“How I feel in music is similar to how I feel life,” anais tells me from amongst the clatter and chatter of a bustling cafe in Notting Hill, “which is that I have a little bit of all these influences – but I often feel like an outsider. I don’t know where I belong.”
Over hot chocolate, the 27-year-old French soul artist of Senegalese origin shares how her career path and upbringing alike, have not been a straight forward. She’s reached our capital via a lifetime of journeying that’s taken in Toulouse, Dublin, Dakar, and the West Coast of the US. “For me it’s about trying to carve out space for myself and understand the dynamic of all these influences, understand their complexities and reconcile their contradictions,” she explains, her American-leaning English accent marked with international inflections that belie the diverse locations she has called home since her childhood, the occasional enunciated ‘t’ pointing to her most recent years in London, much like our earnest preamble chat about the changeable weather. “I’m trying to find my voice and speak my truth.”Having dabbled in music as a child, listening to her mum’s Mary J Blige and Aretha Franklin records and learning the violin in France, she began writing songs on piano in a friend’s bedroom and joined an a cappella group in Oakland before studying at a prestigious NYC music school, the Clive Davis Institute, where she was brought into contact with experimental artists such as Arca. It wasn’t however until a number of serendipitous moments brought her to the UK capital that she got finally got her break and was signed to Virgin EMI: “I’d been hustling for some time and was singing backgrounds for Meg Mac when they asked me to move to England. As I’m French, I didn’t even need a visa. I moved immediately. As soon as I got here, everything just fell into place.” It felt like it where she was, “supposed to be. Historically, this has always been the birth of some of the best music on the world and really special artists have blossomed in here. I think it’s because of the way that people appreciate music in the city. There’s some magical energy here.”
anais set out her stall with stunningly emotive 2018 track Nina, and critically-lauded debut EP, Before Zero, the forerunner to her long-gestating album Zero which she actually completed in 2017. While awaiting its release, however, anais was compelled to write another body of work, in a basement studio in Holland Park with two of her best friends Matt Parad and Luigie Nunez and producer Aston Rudi no less: “I finished Zero then got this burst of inspiration that I wanted to say something else. When I played it for my manager, it was evident this needed to come out first because of the soundscape it occupies. It feels very fresh and current with my state of mind right now.”
Cue project Darkness at Play, released at the beginning of this year after being spruced up by producer Om’Mas Keith, who’s worked with Frank Ocean, Erykah Badu and Jay-Z. While Zero’s focus was more on specific songs, with each one very distinct from the last, the emphasis of Darkness was more “on the overall sound of the album”: “I was a lot more in sync with the influences I had when I was growing up. I really channeled the artists that meant a lot to me, whether Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, stuff from West Africa that I love. There are lots of lush vocal harmonies and I wanted to play with textures. It’s a bit more alternative.” The result is eleven tracks and two interludes of soulful bliss that contrastingly hold something of a political bent, taking as their point of departure the dark forces at work in our contemporary times, whether capitalism or disempowerment, despairing for forthcoming generations in “Oh Man” while also providing glimpses of positivity and resilience in “100 Flowers” and celebrating divine feminity in “Woman.” The final song on Darkness, “Never Been Home”, reflects how London of all places now feels like home, “where I’ve been able to strive artistically, where I’ve felt people have embraced me musically.”Being an incredibly versatile artist who transcends genre – “sometimes I want to make a guitar-based, Radiohead-inspired track, the next day a pop song, the next something with a Maroc-based vibe” – carving out a space for her music has itself always been a challenge: “People want to grasp and understand you immediately, like ‘this is a black girl, she’s in R&B, or soul or funk, that’s it, boom, I get it.’ But it’s like being visual artist, maybe today I want to be in photography, tomorrow I want to use stencils, the next I want to paint.” Resisting being pigeon-holed is frequently a source of frustration: “It’s exhausting but you have to defy it. It’s how the human brain functions. It’s hard for us to see things in their full complexity. But it’s also a bit lazy.” And encouraging people to stop resorting to shortcuts, particularly around the black experience, is something she is determined to achieve: “The narrative for black artists is people try to contain it. When you try to tell a different story, you encounter this resistance from people. But the reality is the diaspora is really large and experiences are incredibly varied among artists.” One category she is comfortable with however is soul, “I don’t mind maybe being identified as a soul artist because I think that is at the root of everything I do, it’s the intention within which I create. I will borrow from lots of influences but in the end it should still be soulful music, that’s at the heart of it.” How about a recent description that suggested she had the voice of Beyoncé with the aesthetic of Solange? “I can’t really be mad at the comparison because I know that it’s meant as a compliment,” she responds with a laugh. “But I don’t like to be compared to them: they are on such high pedastals and I find we end up being pitted against each other. It doesn’t create a space that’s inviting. Though Solange’s Sit at the Table was such an important cultural moment. That’s certainly something I strive for.” Artists who have had a lasting impact such as Sade or able to traverse the political like Lauryn Hill are also reference points, as are current artists such as Frank Ocean and Moses Sumney, who I mention I’d spoken to previously for NR Magazine. “He’s one of the people I’m most inspired by in this current generation of artists.” In particular, the depth and thoughtfulness of his music she sees as a refreshing in our current era and something she searches out in her own material: “I try to test people’s patience because I think we need to relearn how to listen to music. It can’t always be immediate, there’s a journey to it, it’s not just had instant gratification.”
