Digging deep into her own experience, French-Senegalese musician anaiis pens fragments of poetry exploring themes of identity, sisterhood and romantic longing. Already backed by the likes of Pitchfork, and with her transcendent vocals recently showcased on a hit COLORS session, she’s bewitched an ever-growing audience.
Her genre-fluid approach to her music — which dips into both English and French and experiments with stripped-back piano, off-kilter guitar and percussive flourishes — is reflective of a childhood spent absorbing different languages and cultures. Growing up across different continents, in cities like Toulouse, Dublin and Dakar, she’s now carving out her niche in London’s creative scene.
In anticipation of her new video for single “Vanishing”, we caught up with anaiis to delve into the inspirations shaping her sound, the impact of her international upbringing and what she has planned for 2021.
As a child, you moved between multiple countries — what kind of impact did that have on you as a person and an artist?
I always say that the experience of having lived amongst so many different cultures made me an observant person who’s quite open to the world. I had the blessing of experiencing humanity rather than a singular culture. Growing up, it made me feel a lot more compassionate towards the flaws of human nature as I could see the same patterns repeating no matter where I went.
As an artist, it enriched me with a unique perspective and an array of sounds to inspire myself from. In contrast, [personally] I feel like it made it significantly harder for me to feel part of a community. Even when it came to defining my own sound, I kind of always felt like there was no established place for me, that somehow I was floating around and never settling. I’ve learned to appreciate and truly value that feeling of being “out of place” as I think that when it’s channelled properly, it can be one’s greatest strength. Overall, it inspired my greatest motivation behind creating music, which is to bring light to the world around me. I think there are many ways to do that but it must begin with setting an intention.
What’s your first musical memory?
When I was four years old my grandma offered me an accordion for Christmas and I was absolutely mesmerised by it. I opened or played with no other gift that Christmas, I think the accordion really inducted me into this passion which was never questioned afterwards.
After the accordion, did you end up having any formal musical training?
My first instrument was actually the violin and, from when I was about seven, I was heavily studying music theory and choral singing. I ended up attending an arts high school and university which, in both direct and indirect ways, helped me progress my musicality. To be honest I don’t “use” theory when I’m creating. I only ever follow my ear and what I desire to hear but it is probably working through me on a subconscious level. I think sometimes knowing too much can hurt the creative process when knowledge overpowers feeling. I wrote “Vanishing” on the piano, for example, but I can barely play the piano and the song is in 5/4, an unusual meter for pop music, but I think this was an example of feeling rather than training.
What are the main themes that play out in your work?
This body of work specifically explores themes of grief, isolation, disillusionment, and hope through the act of dreaming. All these themes are related to a larger theme which is ever-present in my work, that is self-liberation and the liberation of all Black people.
So, to what extent is your song-writing practice a method of processing or catharsis?
This record I am in the process of releasing now was undoubtedly created as a means for processing difficult moments in my life. I used to write music from a bit of a distant place, I was watching the world and quite disappointed by what I saw, and I would write about it. But this album is different, this time I was able to put myself into it and let people in on my experiences and suffering. I felt that it would be important for me to be brave and reveal myself. To welcome listeners into my journey and I trust that being vulnerable will allow for a true connection and perhaps real healing.
I was watching your Ted Talk and you mention how music is a way for you to speak up after years of being encouraged to be silent. What causes do you want to use your voice for?
I feel it is an artist’s duty to speak up against injustice and oppression. I am deeply connected to the Black community across the diaspora and I am working to find my place as a voice towards our liberation and our celebration. It is not always straightforward, but I believe we each play a role and that change is cumulative. We are part of the collective and our power lies there. Through music, I have the ability to pass on messages that are empowering and encourage reflection. There is work that must be done at the communal level and work that must be done at the personal level, and in many ways must precede the other in order for this to be effective and long-lasting. At the moment, I feel like a lot of my work is to encourage that personal work but it is my intention to move into different spaces which will help bring about change.
Who are some of the artists that continue to inspire you?
The two that always come up for me are James Baldwin and Nina Simone. They will always be at the core of my work as their words and their actions deeply resonate and make me want to be a much better person for the world around me. I am also a huge fan of Radiohead, James Blake, Frank Ocean, Cesária Évora, Charles Aznavour, Chassol, Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, Nick Hakim, Lauryn Hill, Gilberto Gil, the list goes on!
What are some of your long-term ambitions?
I would love to create a collection of music that will really inspire people the way some of the artists I loved while growing up moved me. Also, I’d love to open artist residencies in a couple of places around the world which would be safe spaces for artists to come to in order to create and share energy.
What’s next for you?
I am excited to release this album and I have a really special collaborative EP that will follow.