Anna Wise released her second EP, The Feminine Act II, earlier this year. The EP combines force and vulnerability in an honest and unabashed examination of womanhood. Wise’s haunting vocals and the record’s equally haunting production make for a project that asserts Wise’s chops as a solo artist. Though some might better know her as the voice featured on over a dozen tracks by Kendrick Lamar, Anna Wise is carving out her own space in the music industry and doing so in a powerful way. Melisma had the opportunity to have a chat with the artist before she takes the stage at The Sinclair this week.
I saw on Twitter that you were just in D.C. for Grammy’s On The Hill. How was that?
It was so cool. I seriously had the best time. I’ve been really interested in politics, growing more and more so especially over the past five years. It answered a lot of questions I had. I got to lobby for the big bills that would help pay music artists and give them their digital and radio royalties. We wanted to make sure that they don’t stop the NEA, which is the National Endowment for the Arts, because Trump has been saying that he wants to cut that, which makes such a tiny fraction of a percentage of our taxes, only 47 cents per American per year. And for those who don’t know, taxes are matched by donation—this is a crazy statistic—9:1. So, it’s so important for us to keep this around. I mean, not to mention that if I hadn’t had the music education in school, I would not be where I am today. So we were talking to different Congress people about supporting these different bills, that being one of them, but there’s four others. I won’t go into all of them. It was also cool because I got to meet Maxine Waters, who is one of my huge, huge heroes. She’s from my home state, California, so that was really cool.
One of the writers for the magazine is working on an article about politics and music, how they’re tied, looking at the reasons fans look to their favorite artists to speak out on certain issues, and whether or not we should, so it’s really cool to see that you’re involved especially in keeping the arts accessible to people.
Thank you. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I feel guilty if I’m not active and this is the biggest opportunity that I’ve had to be active in a way that could actually make change. Every Congress person who I met with agreed to support the five bills we were proposing to them. I used to treat art as an escape, and I still do in a lot of ways, especially when I’m singing live. I definitely go to that place, but as a citizen of our country and of this world, I have to use my privilege and my place in this community to make a difference or else I feel really guilty and bad about myself. I can’t just sit and enjoy the fruits of my labor. I need to be doing more than just even making political music. It feels good to do, and I’m glad that music fans are excited about artists who are that way. Honestly, when I put out “BitchSlut” I was like, “Ok this might be career suicide, but I don’t fucking care. This is what I have to do.”
How is the tour going?
It’s going super, super, super well. I’m definitely building a fan base. My fans are super loving and respectful and receptive to my message and supportive of it. Many of my fans become my friends. There was a girl in the front row of my show in St. Louis, and I met with her for lunch the next day. She runs an organization in St. Louis called “Hands Up,” which was created in response to the Michael Brown murder. We met up and started talking about how I can get involved with her organization, even if that’s just playing a free concert where they charge for the tickets and keep all the money. We haven’t moved beyond that much, but I have fans who are that cool. No one dehumanizes me or treats me like an object. Everyone treats me like a person. Many of my fans become my friends, though. I’m fucking in a great place. I’m really happy about my career and what’s happening.
So you studied at Berklee and you’re coming back to Boston in a little over a week. How does it feel to be coming back to Boston?
It feels good! I love Boston. It’s the most walkable city, you know? You can make that whole loop from Back Bay, Berkley, you can go out to Allston, and make a loop around to Mission Hill and get back to Back Bay. The arboretum is a wonderful place to smoke some weed. Oh, I probably shouldn’t say that.
No, I vibe!
[Laughs] The arboretum is a beautiful place to commune with nature. There aren’t a lot of places like the arboretum in many cities. It’s a very special place.
Boston is a very particular city, I find. It’s very special in its on way. How would you describe being a student musician and pursuing music while being in school?
Good question. I would not describe myself as a good student at all. Every semester, I would start out and I probably did the first two weeks of classes. Then, I would saunter into the first class that I went to, like two weeks in, and try really hard to be involved socially in classes and do the work. But every semester that I tried, by the end, I just wasn’t going to class at all. Even though that’s kind of a waste of money, I made some of the most incredible friendships. I have lifelong friends that I met at Berklee including my partner, Dane Orr, who I create music with. We used to be in a band called Sonnymoon—we still are technically, and we’re eventually going to put out another Sonnymoon project.
Yeah, you know now it can be as avant0garde as it wants to be because Anna Wise is a pop vehicle. We’re trying to make it a pop vehicle, and it still comes out like “aaah!” and crazy weird, but I’m trying to write that pop hit. But with Sonnymoon, we can get as avant garde and weird as we want, so that’s gonna be really interesting to see how deep we can go when we come back to it especially after flexing our pop muscles.
A lot of artists that I listen to and enjoy make music that’s hard to pigeonhole into one kind of genre. So it’s interesting that you talk about Anna Wise as pop because I hear so many influences and vibes in the music.
Totally. It’s like an attempt at pop.
I’ve read it described as “post dubstep,” which I don’t know if I really understand…
I don’t either. [Laughs]
…but I definitely hear some funk on there, especially on your most recent record, and definitely some witchy, indie pop stuff going on there. How would you describe your sound?
It’s still experimental, and I just can’t help it. I really can’t. I try to hone it in, and things just creep in because that’s just where my heart is. And even though my head’s like, “C’mon, Anna, focus. Focus. Like four on the floor. Like three chords.” I’m still bringing in these weirdo things and working with people who are so incredibly talented and are artists themselves, people like Mind Design who produced “Some Mistakes” and M. Constant who produced “Precious Possession” on the first EP and “Balance In All” and “Free From the Normal” on the second EP. So, I would describe it as electronic, experimental, R&B, folk, soul, funk, sometimes screamo music, I guess.
