INTERVIEW WITH ANJIMILE
Anjimile is a trans and nonbinary indie folk artist based in Boston, MA. On September 18, they released their debut album, Giver Taker, on Father/Daughter Record. The album received widespread acclaim from publications such as Rolling Stone, NPR Music, Pitchfork, Paste Magazine, Consequence of Sound, The Fader and now, The Q! Their Tiny Desk Contest entry from 2018 earned them the title of WBUR's favorite Massachusetts entry. Anjimile talks to Teresa and Sam about exploring the indie folk space, the making of Giver Taker, and their musical inspirations.
Teresa: The first song that I heard off Giver Taker was “Maker”, and obviously these lyrics get repeated a lot: “I’m not just a boy I’m a man, I’m not just a man I’m a god, I’m not just a god I’m a maker.” When I heard these lyrics, I was becoming more self actualized. I was like, this feels empowering to me. When did you come to terms with this type of self actualization and define yourself not as a man, not just as a god but also a maker?
Anjimile: I wrote this song in the winter of 2015, and I remember it was cold and dreary and I was alone in my apartment, and the heat was off because my roommates were at work and I was just chilling in the house. And I felt this overwhelming sense of loneliness. So the composition was born out of that, and, kinda like what you were saying about self actualization, the more lyrics I wrote the more connected I began to feel to my personhood and identity and went from kind of this very chilly human in this super cold apartment to an artist - someone who feels like they are making art and digging into their identity, and at that time in my life I was beginning to explore what it meant to be nonbinary and trans…
When I was 17 or 18, I came out to my parents as a lesbian, and that was an identity that felt right for a long time. Then, the older that I got, it just didn’t fit as much. When I met queer folks in Boston who explained to me the concept of nonbinary and trans, it made so much sense as something that resonated with me. That processing kind of came out all of a sudden in these chorus lyrics. I was like, 'Damn'.
I wasn’t really taking it super literally when I wrote it, which is why looking back years later as someone who is now very comfortable identifying as trans and transmasc and nonbinary, it’s kinda wild to me that I wrote that because I was not feeling as confident as the lyrics are. It was kinda manifesting, in a way, I think.
Sam: That’s a beautiful thought. You just talked about the Boston scene a bit, but what is it like operating within this very white indie space. Do you feel like it constrains you in any ways, or have you found ways to work within it?
Anjimile: Yeah… It’s just weird. I don’t understand white culture, but… *Laughs* It’s just weird to be surrounded by white people, and Boston’s really segregated and it kind of took me a couple of years to recognize that I felt weird being surrounded by white people but… In the past couple of years I’ve kind of, it’s not that I’ve broken off from the local indie scene, I would say I’m a part of it, but I kind of view myself as a bit of an island just because of how racially segregated it is.
And there’s a lot of dope. Local publications with white folks who are radical and antiracist. So that’s lit. But there is also this sense of pervasive whiteness that kind of borders on tokenization where I wonder… I don’t really trust folks I don’t know in the scene, basically, if they’re white. I’m kind of like “what are your motives here, what do you want?”
I’ve just had so many weird experiences of being booked as the only black person or being the diversity inclusion in some weird magazine - like the Boston Herald asked me for an interview recently, and they just endorsed Trump, and I was like, “No.” And the writer was like "Check out all these past articles I’ve written,"and I was like “Dude, do I look like a clown?” You know, he’s a great writer but his boss endorsed Trump and I’m black, so you won’t ever see me near the Herald ever again.
Teresa: That still blows my mind that so many people don’t have that awareness. I’m pretty sure you saying no, he probably didn’t think that was really gonna happen.
Anjimile: Yeah, clearly. It came through my publicist, who’s like super lit, and she was like “Hey, they just reached out, but, you know, we just saw that the Herald endorsed Trump.” And I was like “Oh yeah. Unfortunately, the Herald endorsed Trump so it’s a no." And that was gonna be the end of it.
But then he got back to me, and he was like “I would like to invite Anjimile to look at these articles that I’ve written about folks of color.” And I was like “I would invite you to look at my past interviews where I talk about how much I hate racism and white complicity.” I was like, bro, what the - *Laughs*
Sam: I know that you’ve been making music for a long time and been involved with music in various ways for a long time, but did you always see it as the career path that you wanted to take?
Anjimile: I always saw it as a career path that I wanted to take, but not in a realistic way. I remember being a kid, growing up loving music, loving Prince and Whitney Houston and Madonna and all that stuff, and being like “I wanna be a rockstar.” And then I got older and I was like ok, maybe I can’t be a rockstar, maybe I’ll be a doctor or something. I got a little older and I was like “maybe I can be a rockstar.”
