Photos by Kannetha Brown
If you’re very lucky, it might happen once a year. The moment you press play on a piece of music that exists in perfect singularity, so heavenly it robs you of speech, demarrows your bones, hollows your body, leaves you overflowing with song.
Giver Taker, the debut album from Boston-based musician Anjmile, is music that falls in that category. A work so beautiful and reverential, it moves you to feel awe, not only towards the music, but towards the universe it reflects and folds into song. “Nothing dies,” he sings on the album’s opener “Your Tree,” a song about the life that grows underground after someone has passed. The lessons Anjmile arrives at on this album, others may not experience until their dying moment. Which is just as well.
The story of Anjimile’s Giver Taker began just over five years ago, on a hospital bed. “I’d just woken up, after being treated for alcohol poisoning for the third or fourth time that year, and thought, this actually fucking sucks,” he says on a call from his partner’s house in Massachussettes. “I wasn’t ready to stop until I was ready to stop. Then, thankfully, I hit rock bottom.”
Born in Princeton, West Virginia in 1993, to parents who’d emigrated from Malawi in the 1980s, Anjimile spent most of his “boilerplate suburban” youth attending the music-less Presbyterian church each Sunday, (“had there been any music there, I probably would’ve grown up to be a pastor,” he says). He got his musical education from home, where songs by Shania Twain, Michael Jackson, Cyndia Lauper would play on a ceaseless loop, as his sisters practiced for their singing recitals, and his dad sang over the dishes. “My dad has a beautiful singing voice, smooth and rich,” he says. Do you sound anything like him? I ask. “I haven’t really thought about it, but I’d like to think so. Especially now with the testosterone deep in my voice. He’s inspired my voice a lot.”
A self-described “fuckboy skater,” teenage Anjimile developed his own music taste from Tony Hawk soundtracks and skating message boards. “I would download stuff on Limewire, and from twelve to seventeen I would go on this messageboard called ‘Skateboard City’.” While the board helped him perfect his olly after several painstaking years, its music section also introduced him to the punk ‘real’ enough to be sanctimonious about. “I got into Dead Kennedys, thinking I was in the Misfits, like I was some hardcore punk. I was fucking thirteen years old.”
He eventually leaned into music on the more tender side during one evening-long scroll, when he found a user with “a really pretty picture” for an avatar. Soon discovering that it was the artwork for Sufjan Stevens’ album Illinois, Anjimile listened to the record, and exclaimed: “Holy shit.” Listening to Giver Taker, whose most obvious influence is Seven Swans-era Sufjan, it comes as no surprise that Anjimile has been a huge fan since.
Today, he talks in tender-cowboy-internet talk. He opens with a “howdy”; he refers to other people as “folk”; you can practically hear the asterisk when he says the word “heck.” It seems a far cry from the teenager he used to be, the teenager he characterizes himself as. “I was just busy doing my teenage fuckboy thing,” he says, describing his seventeen year-old self. “I had just come out a couple years before to my friend, and I just thought I was hot shit. I was smoking weed and drinking alcohol, and I was like, well, guess I’m the coolest motherfucker who ever lived. I was an asshole.”
In the years leading up to rock bottom on the hospital bed, Anjimile was severely depressed, suicidal, in an emotional stasis. The alcoholism had turned from denial into resignation. A counteragent to getting help. “I was like, well, I guess I’m just gonna be an alcoholic now, and everyone can fuck off.”
The only reason that changed, he says, was “by the grace of the universe.” Waking up that morning on the hospital bed Anjimile felt, for the first time in a long time, grateful to have woken up at all. “At that point, I thought, I’m going to listen to the doctors. I’m going to start listening to the people who are trying to help me.” Giddy with survival, he left the hospital bed that day with an incentive to live each day as an opportunity to improve; to become the most compassionate version of myself. “You know that Weeknd lyric where he’s like, ‘when I’m fucked up, that’s the real me?’ I realized that yeah, when I was drinking, that was the real me. It was just the worst possible version of me.” He got sober.
