Arts·Q with Tom Power

Anohni is paying tribute to her influences' influences

In a recent interview with Q guest host Talia Schlanger, the singer explained why she wanted to make a “blue-eyed soul” album.

In a Q interview, the artist talks about her new album, My Back Was a Bridge for You to Cross

Head shot of Anohni.
Anohni Hegarty is an English-born singer-songwriter and the lead singer of the band Anohni and the Johnsons, formerly known as Antony and the Johnsons. (Rebis Music)

Right from the word "go," Anohni, the lead singer of Anohni and the Johnsons, wanted the group's new album, My Back Was a Bridge for You to Cross, to be what she calls a "blue-eyed soul" record. In an interview with Q guest host Talia Schlanger, she explains she did this to pay tribute to the artists who influenced the artists who influenced her.

As a kid, Anohni learned how to sing by imitating British New Wave singers of the early 1980s — people like Alison Moyet and Culture Club's Boy George. It wasn't until she got older that she realized George and Moyet were themselves imitating Black American soul singers from the 1960s.

"[When] I moved to America, I started to hear more [of] the music that was the source material that all of those waves of British singers had borrowed from to reach that sort of ecstatic, emotional, transcendent sense of self-expression," she says. "I started to hear Nina Simone and Donny Hathaway and Ray Charles … and I wondered why so many young British people reached for those voices as lifelines, and imitated those voices in the hope of catching some of the grace that they seemed to embody."

She adds that growing up, music was one of the few places where she felt really able to express, or even acknowledge, her emotions.

"I remember listening to Boy George when I was 12 years old, and just crying and feeling this huge ocean in my chest," she says. "And I'd never felt that way before.… [Music] was probably the only form that was really tolerated in popular culture where emotion could be expressed in a way that was not just tolerated, but celebrated. Emotions in my family were considered a feminine paradigm, and so a sort of second-class way of perceiving the world."

The soul singers of the 1960s and their New Wave progeny of the 1980s aren't the only legends that Anohni pays tribute to on this album. Early in her career, Anohni was mentored by Velvet Underground singer Lou Reed.

Anohni, who is trans, says that Reed "sort of insisted on my visibility as a musician at a time when a gender-variant person in my kind of body was not going to be taken seriously in the music industry." The song Sliver of Ice is based on a conversation she had with Reed prior to his death from liver disease in 2013.

"Once he called me and told me that he was having this kind of ecstatic experiences in these banal situations," she says. "A carer had put a shard of ice in his mouth, because he was dehydrated, and it had just been such a rapturous experience for him. The sensation of the coldness in his mouth and just the feeling of being alive had been so vital and invigorating for him. He told it to me almost like [it was] a kind of a spiritual experience that he'd had, of having this piece of ice in his mouth. So I wanted to write a song kind of that started from this notion that he'd shared with me."

The album art for My Back Was a Bridge for You to Cross bears the image of another New York City icon: Marsha P. Johnson, the trans woman who's credited with being one of the people who started the Stonewall Uprising in 1969. Anohni and the Johnsons is named after Johnson, and Anohni says that Johnson — whom she met via mutual friends when she first came to New York in the early 1990s — was a "moral authority and kind of a North Star" for her.

"She's become renowned because Netflix made a documentary about her in 2016," Anohni says. "But before then, she was kind of a neglected figure in an obscure corner of history. She was mostly just known to people that knew her [personally]. I knew people who knew her, who were older than me and were my mentors, and they used to point towards her and say, 'She's someone you should respect. She's someone very special in our community. She's a living saint. She's like the saint of Christopher Street. She's a kind of a living bodhisattva.'"

In addition to being a tribute to her inspirations, My Back Was a Bridge for You to Cross is also a political album. Anohni wants listeners to question the world around them. She says that "the narrative that a lot of us sort of lean back into is the idea that we're a passive victim of consumerism," rather than a part of the problem. She points to a revelation she had about how her tax dollars are being used to fund drone strikes in other parts of the world as the sort of thing she wants people to wake up and question.

"The process of killing people in other parts of the world as a taxpayer is very abstract for most Americans," she says. "This kind of doing of harm has necessarily been obscured and obfuscated in order that we can continue to participate in reveling in the fruits of that, in absorbing and sucking on the sugar cube.… How do we disengage from this? How do we unpack it?"

She adds that she definitely doesn't have the answers, but as an artist she feels like it's her job to at least ask the questions.

"My job is just to try to tell the truth as best as I can with my very normal access to information," she says. "I just read the newspaper. I don't have a doctorate. I'm just a normal person."

The full interview with Anohni is available on our podcast, Q with Tom Power. Listen and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Interview with Anohni produced by Ben Edwards.


Chris Dart

Web Writer

Chris Dart is a writer, editor, jiu-jitsu enthusiast, transit nerd, comic book lover, and some other stuff from Scarborough, Ont. In addition to CBC, he's had bylines in The Globe and Mail, Vice, The AV Club, the National Post, Atlas Obscura, Toronto Life, Canadian Grocer, and more.