Anjimile’s Battle Cries and Curses
The Durham, NC singer/songwriter tells us about the rage and vengeance, and the inspired artistic limitations, that created his breathtaking second album, The KingPhoto by Shervin Lainez Music Features Anjimile
Anjimile was freshly sober when he wrote his last album, Giver Taker. He was seeing the world through new eyes, just grateful to still be alive. There is a lot of disillusionment and pain in that record, but there’s also a spiritual lightness. It’s the sound of Anjimile learning to be tender with himself and others. By the time Giver Taker came out, it was 2020 and Anjimile (full name Anjimile Chithambo; he goes by Jimi day-to-day) was four years sober. The pandemic came, and he lost his job as an after-school teacher in Boston. That summer, George Floyd was murdered and a wave of Black Lives Matter protests began. He became estranged from his mother after coming out as trans so, amid all of this, the songs he was writing for his next record—The King—were darker and heavier than anything he’d ever written.
“Getting sober, I felt like I had just survived the Titanic or something. So I was moving forward with that gratitude and that ‘Holy shit, we made it’ feeling in mind,” Anjimile says, speaking over Zoom from his room in Durham. “But, by the time writing for The King came around, I had gotten a couple more years into my sobriety, and reality set in, I guess. Being an adult is challenging, and catching up on being one after having spent however many years getting drunk and being irresponsible instead was challenging.”
The seeds for the album were planted when Anjimile wrote “Black Hole.” It’s a darkly churning track, with glitchy processed percussion over an omnipresent bass tone, and there’s something incredibly haunting and menacing to its vocal melody. There’s a three-syllable phrase that Anjimile keeps repeating, which he invented out of nowhere—“Mm-ay-ey, mm-ay-ey.” When he showed the song to his girlfriend, she told him that it felt “evil,” and he realized that she was right. “I just remember listening back and feeling like that song was rife with incantations that I didn’t understand, but that felt ill-intended,” he recalls. “It felt like a battle cry or a condemnation or a curse. That song sounds like straight-up witchcraft to me.” That realization was uncomfortable for Anjimile, who had always preferred to tuck those dark feelings like rage or vengefulness out of sight; but it was also exciting, inspiring. “I was like, I’m gonna let this happen and see what happens if I allow myself to express emotions that make me uncomfortable,” he adds.
Three of the songs on The King—“Animal,” “The Right” and “Genesis”—were written back-to-back in the three days after the news of George Floyd’s murder broke. “Animal” is perhaps the album’s most striking chapter—an outpouring of seething rage; Anjimile promises to become as inhuman as the white supremacist establishment already views him in his quest for vengeance: “Run / I will move the earth to find you / I am the grinning growl behind you.” Meanwhile, “The Right” is a song of fear, Anjimile says—“Fear that I don’t have an assured safe place in this world,” he explains. “Pray for me,” he repeats at the end of every verse. On the third day, he wrote “Genesis,” a Sufjan Stevens-recalling, off-kilter ballad. “I was just worn out, and I was like, I think this is as much as I have to say about this. I’m just exhausted and devastated,” Anjimile notes.
Also intertwined throughout the album is Anjimile’s search for a place in the world via his gender transition. He was already identifying as trans when he made Giver Taker, but he hadn’t yet come out to his parents; he did so, via a letter, when that album and its associated press coverage were about to drop. While his dad was supportive, his mother was not—and he hasn’t spoken to her since. Throughout the album, he reflects on this betrayal. “Am I your son? Could I be one?” he asks, part-mournfully and part-hopefully on “Mother.” “My mother put her words down my throat / My mother took my air,” he sings on “Anybody”. “I wrote [‘Anybody’] not too long after sending that letter to my parents, and just being really devastated and bummed out,” he says. “I was like, ‘I’m used to writing songs to help myself feel better, but I don’t feel better at all, I feel like shit. So I guess I’ll just write about that.’”
“If you don’t find your wound, your wound will find you,” is that song’s refrain, a transcendently moving moment that speaks to a core part of Anjimile’s creative perspective. Across Giver Taker and The King, he owns his ugliest truths so that they don’t own him.
