“I've been thinking a lot about Marvin Gaye's What's Going On. That was a really important touchstone in my mind,” says ANOHNI of her sixth studio album, My Back Was A Bridge For You To Cross. “A couple of these songs are almost a response to the call of What's Going On, from 2023. They are a kind of an echo from the future to that album from 50 years ago.”
As the British-born, New York-based artist’s first full album since 2016’s HOPELESSNESS, ANOHNI explains that the creative process was painstaking, yet also inspired, joyful, and intimate, a renewal and a renaming of her response to the world as she sees it.
A record its creator acknowledges is inextricably both personal and political, and one that is full of heartfelt music that also questions its own right to be heard, My Back Was A Bridge For You To Cross demonstrates music’s unique capacity to bring harmony to competing, sometimes contradictory, elements.
“For me, there's no heavenly respite; creation is a spectral and feminine continuum, and our souls are an inalienable part of nature.”
In 2022, having sought producer recommendations from Rough Trade Records’ Jeannette Lee and Geoff Travis, ANOHNI began working with Jimmy Hogarth (Amy Winehouse, Duffy, Tina Turner) noting his sensitivity towards soul music. Having always helmed and written her previous records – bar HOPELESSNESS, for some of which, producers were invited to submit instrumentals – this kind of collaboration was a first for ANOHNI. “There was a great ease to this songwriting process,” she says of her writing and recording sessions with Hogarth. “I loved making this record in a way that I've never done before.”
Bringing in with her several years of texts, ANOHNI and Hogarth shared musical ideas and sketched out a series of demos with Hogarth playing guitar. Hogarth then assembled a studio band – including guitarist Leo Abrahams and string arranger/instrumentalist Rob Moose – to record the full album.
“Many of the recordings on this record – like“It Must Change”and “Can't” – capture the first and only time I have sung those songs through. There's a magic when you suddenly place words you have been thinking about for a long time into melody. A neural system awakens. It isn't personal and yet is so personal. Things connect and come alive.”
Hogarth’s intuitive guitar leads the listener across ten songs, touching on elements of American soul, British folk and experimental music. ANOHNI places her heart on the line and in a groove in the opening track “It Must Change,”describing systems in collapse with a note of compassion for humanity: “The truth is I always thought you were beautiful in your own way / That’s why this is so sad.”“Scapegoat” waivers between tenderness and instrumental brutality, “Take all of my hate into your body / It doesn’t matter what you’ve got to give / or why you want to live / You’re my scapegoat / It’s not personal.” The primordial, Kali-esque curse “Rest” positions the record at moments in conversation with experimental rock of the 1970s: “Rest like the enemy of all that sees / Rest like the enemy of all that breathes / In the poison ocean blue / She’ll come home to you.” “Go Ahead” presses melody through dissonance. “You are determined to take me down / Go ahead kill your friends / I can’t stop you.” My Back Was A Bridge For You To Cross shape shifts through its subject matter: the loss of loved ones, inequality, alienation, privilege, denial, ecocide and the tidal power of Earth, isolation, Future Feminism, and the intention that we might yet transform our ways of thinking, our religious ideas, our societal structures, and our relationships with the rest of nature.
“You know how they always said that light was the opposite of darkness? / It’s just fire in darkness, creating life / So those opposites, they don’t exist / It’s just an idea that someone told you” (“It Must Change”)
ANOHNI’s voice is sensual and smoothed, selectively reaching to the edges of what it can contain. “I don’t want you to be dead, I can’t accept it,” she cries out at the climax of “Can’t.” “We’re not getting out of here / No one’s getting out of here / This is our world,” she murmurs on “It Must Change.” “How sweet the vista, the portal view / On my way to black and blue,” she grieves on “Sliver of Ice,” a remembering of some of the last words Lou Reed shared with her.
A portrait of gay rights activist Marsha P. Johnson taken by Alvin Baltrop features on the cover of My Back Was a Bridge For You To Cross, reflecting a 25-year relationship with the memory of Johnson that ANOHNI has held space for in the presentation of her own work. Paintings by Sylvester Hustito, a Zuni Two Spirit artist from New Mexico, depict another crucial vision of America, from a queer, indigenous historical point of view. On “You Be Free,” ANOHNI sings from with heartbreak about the passing of trans intergenerational knowledge: “Done my work / My back was broke / My back was a bridge for you to cross / Then I wished in the aftermath / That the Earth would take my life / Like she took the lives of my Mother and my Sister.”
“I'm careful with the emotional pathways I am drawing. The stories we tell ourselves are the basis of our cultural mythologies, and often a foreshadowing of our destinies. We live in a world where story-telling has become another abuse of power, a threat, fake news, anti-female, anti-nature,” ANOHNI says of her intentions as lyricist. The album artwork states simply ”IT’S TIME TO FEEL WHAT’S REALLY HAPPENING”. In some ways it feels as if she is reaching across her life’s expression, and has found a moment of unique composure, wearing her long exploration of disarming intensity, but with the maturity of a painter choosing colors.
On listening to My Back Was A Bridge For You To Cross, one is reminded of music’s power and ability to articulate the political and the personal concurrently. “As much as I was British or American, I was identified as a non-viable part of family, community, church, society. At moments I was deemed not worth protecting, as being expendable, on account of my femininity. Ultimately that was a gift for me because it brought me unique insight into the societies I found myself having to navigate. It forced me to be more willing to look at who and where I really was.”
With “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” Marvin Gaye made a visionary plea for the environment in 1971, a gesture that ANOHNI has echoed across her own output, from “Rapture” in 1992 and “Another World” in 2009, to “4 Degrees” and “Why Did You Separate Me From The Earth?” from her last record HOPELESSNESS in 2016.
ANOHNI’s approach since her last record has shifted from someone tasked with challenging global denial, to an artist seeking to support others on the front lines. “I want the record to be useful. I learned with HOPELESSNESS that I can provide a soundtrack that might fortify people in their work, in their activism, in their dreaming and decision-making. I can sing of an awareness that makes others feel less alone, people for whom the frank articulation of these frightening times is not a source of discomfort but a cause for identification and relief.”
“I see myself as a part of a process. I know that I'm not there, but I feel that someone in the future might know how to get there. An innovation in our way of dreaming or thinking might help us get back home. I hope that this record is another step in that direction. As problematic and broken as it might be, maybe there's an element in this music that's going to be useful to a future iteration of us. They're going to be able to distill what's right about it and make something better out of it. So I do my work hoping that someone's going to be able to pick it up and take it further, that it can be a source of something positive at some later point in our evolution – if we're lucky to continue to have an evolution.”
“We are each moving through massive impersonal systems that we feel powerless to change. And yet we're being asked in this moment to pull back the curtain and recognize these systems for what they are - not the preordained will of a god, but something we created over centuries. If we can’t do this collectively, we will forfeit our remaining ability to influence our trajectory. We have to dismantle systems that are destructive, and yet upon which many of us are dependent. Whether it’s because of malevolence, or fear, or addiction… ultimately it’s been one big survival strategy. We've never been faced with a challenge this consequential before as a species. Because of their structural hatred of Femaleness, Abrahamic religions and capitalism can only realize an apocalyptic future, rather than facilitate the emergence of a life-sustaining sensibility that might allow us to continue to exist as a part of Nature. So that's a challenge that we're facing now.”