Her goal in future would be, “to have an audience that trusts me and understands that I will deliver something of quality but that doesn’t need me to do the same thing over and over again. Because I don’t find that interesting. After I’ve done something, I want to go and try something different, find a new palette, find some new colours to play with.” Finding her voice is something that pervades her music, her inability to do so having a been a key issue in her past, including falling completely silent for a time when she moved to Dublin with her mum aged 10 and was forced out of her native tongue of French: “I’ve had to spend a lot of my life being an observer, kind of entering a new community being really shy and reserved, not wanting to make too much noise.” Trying to blend in had never been easy, not least she points because, “I’m also super tall, like, I’m gigantic. So no matter where I go I might not want people to talk to me but in reality, it’s like, I’m here.”
Conversely she reflects her experience have afforded her unique insight: “I’ve learned a lot about human nature from experiencing racism in Ireland but also experiencing racism Senegal and experiencing racism in America. Like, how do you understand that.” In the end, she feels grateful: “I feel like I understand what people want at the core. I’m less quick to make judgments because I understand we all want the same thing. The key is figuring out how we can communicate better, create more dialogue and conversation, how we can expose each other to our worlds so we’re not getting in the way of anyone’s right to pursue happiness.”
Her debut single “Nina”, inspired by the one and only Nina Simone, in particular, concentrates on the need to speak up: “Nina Simone was an artist who wasn’t afraid to stand for what she believed in.” On a broader level, it also discusses what inhibits us: “Fear through religion, fear through intimidation here, the ways in which it fear has evolved and become a sort of tool in society today.” The music video, filmed in Senegal with Campbell Addy, forms a kind of visual poetry, with different segments expanding on this theme: “Some of it is very abstract. I like to leave it a little bit open for people to make of it what they want. It represents different ways in which people overcome their fear.” She approached individuals normally marginalised in Senegalese society, including those born with albinism, a woman suffering from mental health issues and man who is unable to be openly gay for fear of persecution: “I saw him dancing at a party in Senegal and he just looked so free. He turned out to be one of the most incredible people I had ever met, so brave and so beautiful. He was like ‘fuck fear, I’m gonna be myself.’ He owns it.”
“Set in Stone” meanwhile is memo to herself to “remain open and not get too stuck in my ideas.” My personal earworm is the addictive “No Control”, destined for the forthcoming Zero, which was written with Years and Years’ Oly Alexander ,who anais became close with after singing backgrounds for them: “We wanted to collaborate together and one day had the opportunity to do a session. That was the first thing we wrote. I mean, literally, in like 10 minutes. He’s still one of my closest friends.” While forthcoming “Lost My Faith,” with a mellow groove and infectious beat explores racialised police brutality.
As our wide-ranging chat about her life, her story, her musical journey and the issues close to her heart draws to a close, I have the strong sense of a woman on the verge of greatness, of the seemingly disparate elements of her identity as a person and as a music artist finally forging a cohesive path forward, of that which had been seen as a burden being transformed into her greatest asset. She certainly holds optimism for her future and that of the wider industry: “We can spend time talking about how the way new models of releasing music are detrimental, how music isn’t the same as it was before. That is true. But we also have a real opportunity to reach more people now. When I was first coming out of the US I thought, ‘if you’re not Rhianna, you’re not successful.’ Then when I came here I realized so many artists thriving on these really niche audiences: Little Dragon, Tame Impala, they’re not the biggest bands in the world but some of the most respected. You don’t have to be a massive pop star.
“So that gives me hope. If I’m making something of quality and I’m authentic about it hopefully I can get it across to people. I’m not looking for an easy route, I’m not really willing to make those compromises. But I am willing to work really hard, to get out there and sing in front of people and convert people into fans one by one if need be. It might take a lot longer than I might want it to. But I’m hoping that somehow, eventually something will stick and I’ll be able to get through to people. I know that it’s something I’m going to fight for, basically, forever.”
Does she think she will ever find where she truly belongs? “Who knows, the tour bus one day might be that place, where I can wake up everyday and do what I love.”