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Interview: Anjimile offers the riches of healing on ‘Giver Taker’

Via the artist
 

What is there that Anjimile’s debut full-length album Giver Taker doesn’t provide?

Released today (September 18), the nourishing nine-track LP from the long-ascending Boston artist contains multitudes of comfort. Namely, there’s shelter from the storm, cushioned with a new type of self-compassion, and unadulterated optimism, culled right from the source of Anjimile’s smiling heart. 

If it weren’t so utterly human, it would be corny, but Anjimile’s history is fraught with the realness and radical acceptance that’s shaped him into the master songwriter he is today. Grappling with his identity as a queer trans musician, as well as his recovery from alcoholism, Giver Taker could have been a collection of melancholic reflections. Instead, the record demonstrates the rewarding riches of healing, earned from years of earnest — and undoubtedly trying — self-improvement. 

 
 

Ahead of his Twitter Q&A and listening party with Newbury Comics tonight, and in conjunction with the joyful release of Giver Taker, Vanyaland phoned Anjimile this summer to talk about his ace Boston-based musical team of Justine Bowe and Gabe Goodman, his fortuitous signing with Father/Daughter Records, and what it means to put the work in for your own health. Get hip below.

Victoria Wasylak: Signing with Father/Daughter was such a great move. How did that come to be?

Anjimile: I have been creeping on Father/Daughter for years. Sir Babygirl, a.k.a. Kelsie, recorded their debut album in my old apartment. My former roommate and good friend is their producer. Kelsie was at the apartment often, just killing vocals, and I would just hear them in my roommate’s room and just be like, “Fuck that is so good.” Occasionally, they’d be around to chat in the kitchen or whatever, and they would tell me about what was going on with Father/Daughter. That’s when I had learned about Father/Daughter, and they [Kelsie] were like, “Yeah, it’s just a really sick label that uplifts queer and trans people, and they’re just really cool people, and I feel like it would be a good place for you.”

 
 

Two years later, I got a Live Arts Boston grant to record a full-length studio album, and that’s how Giver Taker came to be. The A&R rep at Father/Daughter has a Twitter and Instagram, and he was like, “Hey, just so everybody knows, I’m offering sliding scale artist consultations.” 

One of my producers, Gabe Goodman, was like, “Here’s gonna be our master plan, everybody. We’re gonna reach out to Tyler and we’re gonna ask his advice for our current plan to release Giver Taker.” Gabe’s plan was like, “Okay, let’s just cold email a couple of indie labels and see if folks are interested, and if nobody’s interested, we’ll self-release and we’ll hire publicists.” We presented this plan to Tyler, and he was like, “That sounds like a great plan.” Also, with that plan, we were like, “And here are our three songs that we have that are mixes in progress.” They were not mixes in progress. They were fully mixed. [laughs] They were finished. 

Ha! That’s so brilliant.

I know. Gabe’s fucking clutch as hell. Then we had a phone call with Tyler, and he was like, “I think this is a great plan. Also, I think these songs are amazing, and I wanna show them to Jessie, the head of Father/Daughter. Here are all these label contacts for folks you can reach out to, and, also, we’re interested as well if that’s something you’re interested in,” and I was like, “Yeah, that sounds cool. Like, totally.” In my head, I was like “[triumphant laughter]!”

 
 

We talked to a couple labels, and they were totally chill and cool, but the vibe with Father/Daughter felt the most good. It just felt like a good fit — I just got a really good feeling about it, and so did Gabe and my other producer/bandmate, Justine Bowe. So we were like, “Yeah, let’s fucking hit it! Father/Daughter!” And here we are.

How long ago was that?

I signed with them in November of 2019.

Oh, so you’ve had to keep this quiet, huh?

 
 

Yeah, it’s been tough. I’ve always released DIY and it’s always been kinda like, “Shit, let’s just get this music out as quickly as possible! Ah!“ The label was like, “We don’t need to rush. We can just form a plan and put this out, like, six months from now, and this how we’ll do it. We’ll be organized.”

Shock to the system, right? Did you ever have to consider pushing the album back because of COVID-19?

