Photo by Kannetha Brown
By Lily Doolin, WERS Blog Editor
While Boston-based, indie-folk artist Anjimile's debut album "Giver/Taker" delivers new music from the rising star, much of the album was written long before he and collaborators Justine Bowe and Gabe Goodman holed up in a New Hampshire lake house to record it. The genesis of some songs on the album dates as far back as 2013, while others were written during times when Anjimile struggled with alcoholism and gender identity. Despite being "years removed" from many of experiences that these songs were written about, Anjimile talked with WERS Blog Editor Lily Doolin about both the lingering emotions and the new meanings that these songs took on for him, as well as how the album was put together and how The Lion King inspires him.
I read your interview with Vanyaland, and I read that you started this album before the pandemic – yay! You wrote it and got everything done before the world went crazy. What was the timeline like, from the start of this album through the production process?
Anjimile: The recording process happened between April of last year to January this year. Some of these songs are a couple of years old. I would say half of the record was written in 2016, and then a couple of songs were written last year, and I think one or two songs were written even before 2016.
That’s so interesting to know that it’s spanned such a long time. In that case, I’m not sure if you were able to pinpoint a moment where you said, “Ah, this is going to be a record,” but how and when did you know you wanted to put all of these songs together and have them be a more cohesive project?
Last year, in the spring, I got a grant from the Boston Foundation. I write a bunch of songs in general, so I was like, “Okay, I’m sure there’s something that I’ve written over the past couple of years that could be on an album.” So, I got the grant, and the grant was to record a record. We hadn’t decided what songs we were recording, but I was like, “With this money, I can surely make a record,” and when it was time for the preproduction process, I met up with my producers Justine – who’s also my bandmate – of Photocomfort, and then Gabe Goodman, who’s her good friend and now my good friend, and he produced the record too. I just showed up with a pile of songs and I was like, “Okay, here’s 20-ish songs, let’s listen to these and pick the best ones for the album.” And that’s pretty literally how we chose [the songs on the album].
What was your “criteria” for choosing the best songs out of that group of twenty? How did you know which songs needed to be on this album out of all of the ones you brought to the studio?
Although it wasn’t written on a checklist, we wanted the vibe of the record to be acoustic, so I went back to my solo acoustic tracks and we were kind of going for a Sufjan vibe, kind of like a mellow Iron & Wine vibe, so we kind of just chose those songs that I had written that most fit into the folk realm, and it just so happened to be this collection of songs that… It’s kind of wild because, since the record’s come out, the songs are very much interrelated, and that’s not something I recognized until we put them together.
Listening to the album, there are so many different topics you talk about in it, but they do fit together at the end. It ends up feeling… cohesive at the end. Why did you want to do an all-acoustic album? The acoustic element of it binds all of these songs together, so what was the meaning behind that decision?
Most of my songwriting process involves me writing on acoustic, and so [for] most of these, or all of these tunes, that was the first version, the original version was acoustic, and then Gabe and Justine very tastefully built onto these compositions instrumentation wise to make them in some cases larger, and in some cases, they stayed the same, but we kind of wanted to build from the ground up with these acoustics and vocals as a foundation, and then things were added from there to make it nice and sparkly and flowery and shit.
Content-wise, there are so many different topics covered on the album. At any point in time during the creation process, did you have a bit of an emotional overload? You talk about queerness, addiction, just getting your life together – Did you ever have to take a step back?
Yeah, definitely (laughs). Half of these songs are a couple of years old. I think the newest one was “Your Tree.” In the recording process, I had a lot of these songs and they were years old and I felt years removed from the emotional experiences described there-in until we started recording them for the record, and then I was like, “Holy shit, this is actually pretty fucking emotional.” I had just broken up with somebody when we just started recording in New Hampshire, we had just gotten to Justine’s parent’s lake house and recorded in an upstairs bedroom, and it was a really peaceful vibe there, and you just realize the emotional way of these compositions, and yeah, it was kind of a lot. But I was meditating a lot, I was journaling a lot, I was listening to a lot of Oprah podcasts (laughs).
