This story is part of The ARTery’s ongoing Sound On series highlighting rising local musicians.
In 2016, the Boston-based singer-songwriter Anjimile self-released an album on Bandcamp called “Good Boy.” Written during a stint in rehab and recorded entirely on the musician’s smart phone, “Good Boy” is a quiet, enveloping thing. A slim seven tracks long, there’s really not much to it — a little acoustic guitar, some layered vocals, a melody you can’t get out of your head. Some of the lyrics are melancholy. “I wanted to die/ I wanted to try to die,” Anjimile sings over a lopsided riff on a track called “Golden Hands.” Like the other songs on that album, “Golden Hands” isn’t so much about sadness as transcendence. Lines about death and dying morph into a desire for communion with a higher power: “I wanted to love/ Your heavenly heart above.” In Anjimile’s language, yearning is a kind of rapture.
“I used to use [music] almost explicitly as therapy,” Anjimile told me recently. The musician, who is transgender and uses the pronouns “they” and “them,” sat on a brown loveseat in the Roxbury apartment they share with several roommates. Half the couch was taken up by one of those giant teddy bears you can theoretically win at carnivals by throwing darts at balloons. Anjimile leaned against the bear — Bear Bear, it’s called — and spoke with thoughtful deliberation. “When I was 18, 19, 20, music was my primary therapeutic source, and now it’s like — actual therapy is my primary therapeutic source.”
Anjimile is now 25. In July they released another self-made, seven-track collection of songs to Bandcamp, titled “Colors” — their third album in three years. Anjimile wrote and and recorded “Colors” at Industry Lab, a coworking space in Cambridge, during a three-month artist residency this spring. “Colors” — which is organized around the principle that each song correlates to a different color — is more expansive, and a tad more professional-sounding, than “Good Boy.” The songs move faster, boast basslines and drum tracks, and vary in style and tone, from the wry bossa-nova of “Ipswich” to the sticky sensuality of “Pony.”
Lyrically speaking, the songs on "Colors" feel a little more earthbound. Such newfound directness may be thanks to all that therapy. “I am more confident in my writing now because I have a greater understanding of the way that I relate to my own life,” Anjimile says. “Because I can figure out how I feel, just in general, it's easier for me to write that down when the inspiration comes to write a song.”
That’s not to say Anjimile has completely left behind the blurry, lo-fi vibes of “Good Boy.” Back in March, the singer submitted a video of one of their songs from “Good Boy,” “1978,” to NPR Music’s Tiny Desk Contest. Though it didn’t win the national contest, “1978” was selected by WBUR’s own panel of judges from among the Massachusetts entries, earning Anjimile a slot at WERS’ inaugural Wicked Good Festival in August and inclusion in this series. (I assembled and voted on the panel.) “1978” is a delicate song, hushed and murmuring, with a melody that lifts as it lulls. Listeners may notice an indebtedness to Sufjan Stevens, whose soft fingerpicking and exquisite tunefulness have inspired legions of fans, Anjimile among them. “I think he’s the king,” the singer says.
Anjimile’s work has become less Sufjan-esque in recent years, but that superb sense of melody remains. It is a gift that can be traced back to the singer's parents, who raised Anjimile and their siblings on the hook-laden hits of pop stars like Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson and Madonna. “Saturday mornings they would wake us all up and make us breakfast and they would just be blasting really solid ‘80s pop music,” Anjimile recalls.
Anjimile, whose given name is Anjimile Chithambo, grew up in a suburb of Dallas, Texas, the third of four kids. Theirs was a high achieving family, helmed by a doctor father and a computer programmer mother, both of whom emigrated from Malawi in the 1980s and impressed upon their children the importance of a good education. But it was also a musical household. Anjimile’s two older sisters sang in the school choir, so Anjimile, eager to emulate them, learned to sing, too. Anjimile started playing guitar when they were 12. “I was trying to be Jimi Hendrix, to no avail,” the musician says. “I would pick up and put back down the guitar because I would get periodically upset that I was not as good as Jimi Hendrix.” Eventually they discovered indie rock, learned to finger pick and started imitating Sufjan instead of Jimi.
In high school Anjimile became enamored with the writings of Henry David Thoreau and the transcendentalists. They only applied to colleges in the Northeast, ultimately settling on Northeastern University in Boston. But they mainly just wanted to get out of Texas. “[It was] not a super great environment to be a queer person, or honestly a black person,” Anjimile says. “Especially not a queer black person.”
At Northeastern Anjimile started performing at the school’s open mic, and began seriously entertaining the prospect of a career in music. In 2012 they released an EP, “In the Garden,” produced with a fellow Northeastern student named Eric Santagada. In 2015 Anjimile uploaded their first full-length LP to Bandcamp, a collection of shaggy, intimate folk-rock songs called “Human Nature.” The album made the rounds in the local blogosphere and earned Anjimile a nod in the Boston Globe.
“Human Nature” can be playful and droll, but its lightness belies the anxiety coiled at its core. “I was beginning to experience some pretty serious mental health issues,” Anjimile says. “A lot of the songs are about my fear of my mental health and its fragility.”
Things would get worse before they got better. Anjimile left school for two years to enter treatment for alcohol abuse. (They are now back at Northeastern and working on completing their degree.) “Good Boy” was written during a stay at a sober house in Florida. “I think it sounds kind of melancholy,” Anjimile says. “But there’s also, I feel like, a lot of hope imbued in those compositions, and it’s because it was written in an environment where I was actually finally getting better.”
“Colors" is hopeful, too, but in a different way. In 2017 Anjimile started hormone therapy, with the aim of making their appearance more masculine. Over the course of some months, their voice dropped about an octave.
“It was one of the most difficult — in my musical lifetime — the most difficult and stressful experience,” Anjimile says of the transition. “It’s a lot to let go of the tenderness of my higher range, and to trade it for this cavernous well of lower notes and spaces. My voice becomes raspy at some points now — that definitely didn’t use to happen. It’s very bittersweet.”
On “Colors,” you can hear Anjimile venture tentatively into unexplored vocal territory, pushing gently at the contours of their new voice. They also address some of their struggles with gender directly. “Dysphoria is high/ Spirits are low/ What do I know about my own body?” they sing in “Dysphoria.” The title refers to gender dysphoria, or the feeling that one’s body does not match one’s internal sense of gender.
“Dysphoria is something that I experience really intensely sometimes and not so intensely other times,” Anjimile says. “[Writing ‘Dysphoria’] I was thinking of the sea. It’s sometimes calm and mellow and it’s sometimes a typhoon up in there.”
On “Dysphoria,” Anjimile sings bluntly of suffering: “I’ve been trying to love me/ It’s not so easy.” There's still that exquisite sense of yearning, which is present in so much of Anjimile's work. But "Dysphoria," suffused in breathy backing vocals and nudged along by a lyrical guitar lick, is calm, almost blissful. If only for a moment, it's the feeling of having landed somewhere solid.
Editor's Note: This story was part of a series that was formerly called Up Next. We're now calling it Sound On. Check back for more stories like this throughout the year.
This segment aired on August 2, 2018.