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Cultural Capital

Anohni Still Believes in the Dream of New York

Sinéad O'Connor, dodging surveillance in New York, and boiling alive.

(Anohni with Nomi Ruiz / Rebis Music)

The month since Anohni released her latest album, "My Back Was a Bridge for You to Cross," has been the hottest in recorded history. This is fitting, because on this record, Anohni's seventh, ecological crisis is mirrored in human drama. In "Sliver of Ice," for example, a last piece of ice on a protagonist's tongue melts away– Anohni said in a press release that this song is about visiting Lou Reed on his deathbed, watching him enjoy the last of physical sensation. 

"My Back is a Bridge for You to Cross" is a post-apocalyptic coda to Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On." That album observed a decay being wrought simultaneously on the natural world and on the spirits of the people all at once. It’s a feat, then, that "My Back Was a Bridge for You to Cross" feels so un-nostalgic: Any trace of kitsch is obliterated by the tectonic epicness of Anohni’s poetry, any cliche enlivened by the confounding texture of her vocals. The album doesn't trivialize the climate catastrophe, but sews it together, with the personal, into a single, continuous transmission, carving a message that's never quite hope, never quite despair, into the mahogany of Anohni's voice over ten soul songs.

And the message was heard, as the record was met with instant acclaim. But Anohni is not taking a victory lap. The 51-year-old musician has lived in New York for more than three decades, having moved to the U.S. with her British family in the '80s. She's currently spending the summer in the Irish countryside, because she can no longer bear the heat of the New York summer. In a Zoom call, with sheep bleating in the background and cameras off to reduce the Wi-Fi burden, Anohni spoke with me about the unbearable surveillance culture that's taken root in New York now, boiling ourselves alive, and grieving for Sinéad O'Connor.  

Hell Gate: Where are you, if you don't mind disclosing?

Anohni: I am in Ireland. I've been here for a couple weeks. I'm just staying with a friend and just decompressing a little bit. There's just a bunch of stuff that I was doing in the last run up [to the album release], but it's been dizzying. So I just took a little time out. 

Do you like spending summer in New York, typically?

I always used to. I never really left New York until I started touring, you know. I'm not the kind of person that goes on vacation. I always just was always in New York. There were years where I didn't leave the island of Manhattan. But now I don't like to be very overheated. I like cold. 

I was reading this article last week about this idea that New York has these "heat islands" and like it's supposedly the city in America that traps heat the most. 

In the '90s, we used to call it the steaming urinal. August was the steaming urinal month because the whole city used to be kind of covered in piss and in August, if it got over 80 degrees, it was just like this kind of urinal sauna. It got cleaner, and Manhattan changed, so I didn't really think of it that way. But yeah, I hate being hot. I just hate it. I mean, that's kind of how it was when I first got to the city in the summer. You would just be in your little room with your little P.C. Richard air conditioner, whatever, trying to like gulp some air and then go outside and do what you had to do. 

Where are you in Ireland? Is it remote? 

Super remote, on top of a mountain. In the middle of nowhere, just the screams of sheep whose children have recently been taken from them.

[Grave laughter]

So the horrors of animal husbandry are in full throttle over here.

So it's farmland? 

Yeah. Very, very rural. 

What do you do? Are you hanging out with friends? 

Yeah. That and then working on the land a little bit, you know? Two different things. Lots to do up here. So I pitch in.

When you were in New York in the hot summers, how would you cope? Sometimes I find summer to be a more reclusive time than even the winter. 

I don't go out as much as I used to. Sometimes I'll go outside and I love to go to the West Side Highway, to Christopher Street on Sunday, or to Washington Square Park, sometimes there's a good spirit on the street. But I live in Manhattan. So I don't really have a proper contemporary New York experience, because I'm still in Manhattan, which is sort of a weird place now. It's not where most people live. But there's still a lot of beautiful people around. Sometimes I go to the park or go to the piers. That was always where I used to go, the piers, because in the summer, it was always so beautiful. The breeze off the water. It was always cooler on the piers, and fun to see at night.

So it's lonelier in Manhattan than it was before?

I have, like, all my best friends in New York City, somewhere or other. All my primary relationships. And all my memories of my best relationships are all from New York City. So it's certainly not a place I think of as lonely.

When I first got to New York, it was so jumping. There were so many giant clubs, and I was really interested in club culture. Giant emporium clubs, like The Palladium, Limelight, and Roxy, and many, many small ones. It was a very, very colorful time to be there. What was happening in different subcultures, in queer subcultures, and different art subcultures was also so extreme. It was an amazing and harrowing point of entry to New York City, 1990 as a 19-year-old. But it was beautiful. I felt like I arrived in paradise; finally a place where I belonged, and it was so clear that it was going to be my home for the rest of my life. Everywhere else had just been a holding station. I love New York with all my heart and soul. 