Well, I brought it to the label when schools shut down in March. I was like, “Hey, just wanted to check in what’s gonna happen with the album,” and they were like, “Yeah, we’re gonna put it out… on the release date… that we have scheduled.” I’m like, “Okay.” [laughs]

I think that’s what most labels are doing just because labels still kind of have those release quotas to fill. Or maybe not “quotas,” but it’s just what they gotta do. Booking agencies can’t really book tours, and there are a lot of entities in the music industry that can’t really do things right now, but labels can still put out music, so I think they’re just like, “Yeah, what the fuck? We already have a plan. We can still do this.” 

 
 

Did you finish it [the album] before quarantine? I know you finished recording it before quarantine, but the mixing and mastering process takes a while.

Yes. Thank God.

You know, this album could have sounded really downtrodden, but it’s not. It doesn’t sound like that at all. Even for everything you’ve gone through in the last four or five years, it’s still a very uplifting, positive album, and I can only imagine that was a very deliberate choice on your part when it came time to put it together.

It’s something that. These songs — some of them are a couple years old, some of them I wrote last year. Yeah, over the years I’ve been a human having a life. There’s been some ups and downs, but I have this very strong sense of hope, and even in my saddest tunes, that comes through. And working with Gabe and Justine only helped zero in on that and uplift that, and it was a really lovely process recording with them and getting to the heart of these songs. There’s just so much heart. I write the songs and then I don’t really know how to feel about them. I certainly don’t have any objective thoughts or feelings about them, so having two collaborators with a more objective look at how to bring out the heart of these songs was really helpful. It helped me appreciate the shit more. I was like, “Yeah, these songs are good. Yeah, let’s fucking do it!”

 
 

If I had to pick a word for the whole album as a whole, it’s “soothing.” You know, the fun thing about music is the lyrics can be the same no matter what, but you can choose so many different ways to produce a song that will radically change how people interpret it, or just how it makes them feel. I feel like the production style, coupled with just the way your voice sounds, is very soothing. And, honestly, I’m really moved by that. It’s powerful because it’s hard. It’s hard to take these things and then make it into something that’s like a salve for your soul.

Well, I mean, a lot of these songs are written for my own heart as a release/relief/balm on whatever intense and/or painful emotion I was feeling that was so strong that I felt the need to write it down and put it to music. I’m glad. I’m glad to hear all of that shit [you said]. I didn’t realize that… I’ve never thought of myself as an optimist, but I’ve been doing interviews lately and people were like, “Yeah, this is really positive.” I’m like, “Oh, shit! I guess I am.” Or at least I do believe I’m gonna be alright. I feel like if I do the right thing and do the best I can, that I’m gonna be alright.

In a song like “Baby No More,” it doesn’t spell it out in the song, but it’s talking about not having the proper mental health to show up for your partner. I know you’ve spoken at length about how much joy you find in being sober, but those are really scary things to put out there to the world. Was it scary to you to just be so open? 

It’s been interesting. It kinda felt like a no-brainer because my emotional experiences influence my music and my songwriting directly and deeply. When the label was figuring out the press release and how we’re gonna present this music, Jessi from Father/Daughter was like, “Just so you know, you get to choose what you disclose with the public. People will be asking you about these things a lot so you don’t have to state anything about your sobriety. You don’t have to talk about anything that you don’t want to.” But I feel very comfortable talking about painful stuff because I have a lot of practice. I’ve been in therapy for a long time, and when I got sober, I was in therapy a lot. I guess it’s vulnerable information, but it just feels matter-of-fact to me. It’s just what happened. It’s just how I feel. It is what it is. 

It’s just how I feel like I can relate to myself most honestly. And I think something that I have felt for a lot of my life was this shame — ashamed of my identity, ashamed of my race, ashamed of my alcoholism and the behaviors that I was doing as a result of that. I’m not ashamed anymore.

***

 
 

Is there a turning point, you would say, in your life where you started to be able to let go of those feelings of shame and be more proud of yourself? Was there something that changed you or just changed the way you thought about yourself?

It was definitely rehab. A part of my process of sobriety was coming to terms with my unhealthy and destructive behaviors towards myself and the people closest to me, taking responsibility for that, and beginning the process of making amends for that when appropriate with the guidance of folks who have had the same experiences as me — like other alcoholics who could show me how to be a human in the world who has respect for myself and other people and is no longer causing harm, which is what I was doing. I was just really selfish and really behaving shitty. I have compassion for my past behavior and for my past pain. But, there can be a reason for shitty behavior, but there’s no excuse. When I was able to learn that, it became not necessarily easier for me to take responsibility, but it became the only reasonable option if I wanted to live happily, and joyously, and freely.