It’s something that’s gotten more serious in the past three or four years or so. I always believed it was something that could potentially happen, maybe, but I always thought it was a matter of getting a big break, a matter of randomness as opposed to planning and work and a freakish amount of research. And once I realized that it was kind of similar to studying for a class, I was like ok, let me get out my material and start prepping.
Sam: Can you talk a little bit about what you mean by that? What type of research did you feel like you had to do?
Anjimile: At first, it had a lot to do with specifying my career goals, which I’m still doing. At first, the career goal was I want to be a musician. Then I was like, “Ok, but what does that mean?” Like, I do play guitar, I am a musician, so do I want to monetize a music career? So then I was like, “Yes, I want to make a living wage off of music.”
And then from there it had to get more specific. “I want to release albums every two to three years or so and then, tour every three to six months based on the album release cycle, and then I want to sell merch and also license my music to film and television and use all of this as revenue streams to perpetuate my music career.”
And so, I looked up artists I really liked and looked at their career trajectories, basically. I have some Google docs of just, when [unintelligible] first record was, what press outlets covered the album, and the same goes for Moses Sumney, and Mitski, and Lucy Dacus and just like anyone who I want to be as successful as.
Now that I have an album out, it’s involved doing research of different management companies that I might be interested in working with, and also booking agencies. Before the record came out, I was looking up different publicists that my label was sending me, and before I linked up with the label, I was also looking up different record labels that I might be a good fit on. So yeah, just a bunch of that stuff.
Teresa: That’s really cool that you talk about that, because I feel like that mirrors a lot of what people do in more mainstream careers. People do that same research and I feel like I don’t really hear artists doing that same research, so you sort of assume they have talent and they have luck. But there’s also that in between, you know - you are purposefully trying to find the best way to get there.
Anjimile: Yeah. I think there’s definitely an element of luck, but it’s said that luck is important, but also a certain amount of work is going to get you into the spaces where luck will come in handy. You need to work to get yourself in a room with people you can then talk with and kind of get that lucky break. Meet folks with a certain level of power who can help you and help your career.
Sam: On that note of working towards giving these publication reviews and all that. What was it like - I know we’re not saying Pitchforks is the gold standard or anything - was it good to see your music on Pitchfork and Stereo Gum? How did that feel?
Anjimile: It felt great. And going back to research, my label asked me, “What kind of press do you want for this album?” And I was like, “I want the indie special.” I want Pitchfork, I want Stereo Gum, I want Consequence of Sound, Pace Magazine, also NPR would be really sick, Rolling Stone would be insane. And then all of that happened.
So I was definitely pumped about that Pitchfork review. I was losing sleep over that. I got forked, I’ll tell you what. I was just waiting for that Pitchfork review. *Laughs*
Teresa: Talking a little bit about NPR, I saw the Youtube videos of you playing “Therapy” for the Tiny Desk concert. Also, “1978” [for the Tiny Desk concert]. But those were in different years. When you were sending those videos out, what stage of your music career were you at? Were you just at that stage where you’re like “lemme shoot my shot”, or were you starting to get serious?
Anjimile: The “Therapy” video I think was in 2015 or 2014. So I was still in mid-college, and it was less serious and more like, “Well, there’s a contest. I write music, let’s put it in the contest.” And then by the time I submitted “1978”, which I think was two years later, I was not super into submitting a Tiny Desk thing. I was like, “Nah, I’m kinda disillusioned yo. I submitted two years ago and I didn’t win, so this must be a racket.” And then my bandmate, Justine, was like, “Hey, you should submit this.” And she’s in the video playing synth, and she co-produced my record.
It was kind of a flippant decision on my part, but I was doing an artist’s residency at the time, which is where we recorded that, and then it ended up in me winning the “Favorite Massachusetts Entry to the Tiny Desk Contest.” Which then came with a thousand bucks and also a bunch of local press and opportunities. That was a legitimizing thing for me, where I was like, “Okay, things happen when I take action!” Or my possibilities open up when I take action.
Sam: For sure. To go back to the album, one of the first things that I saw from it was the release stream. It was just beautiful to hear these different arrangements of the songs. Could you talk about what putting together that stream meant? Also, is that the lineup that you think you’re gonna use going forward if we get a chance to start going to concerts again?
Anjimile: The release stream… Such a cute time. So yeah, that was me and Gabe and Justine, and they both produced the album. We were basically just trying to make as full of a sound and get as nice of a production as possible within the limits of a pandemic. So we rented that boy scout camp, and they were like, “You can only have three or four people in here,” so no full band or anything like that.
Gabe and Justine wrote their parts for the record. Gabe plays bass and also percussive stuff, and covered a lot of the percussive and bass parts with Justine, who also plays piano - they covered up those parts as well. They figured out the live arrangement. They were like, “This is what we’re gonna do,” and I was like, “Great, I’m gonna play guitar, and let’s see how this sounds.” We were able to figure out a nice, kind of stripped down set.