I believe in New York, you know, the dream of New York, the Marsha P. Johnson dream of New York. l just believed in the freedom and what it used to promise—a certain anonymity. I got very upset for several years when there started to become more of a surveillance culture in Manhattan. There was something so paradoxical about the anonymity of the city, the freedom of movement, the result of a pre-internet experience of life, where subculture really was still underground, with only a secret way in, and you could take harbor there, especially as a young person that might have needed a kind of a coral reef to be safe in.

When you say surveillance, you mean like, people taking pictures and social media and stuff or infrastructurally?

Every aspect of it. I remember when they put these giant floodlights on the piers. That really upset me. And suddenly, there were police everywhere in little golf carts. It started with Giuliani, back in the early '90s. It started to become more and more of an antagonistic kind of spotlight on street life, whereas I like it better when it's a feeling of an urban wilderness. 

Interestingly, during COVID, some of that fell apart. It seemed like the cops went to the boroughs to bother people there. I don't know, in my imagination, they had a kind of a resentment against all of the Manhattanites because the temperature had changed, and people didn't have a lot of sympathy for the police at that point, so I think they wanted to teach Manhattan a lesson. Then suddenly, certain areas that had been heavily placed since the mid '90s, like Washington Square Park, were suddenly kind of anarchic. 

When I first got to the city, there were a lot of drug dealers in Washington Square Park, but it was more stealth. Then, there was a long period where there were so many police trucks all down the side of Washington Square Park for years and years. And then suddenly, they all disappeared during COVID. Suddenly, there were so many kids, and it was just exploding and kind of volatile. You saw a level of homelessness I'd never seen in New York before, a level of young people who were homeless, and really destitute, people with hardly any clothes on, like, young women, not even adult women, with literally just like something wrapped around their waist and no shoes, or young men having really violent fights in Washington Square Park in broad daylight with blood squirting everywhere, no cops—it was surreal. But that volatility was the other side of that sort of unsurveilled world.

When you're in New York, what makes you feel connected to the natural environment?

I will never forget the time I was walking from City Hall up to the Village, and I passed this sign for this open, concrete park the size of the footprint of a building and it said, on this spot, there was, in the 1600s, the most beautiful lake that everyone used to come here and fish for trout. It was considered almost like a paradise, a super bucolic part of Manhattan, the bottom of the Manhattan Island. And by the late 1700s, it started to get polluted. The tanneries started leeching off of there and poisoning the water, and by the late 1800s it was so full of garbage and dead bodies that it was declared a health hazard. So they decided that they should make it a landfill, and then they spent 100 years trying to fill it. But every time they filled it, it would just turn into this sinking marsh. They would try to build something and the building would just sink into it, until the end of the 19th century, they finally got the ground hard enough that they could build a building on it and forget about what had been there. And now it's just this dismal concrete patio with an indented area that suggests that it had once been this beautiful lake, this beautiful part of this beautiful island.

I just found this book, "St. Mark's Is Dead," by Ada Calhoun, it's a book about St. Mark's, and the prologue chapter is just about the way that area existed before, when the Lenape were here, and then it has some stuff about the process of colonization and stuff. But I have found myself unable to move on past that, I found myself just rereading that part over and over again, like, I don't want to get to the part where it becomes the city.

There is this corner on Sixth Avenue and Bleecker Street, where there's this tiny little park, like a quarter of the size of the footprint of one building, one of these little triangle parks on the east side of the street. And someone told me that there used to be a little rivulet that used to flow there. And it was still somehow under the ground. It's so faint, but I think that for some reason in Manhattan there's all of this energy of the past. I really do believe that there's something sacred about the memory, even the un-held memory, of everything that has transpired in New York City.

I went upstate a few weeks ago, and I realized I don't feel as connected to the environment when I am on a hiking trail or something as I do when I'm in New York. 

Yeah, that's how I feel too. Even if it's just in memory for me, sometimes just the presence of the memories, the concentrated memories, that's what nourishes me. Whereas if you go upstate, I feel like the whole place is just haunted with wrongness. Like, every tick is a curse. The way people are trying to create these little clusters of coffee communities on this land that just seeks to eject them. I feel that the land doesn't want people up there. If you do meditations up there, it's always so wild if you can find a pocket of land that actually wants you. I find often that the land is screaming to go away. I find it very haunting, the upstate New York thing.

I mean, that's why they call it settler colonialism.

The ecocidal and genocidal part of America, psychically, is something that people just haven't reckoned with. It's so hard to even create space in your mind for it, the erasure. I just did this project in Amsterdam: I was raised in a house on the street called Gerrit van der Veenstraat, which was a very beautiful, happy memory for me in the late '70s. I was seven years old. And it was the happiest year of my childhood, in this very bohemian meets punk kind of environment, at a time where there was this sense in Amsterdam, of a socialist kind of abundance, and freedom, a gentle anarchic freedom. As a child, I just reveled in it. 

