Anjimile gives us beauty and takes nothing in return

Anjimile grew up in a religious household in Houston where he had to go to church every day and suppress who he really was. Teenage independence led to an adulthood struggle with alcohol where he sometimes forgot what songs he wrote until he rediscovered them in rehab.

Those rediscovered songs were a reawakening for Anjimile, who breathed new life into them for his debut album Giver Taker.
After many self-released efforts, Giver Taker is Anjimile’s proper debut to the world. Throughout nine songs clocking in just under half an hour, the Boston-based singer takes listeners on a spiritual emotional journey of addiction, sobriety, and becoming less of an asshole.

He’s now in recovery and sober, came to terms with his identity as trans and a nonbinary person, and in general a more happy and introspective person.

I spoke with Anjimile shortly after his album was released on Father/Daughter Records in early September 2020 about his evolution as a songwriter since becoming sober.

How are you feeling now that the album is out?

I’m feeling all right. I’m not used to releasing music and people enjoying it. It’s surreal and overwhelming, in a good way. I’m trying to limit my time on the internet to varying degrees of success. It’s awesome, though.

The album touches a lot on change and overcoming obstacles like alcoholism and breakups. How have you changed in the past few years?

Where do I begin? I think the biggest change is me becoming a more compassionate person in the paste five or so years. Before I got sober, I was really selfish and destructive. Now that I am sober, I’m still really selfish but I have an understanding of that reality and a desire to engage in actions to curb that behavior.

The distance between my thoughts and my actions has increased ten-fold and that’s for the better. I’m a salty person who complains a lot in my head. In the past, that complaining would manifest in me saying something or doing something rude. These days when I’m annoyed, I don’t externalize that or spray it onto other people. I don’t want to cause harm and I recognize that behavior causes harm.

I feel like so many people give advice of being happy and going with the flow, but in reality so many things put us on edge.

I’m super on edge this year. I’ve been doing my best to cultivate space between my thoughts and my words and actions so I don’t have to apologize for acting like an asshole. I’d rather cut out the middle man and not act like an asshole.

What are some things you’re doing to curb that desire to act like an asshole?

A lot of it has to do with processing my feelings in real time in a variety of ways. I have a therapist I complain to. To an appropriate degree, I will reveal stuff to my friends then try to reciprocate and be there for them. I have mentors who I can share my life experiences with me. I mean music folks and every day folks who can give me guidance. They’ll be the people who tell it to me straight.

How has sobriety and the last few years shifted you as a songwriter?

My songwriting has taken on a greater depth and that the depth is proportional as a sober person to access a greater depth of feeling. Just for the simple fact that I used to use alcohol to numb my feelings and now there is no numbing agent. The more time in recovery I’m in, it’s more hammered home that there is no real escape from reality.

I feel more than I did before. It’s a lot and that’s why I needed all that support. With all those feelings, there’s only so much I can journal or complain to my therapist. Those feelings come out in song.

Was that numbing of your feelings what made it so difficult for you to write while drinking?

My relationship to songwriting has always been that the songs just write themselves and I am just there catching a vibe. When that process is over, the song exists. I’ll listen to the song after and realize, oh damn, that’s what the song is about. My songwriting process can me more honest than I am as myself. [Not writing while drinking] was a combination of writer’s block and wet brain. I just didn’t have the capacity to do anything at that time in the throws of addiction. It was also a large component of whatever I was going to sit down to right would be some uncomfortable truths of where I was at that point in my life and I was very comfortably in denial. I wasn’t ready to have that conversation with myself.

Once you started recovery and getting sober, how did your songwriting change?

I will start to say it did get a little more involved. Now I kind of have an idea. I usually let the first lyrics right themself and I like to be as detached in the lyric writing process as possible. Once the first few lyrics come out, I have an idea of what the song is going to be about and I’ll build on the emotion from there.

I know some of these songs pre-date your sobriety. When you’re listening to the songs from that time period in your life, do they hit differently now? Are you comfortable with them?

They’re so different. I think the oldest song on it is six years old. My life experiences that I’ve had in the past five years… I’m in my late-20s now and I feel very old and tired. Looking back at these tunes, it’s just that they feel a world away. 

Also, the versions on this album are different than the demo versions I had floating around for years.  My producers Gabe Goodman and Justine Bowe just made these songs more sophisticated compared to my original versions.

One one hand, I look at these songs and am like, damn, this shit was written so long ago and I can’t believe it still exists. Another part of me thinks, well, this is a different version and it hits differently now that I’m an old man.

