At a time so much in flux, who better to speak to us about the challenges we all face than trans musician Anhoni. Previously known as Antony Hegarty, this artist always used his/her experience of transgender identity to offer fresh perspectives on how we might all live together on this planet. Whether you call that political, social or spiritual barely matters. Now, with a new album environmental-themed album, s/he invites us to confront our own eco-hypocrisy.

Throughout this interview, which I’ve transcribed from Radio 4’s Loose Ends programme last week, Anhoni is breathlessly articulate, the words coming out so clearly articulated and so rapidly that it seems rehearsed. If so, I have no problem with that. S/he has powerful things to say, not just in the promotion of an album. I look forward to a book from this gentle messenger.

The last time you were on the programme I remember you saying that the world needs more female leaders, and as it happens we do seem to getting more. We’re going to have a new prime minister who’s going to be a woman, there may be a woman president in America, there are three women leaders in Scotland…is this the sort of thing you had in mind? Do you think it’s going to improve the world?

When I say we need more feminine governance its that we need a collective representation of femininity, which of course is a massive array of points of view. It’s not that any one female leader is going to burst the bubble, its more that if there more than 30% women at the table, the culture changes…what would it look like if we had 70% of women at the table? What kinds of untapped wisdom and unique perspectives, born of the specific experiences of womanhood might we capitalise upon, in order that a less heirarchical conversation can happen?

Do you think though, that in 50 or 100 years’ time in our queer/trans utopia that we’ll still be talking about these gender binaries? Will there still be such a thing as womanness or maleness?

Honestly I think in 50 or 100 yeas time we’re gonna be so preocupied with catastrophic environmental changes that I can’t imagine we’ll have much time to dally in identity politics. Right now is the time we have deal with this wall of impending and imprecendented events that are on the horizon…massive chunks of the biosphere are collapsing and the conversaton about identity politics is really important but its not the endgame. The reason to do it is because unrepresented voices might offer a new pearl of wisdom that might spark a new trajectory.
Hearing you sing, there seems to be this emotion there at the forefront. Would you say you’re upset or angry about these things?
I’m a singer so my currency is my emotion and intuition – that’s my medium in a way. And I’m a human being so i’m a feeling creature. But to me emotion, thinking, intuition, intellect – to me they’re much more intergrated process than they might generally be identified as.

You’ve called your album ‘Hopelessness’. Are you feeling hopeless?

Yes, I’ve felt a lot of that under the current state of affairs, but also I’m not alone in that. I think a lot of people are feeling very hopeless but it was on the basis of that that I’ve sought to address and excavate that emotional place.

Essentially what you’ve made is a protest album. Is there a record company executive in your mind saying ‘No, we want songs about love and loss and human emotion’?

To go back to your question about why I named the album ‘Hopelessness’, how are we going to take effective action when we’re not even allowed to acknowledge the place of despair that most people are sitting in today. I think there’s actually something quite productive about processing hopelessness in the same way that it’s productive to process grief and that if you process the feeling you reach a clearer vista to reach clearer decisions.
In fact, not processing hopelessness might be stilting us; I mean we all come from 2000 years of sky-God religions prophesising apocalypse as a climax to our experience here on earth. We were born into hopelessness. A lot of the mythology that’s at the root of our cultures looked forward to this day and has insidiously collaborated with neo-liberal capitalism to create a perfect storm of conditions, that will finally realise a transcendental apocalypse, so that we can all piss off to heaven, do you know what I mean?


I’m thinking of the potential of dreaming that we can move beyond those models of thinking, to concieve of entirely new ways of walking upon the earth. At this point we’ve got nothing to lose! Now every greengrocer knows…that the world as we know it is coming to an end, the question now is about what kind of radical thought we can engage that’s actually useful.

What’s happened to Antony and The Johnsons?

I feel like I’d exhausted this pastoral aesthetic and it was beginning to feel a bit toothless, to be honest, that’s why I reached for a harder, more euphoric, galvanising sound because I wanted to express the affairs of my heart very plainly, and to mark the time, and I didn’t really want to hide behind some gossamer curtain of ornamental violin twiddles. I just wanted it to be very direct.

Why the change of name?