I found out in the last few years that the house that I was living in was across the street from the headquarters of the Nazi SS during World War II, and that the building next door to my building was the main building in which they processed and deported mostly Jewish people from the city to the concentration camps. The adjacent building, which was a children's school when I was there, had been the headquarters of the SS where they tortured tons and tons of people. I was living in a house where, after some research, I found out that a Dutch family had been killed during an Allied bombing of that site towards the end of the war; they'd been killed in fire bombs in the kitchen, in the bathroom, the father and the daughter. 

They changed the name of the street to Gerrit van der Veenstraat literally within a week of the end of the war, because its former name, Euterpestraat, conjured such fear in the imaginations of people. They used to say, 'You'll get sent to Euterpestraat,' it became a phrase that everyone in Amsterdam knew, because it meant you were never coming home. How did it come to pass that I as a child was playing in an environment where, 30 years ago, there had been genocide taking place, and my family literally didn't even realize the proximity of our home to these Nazi headquarters? Being back in Amsterdam, I felt this feeling of affection for the city, which I loved so much as a child, but then the terribleness of the undertow of what had happened there, and had been effectively pretty much erased, at least for several decades, and is now reemerging over the last 10 or 15 years in different ways. People are doing research and understanding who's been killed, how many, who was in which house? But that's in Europe. In America, how do you even start to do the inventory? 

When do you think you'll come back to New York?

It's just hard. Getting on a plane is so weird. I want to come home, but I feel guilty going on the plane. But I have to do it. So I'm gonna do it. Well, I don't have to do it. Maybe that's why we like heroes that are dead better than heroes who are alive. Because if someone's modeling ethical behavior, it's almost too excruciating to be able to celebrate it in real time. I think we prefer that person to be dead. Then it's one step removed from the paradigm that most of us are enacting, which is aspirational ethics, and then actually a bankruptcy in our behavior. 

Look at Sinéad O'Connor. We love the idea that she's a martyred saint, because that pardons everyone else, the normal people, from having to embody ethical behavior because it's not considered viable. Only a martyr would do it, at the cost of their own life. So we celebrate Sinéad O'Connor now that she's a martyr, just because she named a church that's such a rancid cancer at the heart of all the things we do and have done for 2,000 years. She made this gesture of radical empathy, wearing the burqa at the moment in European history where Islamic women were being penalized and their clothing was being banned in certain countries, women in Denmark were being forcibly de-veiled. And then two years later, the entire country was wearing a mask, so it's such a joke.

But I'm gonna get back on a plane. That's unethical. But I'm not the person yet that is going to be like, It's unethical, and therefore I won't do it. What cost? I mean, that's what we're all facing, sacred work. When do we stop? When the world's boiling? We're boiling the animals alive. 

Are you planning to tour this album at all? Have you been talking to your band?

I don't really know yet. I haven't really decided. I just wanted to release it first and focus on getting the messaging right. Increasingly for me, the music is just a pheromone to like, talk to the press and try and do some interventions, whatever I can do to put different ideas in a newspaper that wouldn't normally print that idea. So that's been a big focus for me. Now that that's done, I have to figure out what to do next, because I haven't really toured in a long time.

Can I ask, how was that day, the day that Sinéad O'Connor died? It sounds like she was a really meaningful influence on you.

I really always admired her. Even in recent years, I thought what she did by converting to Islam was really radical. I thought it was like a Yoko Ono-level radical act, artwork act. And I didn't know anyone else that thought that. Everyone else just wrote her off as crazy. 'Oh, there she goes again.' No, she's an artist. She's a visionary. She's trying to help. She's giving everything she has. That's what she's supposed to be doing. She made a beautiful intervention, and the society couldn't hold it. That's heartbreaking to me. I just read this one in The Guardian, by this real dick, his name is Simon Hattenstone, he's an old guard culture writer. He's just such a shitbag. He should have been retired like 25 years ago. He's so inappropriate. He used the word "madness," as if she was like, chained to a wall in the Victorian asylum. It's a kind of an extractive illness that we're all suffering from where we even, in blowing up Sinéad in this moment, when she's so obviously underserved in life, then to blow her up as a deity. It's kind of pornographic, as far as I'm concerned.

What's the right ceremony for this moment? Is it like a two-day Instagram blitz? No one even cares when people die anymore. We're beyond even caring about people dying. Anything can be forgotten now. The history of memory has been eradicated. That was like, the biggest job of the internet. There's no grief, there's no process. Where's the process? 

It's particularly brutal to musicians. I really find the way the deaths of musicians have become streamlined on social media difficult to see.

We've forfeited so many mandates of care. In the last 10 to 15 years, it's been broken down to this whole other level. I wonder if it's retrievable. But I know that there's a lot of people working in those fields, a lot of young people, especially, working very diligently and beautifully on these things. I think I'm quite isolated in certain ways, so I don't necessarily have access to the people living in the solutions of some of this stuff. I don't know how it's all gonna work out. I really hope for the best for every aspect of creation. That sounds corny, but I really do. I wish I could give more, I wish I could be better. I wonder if I'll turn in some way in my lifetime and become a better person than I am. Or more able to just do the ethical thing where I can finally align with my values. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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