I also feel like you create this soundscape that’s very dreamlike and otherworldly. I know that you describe performing live as being in a trance. Do you feel like that comes out in your music at all or would you say there’s a more specific place that you’re writing from and creating from?
Oh, yeah I always call it “The Dream Place” for sure. A good night for me is when I sleep for 12 hours. I am a dreamer. I’m talking every night I’m having some crazy dream. A lot of the time, I’m able to be lucid or astral project. I’ve gone to Saturn in my dreams. I’ve been able to fly in my dreams and I would get to the tippy top of Earth’s atmosphere and get really scared and come back down. Sometimes it still happens where I’m like “I can’t go out there! I can’t! I can’t!” Other times I make it to the moon and one time I made it to Saturn. And I was like, “I fucking did it!”
Dreams are the main inspiration for my songs. I feel as though I’m receiving downloads from another dimension when I dream. I believe that there are other dimensions where our other selves are living. Sometimes in a dream I look at myself in the mirror and I’m still myself but I look completely different and I have a theory that I’m inhabiting my other self in a dream.
In branching out and creating a project that’s your own, do you encounter people who have trouble thinking of you and your music and your art outside of what you’ve done with Kendrick Lamar?
Definitely. I do, but it doesn’t really bother me because that has been more of a door than anything else. It’s gotten me into rooms that I would never be in. Although I’m perfectly qualified in terms of my talent and soul and artistry to be in those rooms, sometimes it takes that extra little thing. Honestly, I don’t consider it a bother at all.
Definitely. Also, I saw Thundercat a few weeks ago, and my mind got absolutely shredded because he’s incredible.
The whole dream thing is something that I definitely felt in his music too. What was your experience working with him like?
When I tell you I love this man, I love this man. He’s one of my favorite people on the whole planet. He is so funny and easygoing and sweet and fun. Anything embarrassing, I will do in front of him. I don’t care. The first time we came to work with Kendrick, we happened to be adjacent to the studio where they recorded part of Rumours. We went up to the studio and up to Stevie Nicks’ special vocal booth and we both—this is going to sound so crazy—we decided to fart in there. We went to opposite corners of the studio and then we farted. He makes me feel compelled in a beautiful way to be as weird as I want to be.
Let’s talk about your music a little bit more. What would you say are the sonic bridges between the two pieces?
The main connector is my voice. I love twinkly synth and bare drums—[laughs] as we talked about earlier—heavy beats, deep bass. “Stuff on Fire” is a song that I produced that was fun to make with that rolling bass line that feels to me like a wave. I like dense vocal harmonies and then points of pure one voice with no effects on it. Guitars and saxophone often make an appearance on both EPs. That’s because Dane Orr plays saxophone and guitar and so he will bring those in and play them, and I go in and edit his takes and take my favorite little things. This is kind of a funny trail, but he’s a feminist without saying he’s a feminist. He is so all about enabling me to make my own decisions and allowing me the space to do so. I guess in a way, I’ve trained him to be the way. Even with video editing, I went into it without having any experience and I started editing and directing Sonnymoon videos, and over time I got pretty dang good at it. You have to have the opportunity to do it and not just have someone who’s always going to jump in.
That’s super beautiful and rad to hear, especially since your music is about celebrating womanhood and empowering women. To hear that you have such a huge role in producing the music is awesome.
Absolutely. I wouldn’t have it any other way. If someone tries to encroach on that, I just fire them immediately. Or I finish out the day. I worked with someone who was shooting some footage for me, and at the end of the day, I was just like, “I’m never calling that person again and I’m actually not going to use their footage.” It’s not about burning bridges, but in terms of working with people, especially men, they only get one chance.
Lyrically, can you talk about your writing process a little bit and creative process?
I have 5,000 notes on my phone and just as many voice memos. I have tons of notebooks, but I’ve kind of moved away from that because I’m terrified of losing them. I mostly work digitally and I record. I have pretty much no shame. So I’ll be in line at the grocery store and I get an idea, so I just open up my phone and sing it into my voice memo because losing the idea is so much worse than someone turning around and looking at me. Honestly, most of the time, but if I sing in the grocery store or anywhere, someone near me will just start singing something else.
It’s such an interesting phenomenon. I don’t know why it happens to me.
Just like making up their own thing? Or singing another song?
Another song! It’s so weird.
That’s so weird.
I don’t understand why, but I’m excited. I definitely feel like the type of person who’s very extroverted (I mean I definitely have my introverted moments as of everyone does, and I do like to recharge. I feel more balanced in that way, especially in my later twenties), but I do…I fucking forgot what I was going to say.
No, but it’s cool that you get to connect in that way with strangers in a grocery store and connect musically.
Oh, that’s what I was going to say! I’ve noted over the course of my life that I am the kind of person that other people feel comfortable being themselves around. That is a gift—it’s a gift to me and it’s a gift to them. I guess that’s why people are doing it. My being unafraid to sing helps other people be unafraid to sing. And that’s kind of the reason behind my unabashed feminism and everything.
Is there anything you do outside of music that contributes to your musicality?
Hell, yeah! Literally everything. Every single thing. I don’t know if that’s the right use of literally, but…I love to read. I read like books at time. There’s usually a rotating cast of two dense, informational books and then one fiction book. So reading, spending time with friends, going into nature, hanging out with trees, hanging out with animals, and I used to babysit to supplement my income, and that was a huge source of income. That was a huge source of inspiration and I miss it a lot. I miss the kid that I used to babysit. I sang with him everyday and we would just make up songs. We have a song, “Tapes.” The song just goes: “Tapes.”
[Laughs] That’s amazing!
That’s it! I love him and just hanging out with children and being out. I get overwhelmed visually and with audio. I feel a lot all of the time. I feel like an overwhelming wellspring of inspiration that I’m receiving just by living.