Photo: Kannetha Brown
Anjimile Opens Up On 'Giver Taker,' Sobriety, Identifying As Trans & More
"Buried under earth/All our living worth/How I long to be/blooming from your tree." Boston singer/songwriter Anjimile sings in an otherworldly tenor vibrato on "Your Tree," the first song of his debut album Giver Taker on Father/Daugher Records. The chorus sings back to him, "Nothing dies, nothing dies," as Anjimile's fluid finger-picked guitar is augmented by drums and flute. You can almost feel the tree unfurling and reaching for the sky.
Anjimile wrote Giver Taker in a time of political and personal turmoil. Most songs came together in and around 2016, while he struggled with addiction and his trans identity. But the album's mode is comfort, not chaos. Justine Bowe of Photocomfort and New-York based artist/producer Gabe Goodman join Anjimile to mix folk melodies mix with upbeat grooves to create gentle baroque pop. When on "1978" Anjimile sings, "I am loved/I am learning how to receive loving," it's music of hard-won gentleness. The year 2020 has, understandably, produced a lot of angry songs, but Giver Taker is soundtrack for recovery and hope—water in an arid time.
The interview below is edited for length and clarity.
I just wanted to start off making sure I know what pronouns you use?
They/them or he/him. Either of those is totally cool.
Your parents were born in Malawi, is that right?
Yeah, my parents were born and raised in Malawi. And they didn't come into the US until like the '80s.
Was there music your parents liked that you've been influenced by?
I think the biggest African artists that they listened to, or at least that that made the biggest impact on me is Oliver Mtukudzi, who's Zimbabwean. My dad used to play his album Tuku Music on car rides and stuff. And over the past couple of years, I've come to realize how dope my parents taste in music is. And this album and a couple of his other records have entered my regular listening rotation.
Could you describe Mtukudzi's music? I'm not familiar with it.
It is like a hybrid. I guess kind of like traditional Zimbabwe and percussive rhythms hybridized with Western US influenced guitar and pop melodies.
Your parents were Christian. Did you sing in choirs when you were young?
Yeah, from fifth grade and even acapella in college. But it was actually a school choir. When I was growing up with my parents we would go to church every Sunday. Curiously, the church had not only no choir but no music. And I remember being like, "This is wack!" And I feel like if there had been music in church, I might have grown up to be some sort of theologian or oriented to the church in some way, because I love music so much.
They missed a chance!
Yeah, honestly. It was a two-hour service. My parents are Presbyterian. I was like three years old to ten, and services were super, super long, like two hours. I feel like that's long for a first grader. You know, "Yawn, are we going to McDonald's?" I wasn't very engaged.
You're a lovely guitar player. How did you develop your style?
Well, I started playing guitar when I was 11. And I didn't really start learning to finger pick until a couple of years later. That's my predominant style. And it initially emerged because when I started playing guitar I had trouble holding a guitar pick correctly. And I don't think I hold it correctly even now.
Was there a reason you had trouble?
I'm not sure. I took guitar lessons for a year and my guitar teacher would be like, you hold it like this. And it just did not connect. And it still kind of doesn't. It would just fall out of my hand when I was playing and I was like, how hard am I supposed to hold this f**king thing?
So I always found it difficult to play guitar with a plectrum. And when I was in my late teens, I got introduced to folk music and I started listening to Iron & Wine. Their album Our Endless Numbered Days became a huge teaching tool for me in terms of learning how to finger pick. My guitar playing style is heavily, heavily influenced by Iron & Wine. And I think also a bit of Oliver Mtukudzi, with his electric tone. He played with a pick, but it's very clean, which I like.
The album is very gentle and uplifting, but you wrote it after some personal turmoil, while you were recovering from addiction.
So I got sober in 2016 through a treatment facility. I'm a recovering alcoholic. I live in Boston, and it involved me going out of state to enter a treatment facility in Florida. But when I went down there, I didn't really have a lot of stuff at the time. And I also just didn't have a suitcase somehow. So I brought a plastic bag with my clothes and I brought an acoustic guitar. And those are the things that I brought with me to Florida and I was there for a year.
And I was able to find recovery, get a job, start improving my mental, physical and emotional health. And I play guitar when I'm happy and I like to sing when I'm happy. And my emotions started returning and I just kind of started writing again. And I wrote a bunch of songs down there.
Something that alcohol or alcoholism can do is numb feeling. And so once I was able to get sober and stop drinking, a flood of emotions came back to my life. I think that that influenced the emotionality of a lot of the songs.
There's a bit of a myth in the music industry that getting sober can make it harder to create, but that doesn't sound like it was your experience.
I think people kind of get confused with the writer just drinking scotch while looking badass and the guy who just seriously has a drinking problem. There are a couple tunes on the record that I did right before I got sober. "Maker" and "Baby No More."
In "Maker," one of the lyrics is "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." Is that song about being trans, would you say?
I think it's kind of funny because at the time, I wasn't really thinking much. I don't really remember very strongly writing that tune, if I'm being completely honest. But I remember listening back to it after I'd written it, and it just felt like something meaningful to me. And in retrospect, looking back now, it's just kind of wild to me that that song was even written because I didn't identify trans at the time. I was definitely exploring my gender identity. And looking back on it now I can see that it was a spiritual coming out, almost. A part of me very much recognized that I identified as trans and trans masculine, or like at least under the trans umbrella.
Was coming out difficult for you?
So before I realized I was trans, I was cis and a lesbian. I came out as a lesbian when I was like 16, 17, 18. And it really f**king sucked. It sucked being in Texas, and being openly queer. It sucked having really, traditionally Christian parents.
They were not super supportive?
No, they were not. It's been a long time so they've come a long way, but it really f**king sucked.
The album has a lot of spiritual themes. I wondered how your parents lack of support as Christians affected your own relationship to spirituality?
It definitely drove me away from spirituality. I mean, I never identified as a spiritual person until a couple of years ago. I was definitely like, "F**k y'all. F**k the Lord. This is wack."
It wasn't until I started getting comfortable with my trans identity and experiencing the miracle of a new sober life that I was like, holy s**t, you know, the sky is really blue. The birds sound really pretty. I became a hippie basically. I definitely believe that there's some sort of driving force of good and harmony in the universe and that informs a lot of tunes on the album as well.
You're not a Christian yourself though?
No, no. No shade, you know, but no.
Lastly, I wanted to ask you about the song "1978," which is kind of a love song. Is it written to someone in particular?
That was dedicated to my grandmother, who had an incredibly hard life. And I never actually met her because she died when my mom was pretty young. But my grandmother's spirituality has informed the faith of my parents. And even though it's manifested harmfully in terms of their past homophobia like it's also provided them with a lot of strength and clarity and wisdom. And I realize those things in the writing of that song.