“I’ve always talked about being transgender in the media, but I was beginning to feel it was time for me to take a feminine name just to honour my specific experience, and also because I’m getting older and I feel like I’ve got nothing to lose. It’s one thing to tell people that you’re transgender, but then why humour them with the idea that you’re comfortable with a male pronoun or a male name?
Was it difficult to make that transition because you’re known as Anthony with a male pronoun?

It’s like a tipping point. You get to a point where it’s like there’s no going back and you’re ready for the next thing. It’s developmental; you get to a point where its like: ‘This is who I am and this is how I want to move through the world today and you dont really care about the consequences.


In the song “4 Degrees” (about the projected rise of 4 degrees in the earth’s temperature) you take the guise of someone who says ‘Never mind’.

My intention with the record was not just an exercise in finger pointing but to start to examine my complicity in these virulent systems and to give voice not to my intention but to the reality of my footprint. It’s all very well for me to say I want the best for the world but flying here to do this concert, the narrative of the song was sublimated in the reality of my action, my behaviour.

I’ve become very interested in this giant disparity between my sense of myself and the reality of who I am. I feel like somehwere in that massive system of denial is the potential for change. Like, if I could learn to be honest about who I am so that I really understood the effect of my footprint and I could stop living in this delusional, half-sleeping state of virulence, all the while thinking I’m doing the best that I can and justifying myself…

It’s a given that I’m a hypocrite, in the same way that it’s a given that I’m a mysogenist, it’s a given that I’m a racist, it’s a given that I’m homophobic, do you what what I mean? All of those things are enmbedded in me, in many ways I think of my body as a microcosm of the brokenness of the world. It’s not like I’m immune. I’m a porous creature. I’m a part of this world and so the things that are wrong inside me are very likely a tiny photograph of the things that are wrong in the world.

The programme on which this is based can be found at  http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07jwj19

(UK only)

“Evidently, it’s elementary, they want us all gone eventually…”

1. The “sharing my pain poet” who doesn’t realise that if you’re spilling your emotional guts, it has to be something people can relate to. This is entertainment.

2. The alpha-male poet who has a natural, testosterone-fuelled charisma that wins them slams, and makes beta-male poets like me sick with envy.

3. Poets who make no attempt to stick to the time limit for their slot

4. Hosts who choke the life out of an event by policing time slots over-zealously

5. The inferior rap poet who puts their genre to shame with hand gestures are as lame and derivative as his/her wordplay.

6. The poem which is a list of things to do in order to be an unconventional person. It usually goes something like this: “…climb a mountain in your underpants, give out free hugs, play your flute on the subway, make a bike out of spaghetti…” You know the drill. I must have heard 78 versions of that. It was great the first time.

7. The ‘comic’ rap poem done by someone this doesn’t listen to rap, thinks it is an inherently amusing novelty form and a) has no sense of rhythm b) is trying to ape a rapping style last heard in 1979.

8. The swearing poet who thinks it’s hard, rebellious and shocking to use the ‘F’ word constantly.

 

A New Piece of Kit

bossI seem to have bought one of these; a device that will revolutionise my performances. As I don’t have a band, nor the ability to find one (nor the patience to lead one, nor the finances to pay one) this will be the way to enhance my live sound. What a loop pedal does is to enable you to set up various musical phrases, chords, beats etc. that will repeat (as if on loops of old-skool tape) as you play, adding depth to your music.

I do mostly acoustic gigs, however most of my songs are ‘band’ songs; they’re written with a full folk-rock/indie arrangement in mind. Only in the studio can I fully realise them as I originally heard them in my mind’s ear when they were composed. Some of you will have heard my song ‘Drifter’, performed here with flautist George Roberts:

Here is the recorded version:

So when I play live, there is a bit of a mis-match between what I’m presenting to people and how I actually see myself as an artist. I do have some folky tunes that don’t require extra adornment, but most of my stuff would benefit from some level of embellishment.

The trouble is that extra layers of sound don’t neccessarily add interest to a live set; in fact, for a solo act they can work against it. In ‘organic’ music (as opposed to electronic), the interest is generated by the fact that musician is actually playing in front of you in real time. Layers of recorded sound (even if you’re recording them  yourself during the performance) can detract from the spontaneity and humanity of your performance. If a solo performer’s sound gets bigger and more interesting during a gig, they themselves tend to lose charisma in comparison.

