Taking that first leap is hard. Sometimes you have to hope things will work out how you want them to. If you’re Anjimile, you decided to take that leap anyway, because deep down you know that having a say in your future leads to a better outcome than one led by complacency—even if it means you might change in the process.
Anjimile, the chosen moniker of Anji Chithambo, is one of the most intriguing singer-songwriters in Boston’s bubbling music scene. Anjimile’s debut record, Human Nature, landed on our Best Local Albums of 2015 list, but since then there’s been plenty of change. As a queer and trans artist, Anjimile turns their experiences into songs of joy, rebuttal, and curiosity. As a first-generation Malawian-American raised in Texan suburbs, it would be easy for Anjimile to channel every lyric into their experiences with racism, homophobia, and xenophobia. Instead Anjimile’s music reaches beyond the obvious lessons that could be taught to instead use radical queer politics to address the spectrum of issues and triumphs they have experienced, emphasizing the warm tenderness that comes from music rather than pointing fingers.
All of that said, it seems like music was a no-brainer outlet for Anjimile’s energy. As a kid, music positioned itself as the obvious yet unlikely driving factor in Anjimile’s life. Their two older sisters sang in the school choir, filling the house with melodies everywhere they walked. Anjimile’s oldest sister taught them how to harmonize to “Heart and Soul.” Their parents blasted artists like Madonna and Whitney Houston, the result of growing up in the ’80s heyday, and Anjimile began to see the world through that bold lens as a result.
“They used to make an ordeal out of it on Saturday mornings,” says Anjimile. “They made us breakfast then, and they would wake us up super early by blasting music. We would all complain and be super ungrateful that we were being woken up by Michael Jackson’s Dangerous or an immaculate collection of Madonna records. They unintentionally instilled a deep love of music in me.”
But that didn’t mean Anjimile’s parents saw music as a realistic job. Nearly everyone in the family studies traditionally academic fields in science, medicine, and math. Anjimile’s father is a doctor, their mother is a computer programmer, one sister is a psychologist, and the other sister is going to school to be a doctor. Tack on their varying experiences in the US after emigrating from Malawi, and the inconsistencies of life as a musician seem too unpredictable to bank on. In their eyes, music was a side interest, not a career path. There’s a difference between appreciating art and pursuing art, so Anjimile applied to Northeastern as an English major. That only lasted a year and a half. Without telling their parents, Anjimile switched majors to focus on music.
That choice wasn’t an impromptu decision. After playing open mics and writing music in the dorm rooms, Anjimile found a new confidence. Suddenly, people began encouraging Anjimile to create more music, both friends and strangers at open mics. After jamming with two friends who showed Anjimile that musical connections, particularly on a deeper and natural level, were possible, music presented itself as a beneficial career choice, one that could lead to all sorts of expression. The epiphany struck.
But along this path, Anjimile ran into two major life events. First came a dark period where alcoholism turned controlling. Anjimile left college for two years to confront those struggles. After trying to focus on how to heal themself, Anjimile decided to move to Florida for a year to access the specific mental health and addiction services offered at a facility in the state. A full-time job in food service provided structure outside of the health services. Slowly, Anjimile returned to college part time and then, eventually, segued into full-time courses. Now that the final stretch of college at Northeastern is on the horizon, Anjimile has found a way to balance all parts of their life: graduating from college, working part time as an urban farmer, and committing to their career as a musician as much as possible.
The second life event is less easy to outline: Anjimile decided to pursue physical changes to better settle into their identity as a nonbinary, transmasculine person. Though the process isn’t a simple or quick change, the open-endedness of the process has proven to be an unexpected but long-awaited change. While there’s a comfort in knowing who you are, taking steps to feel more comfortable in your body, and feeling in control of how you are presented to others, there also comes the slow realization that you aren’t who you used to be. For Anjimile, this realization has been unfolding over the past eight months after beginning to take testosterone.
“When I first released an EP, I was scared and wanted to sound pretty,” says Anjimile. “[Taking testosterone] has completely changed my singing voice in a way that, honestly, freaks me the fuck out. The one hesitation I had in taking testosterone as a way to help affirm my gender as a nonbinary, transmasculine person was that it would change my voice. These old pipes are, fingers crossed, the money maker. What’s going to happen? It’s been really difficult, because I’ve been learning how to sing in a different way over the past eight months because I have lost my upper vocal range and a lot of my mid vocal range. My voice has dropped and the lower range has widened whereas the higher range has thinned. With my older tunes, it’s almost as if I’m covering myself because I can’t sing in that range anymore. It’s kind of sad to let go of that piece of me. Because it’s not just about singing, but about self-expression. It’s deeply ironic that going through this change with testosterone as a way to affirm my identity meant literally changing another part of my identity: my voice, something I was super comfortable with.”
Anjimile’s long-awaited new record, Colors, comes on the heels of coming to terms with both major life events. The beautiful scope it covers, directly and indirectly, speaks to the affirming yet unnerving process of gradually setting in to your own skin. Anjimile was granted a three-month artist residency at Industry Lab, an eclectic co-working space in Cambridge, early this spring. The entirety of Colors was written and recorded in those three months. Though the main room in which Anjimile worked was relatively bare, they filled the space with musical vividness and vibrancy, chasing after various musical genres and tonal waves that reflect the wide array of colors in our everyday and imagined life. By sharing that space in Industry Lab with engineers, entrepreneurs, scientists, graphic designers, programmers, architects and artists, Anjimile found additional inspiration came from the inventive and imaginative works of people outside of the music industry.
On record, that translates into a beautiful hodgepodge of sound. Opener “Ipswich” cascades with an acoustic guitar strum, like part-bossanova part-folk romance. “Dysphoria” address what it’s like living with body dysphoria, questioning how and why you do or don’t fit into the very body in which you were born, and untangling what you can do about it. “Green” imagines what the apocalypse would look, sound, and feel like if nature took total control over the end of the world. “Many moons to this day / When the canyons collide / And the rivers reverse / And the known universe blooms infinity across the sky,” Anjimile sings, painting a beautiful and terrible explosion of life worth witnessing.
Best of all, Colors showcases what it’s like to embrace the multiple facets of your personality, identity, and body. Fans will recognize the biggest difference right away: that Anjimile explores deeper vocal ranges, baritone scales, and new self-harmonizing parts, pulling each off with a welcome, relaxed confidence. When asked about it, though, Anjimile looks surprised, as if certain listeners could see through that tone to realize that change in vocals wasn’t as easy as flipping a switch.
“Recording this album was super scary because I was afraid I couldn’t sing anymore,” says Anjimile. “Taking testosterone made it so I had a lot to learn about my voice. Though it took some time, I got comfortable with it. Now I have access to this whole new range of tools and a lower range. That’s cool! Learning it was cool took time, learning how to see it as a possibility. All I had to do was say ‘fuck it’ and see what happens—which is kind of what life is, I guess.”
Listening to Colors, that’s what you can hear: Anjimile learning to explore their new mode of expression and the best ways to achieve that. It’s a record of learning in motion, and though that change was a new feeling at first, it’s become a fun experiment. If Anjimile could conquer this in a three-month window, then there’s a lot left for them to conquer in the coming years as a musician and singer-songwriter—a time period where taking leaps will feel a little more familiar and, with that, a little less scary.
ANJIMILE, JULISSE EMILE. FRI 7.12. INDUSTRY LAB, 288 NORFOLK ST., CAMBRIDGE. 8PM/ALL AGES/$5-10. ANJIMILE.COM