A lot of what I saw online from your past is just you and a guitar. Now it’s multiple layered instruments and choirs. How did that evolution come about?

It was very organic as well as my producers pushing me to go further. A huge component was just having a budget for the first time. I got a grant last year and it paid for the record and the producers. I was able to pay for musicians and before I was not able to do that. We were able to throw any idea at the wall and afford to try it.

In addition to sobriety and recovery, the album touches on spirituality and your experience with faith. How did that get woven into this album so much?

It’s weird how everything just weaves together in this album. When I was growing up, my parents were, and still are, religious. We used to go to church where they would make me a little dress and I was so pissed off. I would scream and cry about having to wear pantyhose. My association with religion has always been about me being repressed or restricted. As soon as I was old enough and have an opinion or a semblance of freedom, I was out.

My recovery coincided with my spiritual awakening. It was a period of intense emotional growth that was so necessary and surprising to me. I felt the universe had something to do with it. I was so sure I was going to die before and I’m totally not dead right now. Not only am I not dead, I’m actually incredibly happy and learning more about myself. I was able to try to be the best version of me that I can be. It was a huge attitude shift. I felt there was some “Colors of the Wind” shit going on. I started to pray and meditate to an unknown higher power. The level of gratitude that this sense of spirituality has given me has heavily impacted every facet of my life and naturally my songs have been impacted by that as well.

So many of the songs push that through. Even though some of these songs are fairly short, you pack so much into them. Like the lead single “Maker” has a lot going on in it. I saw you posted a bedroom acoustic version of it way back in 2017 on your Instagram. What’s the story behind that song?

“Maker” I wrote in 2015. It was winter and I was living in an apartment in Somerville. I was unemployed and my parents were supporting me. I was a mess and not sober yet. It was the tail end of that situation. I was trying to write and not achieving a lot of success. Either because of that emotional block of accessing that truth or I was literally just too drunk.

I wrote “Maker” on a day where I happened to be not too drunk to write a song. It was a pretty quick process. I almost feel like I wasn’t there. I wrote it then I forgot about it. When I went to rehab I was playing my guitar and I played that song. I couldn’t really play it right but the people I was around felt it was a good song. 

It came from a place that feels like deep unconsciousness. I remember the chorus of “Oh,  why don’t you do as your told? Oh, happiness ins’t your goal?” felt like it was me writing from the perspective of god or my parents and being scolded for my horrible choices. I felt like obviously happiness wasn’t my goal because I was there miserable. There was a lot of existential shit happening then.

I also wanted to know the story behind “Not Another Word” because it’s my favorite song on the album.

I love that song!

I would for you to do what you just did with “Maker” and take me and listeners behind the scenes of the song.

It had to be the summer of 2015 and I was living in an apartment in Jamaica Point, once again pretty much same status as “Maker.” I wasn’t doing well. I was deep in the addiction and experiencing some rock bottoms. My first serious relationship had ended as a result of my alcoholism. I was really depressed and spending all of my time in my room drinking and listening to Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It.” I had borrowed a friend’s banjo a couple of months and started plucking along on it. The first iteration of “Not Another Word” was on the banjo and it was slower and longer. It’s also in a different key because my voice was much higher back then. That song was my prayer of pain release in the wake of that breakup.

It was dark times. I literally felt I was going to die. It just came up. So I forgot about that song and then last year, I was scrolling through demos right before meeting with Gabe and Justine. I listened to it and transcribed it to the guitar and added a bridge. Something that I learned in recovery, is that they say when you were drinking or using, you don’t lose things. You don’t lose relationships or jobs or things that are important to you. You give them away. You choose to use substances instead. That’s one school of thought, but that’s where the lyrics in that bridge came from. Once I wrote the bridge, I knew I was done with the song.

What did it do for your mindset revisiting songs and times that you forgot?

At this point, because these songs are in such a different form, it doesn’t feel like a revisitation of them. It’s more like a reawakening. If I were to hear the old demos, I would be taken all the way back. The experience of recording Giver Taker was just so different than writing a lot of these tunes. I tend to associate these recordings with the recording process.

When I was recording “Not Another Word” this time around, I was breaking up with someone else so it was a wicked emotional experience. There was a lot of emotion new and old in these songs.

Please subscribe to Debutiful’s podcast, which releases once a month with an in-depth interview with one debut author.

Adam Vitcavage is the founder of Debutiful. His interviews and criticism have also appeared in Electric Literature, The Millions, Paste Magazine, and more.

Visit Anjimile at his website and follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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