple streams; not inventing new water, just carrying it through a certain time and space.

“I really don’t believe the fantasy of solitary, innovative genius,” she says bluntly. “I think the idea of the solo brilliant artist is a diseased idea that actually indicates the breakdown of a sense of a collective movement. It enforces hierarchical decision-making and creates a more dangerous landscape for all of us.”

The idea that revolutionary new ideas and technologies are best sourced from lonely places is inexorably tied to the archetype of male brilliance. Who decides if they are in our best interest? Old, white men, mostly. Not the community at large. Look at plastic, look at the internet, look at AI. All those shiny pros and buried cons, hidden away from prying eyes like people used to hide death from their children. They might just get us all killed.

Anohni 06

Our learned tendency to conceal a crisis or a problem often makes things gravely worse, and it’s part of the cataclysmic change that ANOHNI talks about when coming back to the idea of what’s really happening.

“What I’ve learned, getting older and going through my own life, is that death is very much a part of the experience," she says. "Harm is part of the experience. Life is enduring and surviving. Any tree that has weathered a hundred storms is beaten and its boughs are broken in all sorts of different ways, but it grows with its scars. A mother who has been a good mother, at the end of her life, her back is broken from the weight of the children that she’s carried and the amount of milk and wellness that’s been sucked from her body.”

That might not sound much like a feminine dream but, without wishing to put words in her mouth, I think what ANOHNI is getting at is that her vision is not a pollyanna utopia. As a “non-Christian”, it’s certainly no heaven, and it’s not necessarily a harmless place either; our resilience will still be required, but not without grace. “So many of the worst things we do are actually contorted survival strategies that have expired in their usefulness and are now causing harm," she says, summing up. “And I have to have a note of compassion for that. But we can’t continue to tolerate the systemic support of harm. That's got to stop.”

My Back Was a Bridge for You to Cross is released on 7 July via Rough Trade Records and Secretly Canadian.

Share article

Get the Best Fit take on the week in music direct to your inbox every Friday

Read next