Then, ideally when touring us back… I think Gabe is a solo artist in his own right who was working on popping off, so I don’t think he’ll be available to play live. But ideally, Justine will be with me, plus a full band, like another bass player, a drummer, and another backing vocalist as well.
Teresa: What kind of drew you into the indie music space? I know that you talk about your inspirations a lot. Have you always seen yourself as someone in that sort of space, or did you ever experiment with other forms of music?
Anjimile: I, let’s see… When I was 17, one of my friends made me a mixtape. I did not know it at the time, but she was a hipster - the first hipster I would ever meet. She made me a mixtape of indie rock, and I was like, “What the hell is this?” Because up until that point, I was listening to punk, like hardcore punk, and hip hop and a lot of ska - like a ton of ska. And there was a bunch of really classic indie tunes, but one of them was a song called “I Need a Life” by Born Ruffians, and I was like "Oh snap, this is a game changer."
Being introduced, then I was like, “Oh snap, what is indie rock?” And so, I started doing my research again and listening to Neutral Milk Hotel and Pavement and just kind of like figuring out what the deal was. And that involved a lot of Iron and Wine and a lot of Sufjan, and I was like, “Okay!” And I started learning to finger pick like Sam Dean from Iron and Wine, and I kind of just slowly drifted into that space.
Before I was introduced to indie, I hadn’t really been doing any songwriting at all. And I think once I found indie, I was just inspired to start kind of writing in that genre, and thus it was.
Teresa: And speaking of those - you’re a lyricist and you play the guitar and also you sing. So which one of those elements do you think came most naturally to you, and which did you kind of have to push yourself more to excel at?
Anjimile: I think singing is what I have most experience with, the most comfortability with. And then, I think guitar playing and songwriting in equal measure kind of took me some time to get comfortable with. I think, yeah, probably writing lyrics was the thing that I found the hardest when I first started playing. It’s not that I don’t think it’s hard now, I just try not to - I’ve gotten into a songwriting process where the lyrics kind of just come, and I spend as little time as possible on them and I kind of spend as little time writing the song as possible. And I kind of catch a vibe, and then stay with it and then let it go, so it’s usually a quick process.
And I try not to overthink my lyrics. When I was first writing, like a lot of my older songs, there was a lot of lyrics, there’s just like a lot of words. And then this certain point, I think a couple years ago, I was like, “I don’t think my songs need to have that many words.” So I just started saying less, and I was like, “Less lyrics equals less lyrics to worry about, let’s do it.” That’s kind of where I’m at right now.
Sam: I was wondering about the cover. How does it relate to the content of the album?
Anjimile: Yeah, so for the cover, we got a painting commissioned by the one and only Rebecca Larios. My past DIY releases have all been portraits because I think it’s important to have visual representation as a queer black person. I think I do want people to know that there is a queer black person singing these things, and I want them to know what my face looks like. If anything, so that other queer black folks and other queer people of color can be like, “Oh word, great! There’s another one.”
And so, the image itself is related to - sorry, I’m looking at like, the painting is on my wall right here. So firstly, a big part of the album cover is the Lion King. It was Justine’s idea to get this painting commissioned, and at first I was like, “I don’t really know.” And then I was like, “Fine, fine, fine.”
We were sending Rebecca, the painter, examples of what we wanted for the color wheel, and I was like, “Listen, this record is about my heart and soul and the piece of media that has most impacted by heart and soul is the Lion King, so I want the color palette to reflect the Lion King.”
So I just sent her stills from “I Just Can’t Wait to be King.” Part of the reason the Lion King was so important to me growing up is because it was the first time I’d ever seen Africa. My parents are [from] Malawi, and I was like, “Oh my god, the lions! It’s us.” It was my five or six year old self seeing myself in a Disney film, or in media, kind of for the first time. So I was super obsessed with Mufasa and Simba and all that.
In the painting, there’s foliage in the background and it’s sugarcane, which is the most popular crop in Malawi where my family is from. A lot of the music is influenced by my Malawian heritage and the music that my Malawian parents listened to. I wanted to make sure to incorporate that… Fun fact, there’s some bluish water in the background with, like, orange, and that’s from a specific scene in “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” where Zazu is being a little bitch, and he’s all mad and he’s standing on a log and he’s about to go down this waterfall, and that’s one of the stills I sent Rebecca.
So when I saw the painting for the first time, I was like, “Did you actually, seriously, literally paint me into a scene from ‘I Just Can’t Wait to be King’?” And she was like, “Yeah”. And I was like, “Yo, I’m dead. This is the best day of my life.” So I feel like it’s a subtle nod to a lot of influences in my life, and also just the prospect of being king, in the way that royalty, lineage relates to Black American music, whether that’s like Prince or Duke Ellington. I wanted to dive into that lineage in a less direct way. That’s why that looks like that.