Oprah is so healing (laughs).
Yeah, I was trying to maintain some zen, because I wasn’t expecting it to be as emotional as it was, and I think that’s kind of why the performances sound the way they do because I was very much having emotional experiences while singing those tunes.
Looking at the songs you chose, how did you go about choosing the songs that you wanted to bring into today, and do you feel like you got new insight on them, or they took on new meaning for you now that you’ve brought them into the present?
Yeah, it’s kind of wild, but the songs have transformed over the years as I have, so what they used to stand for kind of stands for different things. I wrote the song "Ndimakukonda" in like 2013, and it was under a different name and it was a little bit longer, and we truncated it for the record to just make it like a sweet, short little song. It was a love song for my partner who I was dating at the time, and it has since transformed to be less of a romantic love overture and more just an expression of love to the people in my life that I care about. I recorded that at Justine’s house when we were there together, and we were like, “Wow, this is just really tender.” And we hugged when it was done. It was just a really sweet experience.
Even something like “Maker,” which I wrote before I came out as trans, I wasn’t really sure what my whole deal was, what my gender and sexuality were, but those words made sense to me at the time, and it’s very whacky. It’s very strange to think about it now and be talking about it in interviews – I didn’t know what I was talking about (laughs).
One question that I pretty much ask everyone I interview – because it’s so interesting to hear all of the different answers – is what’s one song that either taught you something about yourself or your songwriting process from this album?
Yeah, certainly. Oh man, I always have to pull up the tracklist. Like, what even is on this album? (Laughs).
I feel the same way with any creative thing I do. I’m like, “Oh, did I do that?”
Every time, right? Okay, I think… hm.
I know, it’s like picking your children.
You know, I’m gonna say “1978.” Just because I wrote that tune… that is one of the couple of songs that I wrote when I was in treatment for alcoholism. I wrote it as a healing thing for myself, and it just brought up a bunch of emotions. Something that addiction does is it can numb your feelings, and in my case, that was kind of the point, so when I got sober I had all these emotions and I was just kind of like was crying by the end of it. I was kind of like, “Oh, I guess my songwriting has shifted to be something even more personal than before.” And that song, like a lot of songs I write, I feel like that one kind of wrote itself, and I was kind of just there, and towards the end, I was like, “Wow, that’s a lot of feelings there, big guy” (laughs). So, I think writing "1978" kinda made me realize the power of songwriting in my own life because it was really healing and also really painful, but just super healing. It’s not like the experiences I’m describing in that song are healed, but it just was a healing exercise for me, and I didn’t know music could help me do that.
I can feel that element in the songs and the album. You finish listening to it and it’s just a nice breather. I read in one of your online bios that another one of your inspirations is The Lion King, and I was like, “Damn, that’s cool, I’ve never heard that one before!” (Laughs) What do you find so inspiring about The Lion King?
The Lion King is my favorite movie. I have a lot of favorite movies, but that’s definitely my favorite musical, my favorite cartoon, and when I was growing up... My parents are from Malawi – and The Lion King is set in Kenya and there are African singers, and I was like, “Wow, I’m in this movie,” and my parents were like “Well, not exactly.” But it was exciting to see Africanness. I had never seen even something adjacent to my culture reflected on TV, let alone a Disney movie, so I was super pumped, and I just love all of the songs so much. The songs are just so good, and the instrumentation is so good. “I Just Can’t Wait to Be King” is one of my favorite songs, and the bassline is so good. The painter for the album cover, she was asking about colorways we were looking for, and me and Justine just sent her stills from The Lion King, and the painting is on my wall. Fun fact, she painted me into a scene from the "I Just Can’t Wait to be King" sequence. I flipped out when I saw it, I was like, “Rebecca, did you just" – her name is Rebecca Larios – I was like, “Did you just paint me into the fucking Lion King?” I’d never felt so seen (laughs).