The widespread use of these pedals has led to a genre of ‘loop-folk’ where acoustic guitarists layer-up guitar parts, often to a beat that they have laid down by tapping the body of the guitar. Unfortunately, they usually use simple three or four chord sequences that don’t vary. The fact they are usually using the same sound for all their parts doesn’t help. I will have to work out how to drop in and out of loops so things don’t get tedious – dynamics and chord modulation are important to me.

This device will never become my ‘band in a box’. For reasons I’ve already explained, I don’t want to dilute the immediacy of my performance (such as it is), nor do I want to risk a poor imitation of the recorded versions. But it will enable me to feature my guitar technique more, which is more from the rock tradition – soloing over chords – than the folky self-accompanying style, which is what I have been restricted to. It will also enable me to lay down beatbox rhythms  and vocal harmonies, and add tonal colour.

These pedals should be used wisely, like The Force, otherwise the dark side beckons!

meera-syal-headshot-2013Meera Syal appeared in a short play on BBC Radio 4 recently. Syal, a versatile actor and writer of Indian extraction, was playing a (presumably white) police liason officer called Jackie Hartwell in this mini-drama. She did a great job as usual, her ethnic background was neither here nor there. It made me wonder; are we entering a new post-racial era for actors, on the radio at least?

To some some extent we are seeing racial and gender lines disappearing across the arts. We have recently seen Maxine Peake playing Hamlet at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre. idris-elba-as-james-bond
Then there were those rumours about Idris Elba taking over as James Bond. Why not? his fans enthused – Idris has the charisma, machismo and sex appeal required to play 007. Did Ian Fleming ever mention anything about his character’s race? And would it matter if he had? Eventually Tom Hiddleston was named as the new Bond, but the fact that Elba was mooted for the role shows that things are shifting.

In JK Rowling’s latest addition to the Harry Potter saga, the play Harry Potter and The Cursed Child, Noma Dumezweni, originally from Swaziland, takes the role of Hermione – heartily endorsed by JK Rowling might I add. 812Dumezweni was considered the best person for the role, but her casting is not merely irrelevant to the part, it is an exiting signal. There is a radicalism in opening out a franchise that so exemplifies the white middle class mileu (albeit with the addition of wands and talking hats). Admittedly, this has only happened on the stage, a world away from the risk-averse conditions of the film-industry, but it is a bold move.

So are we looking at a rainbow utopia where anyone can play a character of any cultural background? The answer is no. This cultural tide will only go in one direction, and for understandable reasons. In popular entertainment’s depictions of race, the shadow of ‘blacking up’ and minstrelsy still looms large. White people imitating black people, in stereotyped and clownish ways, continued on British TV up until 1978. For many years, the only black actors in film played nannies and ‘savages’, and black contributions to the moving image continue to go unrecognised. At this year’s Oscars, the lack of black nominees became such a hot potato that it threatened to derail the awards ceremony.

In the UK, the employment options for black actors are arguably worse, with many leaving to seek work in the US. Idris Elba himself took this route, eventually breaking through with his role in The Wire.

jrnarNon-white actors still need all the high profile parts they can get, which is why the instances of white actors playing people of colour is still so controversial. Ridley Scott’s 2014 biblical epic Exodus: Gods and Kings attracted flak for featuring a cast of white actors considerably ‘darkened’ to play their middle-eastern roles.

Of course, in an ideal world none of this would be a problem. All acting is inhabiting somebody else; attempting to understand the emotions and motivations of a (usually fictional) person who has nothing to do with you. It is a practice requiring the highest form of empathy, an empathy capable of crossing the boundaries of class, age, sex and yes race. You would usually want to make yourself look more like your character too. In purely artistic terms there should be no barriers to inhabiting the persona of another human being.

In societal terms, however, we still see structural discrimination in all areas of life. And until there is parity of opportunity and power regardless of race (and sex for that matter) then screen-based depictions of life will be part of an attempt to redress the balance. It’s not just about the art, it’s more complicated than that. It may be some time before a white actor gets to play Othello again.

Today BBC 6 music is making a big fuss about the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album because it was released exactly fifty years ago. Well, how astounding. What a perfect opportunity to celebrate a seminal work of popular culture, apart from the fact that Brian Wilson’s alleged masterwork sounds exactly the same as it did in 2015. And I can assure you that next year the notes will all still be in the same place.