It’s been just a lot of mental health work, and I wouldn’t say I’m necessarily proud of myself, but I have a lot of love for myself. I love myself, and that’s not something I could say four and a half years ago. That now shines through in everything that I do. I try to take care of myself, and I try to take care of the people in my life.

You had said during the process of writing these songs, and working on the album, you were trying to work towards becoming the person you were meant to be. Do you feel like you’re that person now? 

Yes, I do feel like I am the person that I’m meant to be, but that is contingent on me showing up for my life on a daily basis with honesty, and compassion, and integrity. And in that way, it is most certainly an ongoing process. I believe that wherever I’m at is where I’m meant to be. So on the days when I’m feeling shitty, unfortunately, that is where I do feel like, in those moments, “yes, this is where I’m supposed to be.” But also, pain and suffering for me is kind of a reminder that it doesn’t have to [be like that] when it’s self-inflicted, which it, for me, usually is, because I’m just making maybe not the best choices: I’m on social media too much, or I’m eating too many fruit snacks and get a tummy ache, which I fucking love fruit snacks. A lot of times, my suffering is self-inflicted, so I’m able to recognize, “okay, this feels like it’s meant to be because of the choices I make. So if I make better choices, I will feel better and that will be how I’m meant to be, too.” Does that make sense?

Oh yeah, it does. How do you think that you from the past, pre-rehab or during rehab, would look at you now? How would Anjimile from “then” feel looking at you now?

 
 

He’d say, “No shit!” He’d be like, “No way,” because he would be stoked. He wouldn’t believe that this would be possible because I was in really bad sorts. I would be like, “No shit, like, there’s no way.” I wouldn’t believe it. And if I did believe it, I would be fucking pumped.

It’s hard what we can’t see in the moment — that you “then” couldn’t see that you “now” as a possibility.

I mean, I used to identify as a girl and I was a kid who would try to wear boys’ clothes and my parents would be like, “You can’t do that.” And I would be a teen who was using substances in an unsafe way, and folks would be like, “You can’t do that.” And I was a Black college student recognizing that the world is racist and raging against that, and folks were like, “You can’t do that.” I wanted to be outwardly queer, I wanted to be proud of my blackness, I wanted to be someone who was able to come to terms with my substance abuse issues once I realized that that was a serious issue, and I wanted to be a musician. So kid Anji would be like, “No fucking shit. That’s dope. No way!”

Right. I mean, it reminds me of when you sing, “Why don’t you do as you’re told” [on “Maker”]. As you were growing up, that must’ve been the common theme in everything.

Absolutely. There’s a very, for me, finger-wagging component to that line. When I wrote it, I felt like I was like surrounded by the ghosts of my past, present, and future just being like, “Why can’t you get your shit together? Like, why can’t you be what you need to be or what other people need you to be?”

I’m so glad you included that song on the album. What was it like kind of to do it with a full band to… I don’t wanna say “revamp” it, but — 

 
 

Totally describe that as revamped. That shit sounds different! And, honestly, I was terrified. Showing up with Gabe and Justine with these songs and being like, “Okay, how can we improve these and just make them and this album into a cohesive, delicious, groovy, authentic, meaningful work?” I was terrified to give them my songs and just be like, “Okay, go nuts,” but I also trust their artistic instincts.

Gabe’s playing guitar on that song, and he’s also playing bass, and we added drums, and there’s flutes, and Justine’s got backing vocals. They both edited the original arrangement. I was initially terrified. Then being in the room with them and hearing their ideas, and developing those ideas until we were all grooving and bopping, it was exciting as hell. I was like, “This is cool. I never would have created this on my own because I just never would’ve had these ideas, and this is dope.” It’s been the best part of this whole experience — writing the songs, recording the songs, and now this press push — the best part was just being in the studio, i.e., Justine’s bedroom with her and Gabe in the closet recording the guitar and vibing. Just really seriously catching a vibe and getting into the creative spirit together.

***

I was going ask you about having them as your team for putting this record together. It’s such a good match all around. What would you say that each of them brought to the table, and brought to the record when you were sorting out what it was going to sound like? 

Oof, delicious. Well, I think Gabe brought a lot of groove and style. He’s a great bass player, he is a great guitarist, and he’s a hipster. And Leslie, he just has a very stylish sense of musicality and musicianship, and it’s unique. I think he makes unique production choices, not out of a sense of “this needs to be unique,” but he grooves in an off-beat and interesting way, and I dig that so much. He’s also just a great person. He’s hilarious.