Anjimile’s recovery has been largely focused on reconciling his past; taking stock of his actions when under the influence of addiction, and taking accountability for harmful behaviors. “Obviously, I very much value my life and pray that it continues, but before I got sober, I thought if I die now, the story of my life would be, well, that they were an asshole.” If he were to go now, at least they could say that Anjimile tried his best. “Not that I want to die on that, but I’d like to think that’s something that would make my soul feel restful.”
Giver Taker isn’t just Anjimile’s redemption—it’s his reckoning. On “Baby No More,” he calls himself the “King of Heartbreak”, as he tells the woman he leaves behind that he just “doesn’t know good loving.” It’s a song that gives him space to acknowledge his power and capacity for harm. Moving on from his past “fuckboy self” has been core to his survival. It’s his incentive to improve, and therefore, his motivation to live. “It was quite helpful to have that experience and to just be that immature,” he says, “because now as I grow older, I’m growing in maturity and compassion and experience, and that’s really nice.”
After leaving the hospital bed, Anjimile spent some time working with a fellow alcoholic, who helped him to look at his behaviour objectively. They’d leaf through past scenarios together. “Yeah, that was fucked up with you,” his sponsor would say. “Can you tell me why that was fucked up?” That’s the first step, Anjimile says, “admitting that you fucked up.”
While most of the songs on Giver Taker were written from “the other side,” the album’s first single “Maker” existed several months before rock bottom. Looking back on it, Anjimile sees it as prophecy. Written at a time when he had just discovered the terms ‘nonbinary’ and ‘genderqueer’, the song is an example of Anjimile’s truth singing back to him. Now that he identifies as transmasc, the song’s literalism astounds him. “I’m not a boy, I’m a man,” he sings with nascent glory.
Anjimile describes his songwriting process as “spiritual.” It’s as quick and intuitive as he can make it. He’ll hum out a melody, surrender himself to the sound, and let it carry him into a trance like debris on a river. “I record it several times, until words that aren’t gibberish start to form.” Now, he feels unable to write anything that feels untrue to him. “I have tried in the past to write narratives wherein I was the victim of something, and it just didn’t feel right, because I recognised that deep down, it just wasn’t true.”
Almost two years ago, at the recommendation of his friend and fellow musician Sir Babygirl, Anjimile sent Giver Taker to Tyler Andere, the A&R of beloved San Francisco label Father/Daughter Records. “We sent him some songs, saying that they were unmixed. They were not unmixed, laughs. And he was like, ‘wow, this is great,’ and we were like [Mr Burns voice] ‘excellent.’”
Now that the album’s been sent out to music journalists, he’s received a lot of quick validation. “It’s been so much more than i could have ever imagined, in terms of people actually enjoying it. I don’t know how to feel about that besides feeling shocked in a good way.” During this liminal period, in which his album has only just begun to peak out into the world, Anjimile’s insistent on separating his music from his personal life. He’s used to existing alongside a public version of himself, having created a consumable social media Anjimile, which he’s used to promote himself in the local Boston scene. “When I was younger and starting out, I was like, ‘music is my life’. But now, I think, my life is my life and music’s just a part of it.”
Although he’ll be releasing his debut before he’s even turned thirty, Anjimile feels old. “My young invincibility has given way to the understanding that I will absolutely die, and I can kind of feel it. Especially when I see Black death in the media. It does take life out of me slowly.”
But Anjimile’s not fearful of death. He’s already experienced it, several times. “One time I was with my friend and her kid, and they just looked me dead in the eyes and said: ‘Did you ever die?,’ and I was like, holy shit, dude. I don’t know. I…don’t…know. It struck me as very deep. Like, maybe I did.”
In his life, Anjimile has already experienced many cycles of death. “The death of past relationships, the death of past relationship dynamics, the death of my life as an active alcoholic. It seems that death is looming, but not in a way that bums me out.” How could it? Wherever there’s death, life is always nearby. Even if it is just growing underground.