We catch up on Kendrick, feminism, working an audience like an instrument and staying sane on long drives.
By Anna Bulbrook
Anna Wise is many things: conservationist, feminist, improviser, songwriter, novelty addict, lover of long drives. She also is in possession of one of the most incredible vocal instruments I’ve heard in a long time. Most people’s voices can achieve a handful of colors, and that’s pretty cool—but Anna has ALL of the crayons in the box. Plus all of the markers, all of the gouache, the oil paints, the colored pencils… You get it. This girl can fucking sing.
While she is best known for collaborating with Kendrick Lamar—she won a GRAMMY for her work on “These Walls”—Anna Wise is an artist to be reckoned with entirely on her own. Her latest album, “The Feminine: Act II,” is an experimental R&B-flavored masterclass on how to use one spectacularly versatile voice to create catchy but meaningful (read: overtly and enjoyably feminist) music. And we haven’t even talked about Anna’s increasingly mature work as the director of her own music videos. We caught up with Anna while she was, obviously, on one of those long drives.
You’ve had projects with other people (Sonnymoon), and you’ve collaborated with some big names (Kendrick Lamar, The Internet). Does it feel different to put music out under your own name?
Definitely, because it’s one hundred percent my soul. And it’s my intention.
Performing just as you—I’m sure you have a different environment around you on-stage. How’s that different on your own?
It’s really fun, because I can incorporate a lot more improvisation, particularly in the order of my set. I generally have a beginning and an ending song, and then within that are all these possibilities of all the songs that I’ve released thus far, a few new ones that have not yet been released, and a few covers.
I can kind of take a hold of my audience energetically, and figure out where I can go… If it’s just straight-ahead “wants the hits” type audience, or if they’re down for me to go deeper down the rabbit hole, and do some more of my ambient stuff, or some more of kind of in-between. It’s an interesting push and pull in that way. And I also have a lot of fun improvising vocally, so I sometimes will sing the songs as they’re written, but most of the time I’m fiddling with rhythm and melody in some way. In that way, I can get really lost in it, and forget that I’m in front of an audience. Which is a great source of joy!
Kind of like playing the audience like an instrument, right?
Yeah! It’s more of a direct, specific conversation with every city and the age groups within those cities… I look a lot of people in the eye and we have this connection, soul-to-soul, for up to fifteen seconds, you know? [Laughs.] And it’s really fun to see who’s going to look away first.
You have a pretty wild vocal range, and I’m not talking about just pitch: I’m talking about tone, color, and how you use diction, and stuff like that. How did you discover that you had this instrument? And how did you develop it?
I think this discovery goes back to being a toddler. I [recently] asked my parents when I started singing. They told me that when I was 2, I was singing whole songs with the lyrics before I was speaking words. I’ve always been obsessed with, afraid of, excited by sound. And I think the different tones and textures that I utilize in my voice reflect an aspect of my personality and my “Anna-ness,” which is that I focus on a lot of things at once. And I enjoy variety in my life in general. I’m a novelty addict.
This new album has some very strong thematic material. Can you talk about your conceptual muse for this body of work?
I think just the feminine energy in general. What that is is still being defined—but I think it’s very fluid, open, receiving. I feel like it’s like the earth, like nature—it’s gorgeous and powerful and if you don’t quite understand it, it can be scary for people.
Kind of in the way that violence, which I consider to be a very “masculine” aspect of our humanity, is rated in movies. It can often occur, like in a children’s film—like in something like The Lion King, where Mustafa is killed. That really affected me as a child, but that’s considered “PG.” But a female orgasm—a feminine orgasm—is an automatic “R” rating.
So, let’s talk about some of the people you’ve worked with, like The Internet! Kendrick Lamar! You actually have Kendrick singing lyrics and melodies that you wrote. And you won a GRAMMY for that with “These Walls.” Did winning a GRAMMY change your life in any way?
It allowed me a larger platform and audience, plain and simple. Something that I’m really interested in is the government, and how it works—who’s workin’ the government. The GRAMMYs gave me the opportunity to visit Congress and lobby for the National Endowment for the Arts, which has been threatened to be eliminated, even though it takes up such a tiny percentage of the tax budget. It was really incredible to team up with the GRAMMYs and my group partner, Mario, who’s an R&B singer. Our group walked around Congress in our best business outfits and spoke with a few different congresspeople. I got to meet Maxine Waters, who was casually in the hall. I ran up to her like a little excited child and told her I loved her! That was pretty awesome.
That’s really rad. So, I know Kendrick reached out to you—but aside from Kendrick, how do you choose collaborators?
First and foremost, the person has to have a good heart, and that just has to be proven over time. That’s the main thing… And of course, it’s subjective to what I deem to be a good heart, but there’s that first. And then who you are as a person leads directly into who you are as an artist. So, it’s really important to me to get to know the people that I might potentially collaborate with, and at this point it’s just really, really, really hard for me to say yes to anything because I’m so spoiled by Kendrick. It’s like if the first bite of food you had was the best bite of food you ever had—you’re gonna wait.
How has “The Feminine: Act II” progressed from “Act I?”
Well, it’s significantly longer. It is less literal and visceral. “The Feminine: Act I” was me experiencing and observing and writing literally about these things I found to be frustrating about being a woman: inequality, slut-shaming, the male gaze, the judgment of what we look like, ageism, and toxic relationships. And those are all very specific and literally attacked, like, head-on. And then “Act II” was me trying to swim in the pool of the feminine, swim in this ocean, and figure out what it exactly means to me. And so some of the songs are a little more ethereal, and less literal, and more about a feeling than a situation.
Do you have any feminist icons, musical or otherwise?
I have a lot! I would say… Rihanna is THE feminist icon to me. She does whatever the fuck she wants. She dresses how she wants. She is, to me, IT. I think she is it for a lot of people. In terms of body positivity: Ashley Graham, she’s incredible. And Solange.
How do you stay sane on long drives?
That’s not hard for me at all. I love long drives! Podcasts, and listening to albums. I have my partner Dane [Orr] with me who produces a lot with me and is my business partner and my best friend. We’ve known each other for eight years so we have a lot of fun together. We used to do 24-hour drives where one of us would sleep while the other drove 12 hours, and then we’d switch. Once you do that, you can really handle anything.
I always think it’s interesting when artists direct their own videos. How do you translate what you’re hearing into a visual world? If you’re, say, contextualizing the music for someone—how do you put that vision together?
I meditate on it, and I listen to the song a lot and see what comes to me, and what ideas happen.
Were you a dancer before your video for “Coconuts?”
No! No. [Laughs.] I love to dance, and I love movement and expressing music through movement. No, I wasn’t a dancer, but that’s something that I’m really interested in exploring.
What is your personal philosophy or approach to style?
For the most part I only buy vintage, second-hand. First, it’s all about sustainability: what’s kind to the earth and to the people who are making the product. And then I hope within that to be stylish!
So: where does Anna Wise want to be in 10 years?
I want to be on my farm, with my solar panels and my garden, and all my rescue animals. And my friends have little cottages—well, either they have little houses on my farm, or they have their own farms close by, and we ride horses to each other’s properties. I have a recording studio there, a film studio, carpentry, pottery. I have a biodiesel/solar-panel/partially-electric RV that I travel in to play shows, and I’m just continuing to put out my own work independently and making a living off of it. And hopefully continuing to make some sort of small difference in the culture.
That’s where I want to be.