Justine is my best friend, and what she brings is unbridled creative energy and a deep sense of flow. We’re in the studio, Gabe’s playing bass and he’s trying out different bass parts, and I’m sitting there like, “Eh,” and Justine’s sitting there dancing, like, “Nope! Nope! what if you tried this?” She’s co-writing this bassline with him, and he’s physically playing and she’s making suggestions. And as soon as the right bassline is played, we know that it’s right because we all start grooving and Justine’s the one to identify that flow, and really push the flow in a collaborative, interesting — and in my opinion — kind of trailblazing direction. She doesn’t overthink anything. It’s pure instinct and she just has great instincts, so she brings her excellent musical instincts at the table.

 
 

I really like your choices for instrumentation, but the more I listen to it, the more I think the strongest instrument on the album is your voice.

Shucks.

You were in choir when you were a kiddo, so you’ve been developing your singing voice for how long?

Oh, shit, since I was 10, 11.

I know people have really special relationships with the different instruments that they play, and it’s different for every person. I can only imagine what your relationship is like with your voice.

I love this little guy. I’ve always loved singing, and especially since I’ve been on testosterone for the last three years — two and a half, three, I don’t remember — my voice is deeper, and so when the low notes are reverberating in my chest, it feels soothing. The breath control associated with singing and the singing technique I was raised on, it feels therapeutic, it feels meditative. My relationship to my voice is like a meditative… it’s a balm. It soothes me, just feeling that play of breath and sound in my own body.

What pushed you to join a choir when you were a kid?

I have two older sisters and they were both in choir, and I just thought they were literally the coolest. I would go to their choir concerts as a kid. One of my sisters taught me to harmonize when I was five or six. She brought home sheet music for “Heart and Soul,” and she taught me the alto part and I was like, “Wow, harmony — this is amazing!” I just had the most heart eyes emoji reaction. As soon as I was old enough, I was like, “Hell yeah, I’m joining choir.” I love the feeling of the sound of music and I love the feeling of the sound of harmony.

And you still feel that way now?

Yeah! I love having Justine in the band. I love harmonizing with Justine and I love harmonizing with my other bandmate, Sarah Grella. I was raised in choir on three-part harmonies, and I love the way they sound and I love the way that sound makes me feel. So, yeah, I still love it.

I think when we were recording this, I personally realized that my voice was indeed the main instrument, and so that was always at the forefront of every arrangement and every instrumentation choice, and I think it helped make this sound the way that it does.

It’s just such a fascinating sound because it commands your attention but it’s not loud, or harsh, or in your face. I almost feel weird using the word “demand” because it’s such a soft, soothing record, and that verb doesn’t even match what I’m trying to explain.

I think you saying that kind of has made me realize… I get asked a lot [about] how being a queer Black person influences my music, I’m always like, “I don’t fucking know.” But I think you mentioning the fact that it is arresting but not aggressive makes me think that as opposed to… like, white men are aggressive, and a lot of white men in musical expression are aggressive. That’s not all of it, obviously, but I think in this instance, because of my queerness and my blackness, [this is] the way that I have learned to be seen and/or heard, because just speaking doesn’t really work and speaking loudly doesn’t work as [well as] to speak with clarity and with compassion, and I think that’s way that I communicate musically now as well.

Do you ever long to be “louder”?

Yeah. Obviously, sometimes, I wanna be loud and angry, and it’s just so hard for me because of white supremacy and the lack of safety involved in a black person being loud or angry. Also, outside of that, I have a really soft singing voice and it’s gotten even more fragile and vulnerable with testosterone. I’m looking forward to, as an artist, exploring different creative styles. Maybe you’ll hear me yell sometime, but in the meantime, this is just the method that I feel the most comfortable [with] and feel like I have a level of mastery with, and it’s my present mode of expression.

Seeing that the album is called Giver Taker, what do you think that the album as a whole gives to the people who listen to it and also gives back to you as the person who made it?

Damn. It’s like a fire mixtape you just dropped. I think what it gives to me, the music, is a sense of peace: Some peace, some joy, some groundedness, and some gratitude, and I hope that folks get a little bit of those things, too. I hope that I’m giving the love that I put into this record. I hope that I’m giving it back out to the folks who listen.