British singer-songwriter Antony Hegarty now uses a “spirit name,” Anohni. She also now prefers female pronouns, although she has always considered her gender to be fluid. As she told the Guardian, “I don’t feel emphatically female. It’s more subtle than that.” Subtle is a good word for her music, too. And strange, but in a most intriguing way.
Her first professional group, Antony and the Johnsons, had a long run that started with the 1995 EP Behold the Lamb of God. The instantly distinguishing feature is Anohni’s voice, a tenor-contralto with a fast yet wide vibrato and a deep, rich essence. The voice is not quite of this world. Nor are Anohni’s songs.
Right out of the gate, Anohni establishes her world view as one of sweet, tortuous melancholy. Antony and the Johnsons was also unusual for its use of acoustic instruments in an era besotted with electronica. The lush arrangements are just short of sugary, like Anohni’s voice. “It’s true I always wanted love to be…hurtful,” she sings in “Cripple and the Starfish”:
The 2005 album I Am a Bird Now was a point of maturing for the band, especially in terms of critical response. It won the 2005 Mercury Prize. As the album’s title suggests, its songs focus on transformation. It also offers proof that fellow artists – even major ones – jump at the chance to work with Anohni: this album includes collaborations with Rufus Wainwright, Boy George, and Lou Reed, and others.
“Fistful of Love,” opens with Reed’s unmistakable tuneless sing-talking. Then his cameo is done and Anohni takes over. This particular song isn’t in some undefinable style; it’s straight-up soul (yeah, baby), first smoldering and then bursting with the pain of romance. Love – or the lack of it – is Anohni’s favorite topic, which makes the originality of her lyrics all the more remarkable.
Anohni is also a visual artist, and the 2010 album Swanlights was released with a 144-page book of her paintings and collages. The song “The Great White Ocean” from that album is a primer in less is more. The melody would work for a nursery song, and the accompaniment is just a couple of acoustic guitars. Yet the listener is left with a profound but not unpleasant hollowness, like a slow-motion catharsis.
While Antony and the Johnsons were still in operation, Anohni was approached by the American DJ Andy Butler about his new electronica project, Hercules and Love Affair. Perhaps the extreme change of style appealed to Anohni; she sings five tracks on the band’s self-titled debut album in 2008, although she never performed live with them.
“Blind” was the first song Anohni recorded for Butler. The voice is unmistakable, but the change in context makes me think of a Persian house cat dropped into a back alley in the rain. Not only does the complex texture of Anohni’s voice jar against the electronic music’s unforgiving coldness of timbre and rhythm. There’s also a major step down in the quality of the lyrics:
Antony and the Johnsons were together for about 20 years. Their last album came out in 2014. Since then, Anohni has been working on solo material. Her album Hopelessness, from 2016 on the Secretly Canadia/Rough Trade, shows a change in attitude if not style. Despite what the title might suggest, there is more anger than sadness in it, with politics brought to the forefront.
The opening track is “Drone Bomb Me,” and its video has made some waves. It features model Naomi Campbell in an empty room, lip-synching the entire song. If you can manage to pay attention to those lyrics in spite of the distracting images, you’ll find an unrequited love song couched in terribly violent imagery. And Anohni has figured out how to use a less harsh style of electronica in a way that melds better with her voice:
The politics on this album is very specific, mostly related to Anohni’s uncompromising pacifism and human rights activism. “Obama,” a chant sung on a three-pitch melody in Anohni’s lowest register, excoriates the then-president for the incarceration of whistle-blower Chelsea Manning and pleads for her release:
2017 saw the release of Anohni’s solo EP Paradise. “Jesus Will Kill You” is a scathing criticism of the establishment war machine. In the midst of frantic Japanese-influenced flute runs and taiko drum beats, she questions — “What’s your legacy?” — and she accuses – “You’re a mean old man.” Her musical outrage grows as the world spins into chaos.
As is true of all the most interesting musicians, Anohni has huge respect for other songwriters. She has made some fascinating cover recordings. Whatever she sings becomes a different song, very much her own. Here she is with a mesmerizing performance of Leonard Cohen’s “If It Be Your Will”:
I could think of a hundred songs I’d love to hear reshape with that haunting touch.