Anjimile’s parents emigrated to the US from Malawi in the mid-‘80s, where his dad (who already held a doctorate in Malawi) completed a second doctorate and became a primary care physician. Anjimile is the third of four kids; his given name means “denied” in Chichewa (his family’s native language); supposedly, his aunt cried this out when he was born a girl, meaning his parents were denied a son. They moved around from West Virginia to Iowa, and eventually settled in Mesquite, Texas—a suburb of Dallas where there was “a church every quarter mile.” There were other families of color in their neighborhood, but not a lot of Black families.
His parents were Presbyterians who would wrangle the four kids to church every Sunday. Anjimile would throw a fit every time; not only was it a boring, music-less service, but he also hated having to wear a dress and pantyhose. He was always a tomboy. “I wanted to be just like my dad. I’d put on his white coat and his stethoscope and be like, ‘I’m a doctor,’” he remembers. “My relationship with my mom was a little more distant, because I was a tomboy and that was something she couldn’t really relate to. There was always a bit of a stalemate between us, in terms of my gender expression and identity.” His older sisters were in the school choir, and when he went to go see their performances, he was deeply struck by the harmonies. “It was like magic to me,” he adds. He joined the choir himself as soon as he got old enough; besides his parents’ ‘80s pop records, this was his first real exposure to the possibilities of music.
At the same time, he was discovering bands like Blink-182 and Fall Out Boy via MTV and Fuse TV. When he wrote a school essay about Jimi Hendrix in the fifth grade, he decided that being a guitar player was the coolest thing on earth; his dad bought him a Fender Squire and got him a year of guitar lessons. Once Anjimile got a little older, he started hanging out on skateboarding message-boards and combing through the music threads, trying to find cool recommendations. He was intrigued by one user who had the album cover for Sufjan Stevens’ Come On Feel The Illinoise in their avatar; and when he checked out that album for the first time, it changed everything.
“It kinda broke my brain,” he says. “His voice was really arresting, first of all. And it was just everything I love about music—a really energetic recording, a lot of polyrhythms, a lot of interesting harmonies and chord progressions. And I think most exciting of all, it was unpredictable. It was like being on a rollercoaster, and I was like, ‘Where the fuck is this song going?’ Only to find out later, eventually, that it follows a pretty regular A-B-C-whatever pop song structure, but it was just approached in a way that I found to be really inventive and impossible to look away from.” After that, he was obsessed with finding similar artists, which led him to the likes of Bob Dylan and Iron & Wine.
But as well as opening up his music taste, it also opened his mind to what he could achieve musically for himself. “I always wanted to have a big, powerful voice, but I never did—I remember being dismayed as a kid that I couldn’t have a voice like Aretha Franklin or Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey,” Anjimile says. “I think that’s something that drew me to folk music, is hearing a different way to have a powerful voice. Expressing that power through tenderness.” When he was grounded one summer (“For drinking all of my parents’ gin, and smoking in their car, and sneaking my girlfriend into the house”), he wrote his first song in his bedroom, and proceeded to upload music onto YouTube.
He started college at Boston’s Northeastern that fall, where he recorded his first EP, In The Garden, in a friend’s dorm room. Later, he met two friends—Drew Wilcox and Lee Schuna—with whom he ended up starting a band called Modes. They introduced the mostly self-taught Anjimile to elements of music theory that he’d never understood before. “It blew my fucking mind; I was like, ‘Oh man, I can hear colors!’” he laughs. Schuna went on to record Anjimile’s second EP, 2015’s Human Nature.
In 2016, Anjimile’s alcohol addiction came to a head. He took time off from college, and checked into a rehab facility in Florida with a trash bag of his clothes and an acoustic guitar. He spent his time there writing songs, playing them for the other patients, and recording them with his phone. Those songs ended up as the EP Good Boy, and many of them ended up being reworked for Giver Taker. When he got back to Boston, he timidly started playing shows around the music scene again. It was at a gig at O’Briens Pub in Allston that he met Justine Bowe and Gabe Goodman of the band Photocomfort. They instantly bonded musically, and the trio made Giver Taker together, for which Anjimile signed a one-album deal with Father/Daughter Records.