The rock industry, like all aspects of mass-market culture – including books, films and wars – now relies almost exclusively on anniversaries to flog its wares to us.

The Beatles industry similarly kicks up a fuss about Sgt Pepper every ten years, provoking a frenzy of fake nostalgia for the ‘summer of love’ as if the whole nation was floating around on acid in 1967. Sure, the album was a hit but middle-of-the-road crooner Jim Reeves actually sold more records that year. The truth is that these albums accrue cultural value gradually, rather than landing like cultural meteorites.

A while back Iggy Pop re-released the Raw Power album (remastered and fucked-about-with no doubt) to celebrate the fact that it was forty years old, as if its original release had been some kind of great cultural moment – far from it, The Stooges were virtually unknown during their early career and Raw Power was one of a clutch of recordings that existed virtually underground, gaining a reputation over time.

All this wayward historiography would not be such a bad thing if it didn’t grab all the attention that could be available to current musicians.

These days it’s not uncommon to walk past a rack of music magazines in the supermarket and see a line of exclusively dead faces pouting at you. How depressing that pop journalists, lovers of an art form that can embody the present-day zeitgeist like no other should find themselves writing for what are essentially history magazines.

David Hepworth, the ex-Whistle Test anchorman, embodies this tendency of backward looking rock journalism. He has just published 1971- Never a Dull Moment, a misty-eyed eulogy to the cheesecloth generation, wherein he celebrates a year that produced enduring classics such as Led Zeppelin 4, Sticky Fingers and Tapestry. I’m sure it’s a great read but if he really wanted to cash in he should surely have waited until 2021…

Anyway, it has been decreed that today we must have a double collective orgasm because not only is this the anniversary of Pet Sounds, but also Bob Dylan’s album Blonde on Blonde was also released exactly 50 years ago. How amazing!

Blonde on Blonde is a great collection of music, but to me it sounds the same (and is equally as good as) his previous albums Highway 61 Revisited and Bringing it all Back Home. They all feature his mid-sixties persona of the acid-beatnick, musically featuring a ramshackle mix of epic folky ballads, mind-blowing lyrics and spiky rock’n’roll. It’s all great stuff, but personally I can’t fit a Rizla paper between those albums. Hang on though, Blonde on Blonde’s a double album – it must be a classic…

Humankind’s first steps into space inspired a rash of pop songs. In the wake of the first moon landing in 1969, songwriters started to imagine what space travel might mean for matters of the heart, and a mini-genre was born. Future-tastic sound effects, weightless melodies and tin foil in the videos all contributed to the kitschy glamour, as these mini-melodramas played out against the background of the cosmos. Set the controls for the heart of the fun – it’s time to find your inner space cadet…

  1. – David Bowie – Space Oddity (1969). The song that kicked off this trend (if we don’t count The Byrds’ Mr Spaceman) Bowie’s classic song features ‘lift-off’ sound effects and a general zero-gravity vibe, perfectly capturing the zeitgeist when it was first released, just before the Apollo 11 moon shot (this is the original lesser-known recording and video)

2. Elton John – Rocket Man (1972).

Perhaps a touch po-faced for this list, but the lyrics and ascending guitar motif place this track firmly in our spacey genre.

3. The Carpenters – Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft (1977).

The slightly disturbing brother and sister duo join the space party.

4. Shelia B Devotion – Spacer (1979).

Nile Rogers and Bernard Edwards from Chic add a touch of class to this sci-fi disco stomper.

5. Sarah Brightman and Hot Gossip – I Lost My Heart To a Starship Trooper (1979).

“Tell me captain strange, do you feel my devotion? Or are you like a droid, devoid of emotion?” sings saucy Sarah. A double clip with lashings of glitter and dry ice.

6. The Police – Walking on The Moon (1979)

This song is not about walking on the actual moon, but rather the semi-weightless feeling of being in love, but it earns its place in our list with a low-gravity arrangement featuring Andy Summers’ spacious, ambient guitar chords.

7. Rah Band – Clouds Across the Moon (1985)

Based around a lovelorn phone call, this would a great song in any genre, but in this case the two lovers are seperated by interplanetary space. A great video bursting with low-budget sci-fi camp.

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