Giver Taker was acclaimed by the likes of Pitchfork and NPR, making Anjimile one of indie’s buzziest new names. After its release, he signed to management company The Glow (Hippo Campus, Wednesday, Sylvan Esso), and the legendary record label 4AD (The National, Big Thief, Future Islands). As he was writing for The King, 4AD flew Anjimile out to LA to meet with producers. The last one he met before going home was Shawn Everett—a six-time Grammy winner who’s worked with Adele, Miley Cyrus, Beck and a ton of other huge names.
“I went to his studio and I called him and he said, ‘Sorry, I’ll be out in just a minute,’” Anjimile remembers. “He came to the door—his dog was barking like mad—and he was like, ‘Sorry I’m late, I was buttering this piece of toast,’ and he’s holding a piece of toast. And we just started giggling, and I was like, ‘He’s the one.’” They talked for hours about everything under the sun; music, family, visual art. “I was like, ‘I think I have a musical crush on this guy,’” Anjimile adds.
On their first day working together, Everett took Anjimile out to lunch. The pair talked about their belief in artistic limitations, and Everett told Anjimile he had an idea: He wanted to record the whole album on acoustic guitars. “He was like, ‘I think that we should create full arrangements with as little drums as possible, but just kind of closer to orchestral arrangements. And I think I can make the acoustic guitar sound like any instrument. I think it would be really valuable to create this limitation, and use that as a creative jumping-off point.’” The first song they recorded that way is the opening title track, “The King.” It’s a sonically gorgeous experience; layers and layers of a cappella vocal harmony take up the first minute, and they continue as the baseline of the song while a single simmering guitar builds to an intense, awe-inspiring climax.“It was an extremely time-consuming and painstaking process for all parties involved, especially Shawn,” Anjimile says. “And it kind of set the tone for the entire album, because that song sounds fucking weird.”
Indeed, the album sounds weird and utterly beautiful. The acoustic guitar arrangements are complex and rich, creating an immersive, beckoning world which matches Anjimile’s expressions of witchcraft and curses. They even used acoustic guitars to mimic piano, saxophone and drums at certain points. Everett, a cinephile, played movies on mute during the studio sessions, including Eraserhead and Vertigo. He also, before recording began, took Anjimile to a series of art museums and asked him to pick out pieces that he related to each song on the record. Some of his choices included Yayoi Kusama’s Longing for Eternity (“The King”), Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Untitled (“Animal”) and Kara Walker’s The Palmetto Libretto (“Black Hole”).
Sonically, the pair were inspired by the work of Philip Glass—“Vessels” from is interpolated on “The King”—and Frank Ocean. “Shawn kept referring to the all-acoustic guitar thing as establishing a palette that we could then use to paint these songs,” Anjimile explains. “I think it created a sense of worldly otherworldliness—in that the acoustic guitar is such an earthy instrument, and we used it to create both some earthy tones and some completely out-of-this-world tones. We wanted to go off the deep end in a controlled way, in a very deliberate and specific way.”
The King became a work that is deeply connected to the rage and grief that comes with being Black and trans in America; but also, the love and spirituality that comes with it too. “The spirituality I grew up with didn’t have a place for feelings, really. So the spirituality that I’ve adopted for myself as an adult is feelings-focused,” he says. “Where in the past I would experience my anger as also shame at that anger, I am making an active effort to move away from that, because I feel like my strongest feeling is related to my highest good.” In expressing this darkness and creating such beauty, Anjimile has created something like a prayer. “I feel like the universe is really supportive of that,” he adds. “I feel like that’s evidenced in the queer community I’m a part of, it’s evidenced in my queer romantic relationship I’m in. Where there is my expression of truth, there is always love.”
Creatively, The King was an absolute elevation of stakes for Anjimile, and it paid off; he’s just become one of the most exciting new talents in indie rock. So what comes next for him? “I see some very strange music,” he says. “Making The King has made me realize that I have the freedom to make music as strange as my heart desires. And I have yet still stranger things to express. I feel empowered as an artist to create whatever I want, so I’m looking forward to doing that. I see some weird shit in my future.”
Anjimile’s The King is out now via 4AD. Read why it was our most recent Album of the Week pick here.