Grammy-Winner Anna Wise on Femininity, Executive Producing, & Other Realms

Featured photos by Juliane McCue

Last week, I sat down with Anna Wise and Sonnymoon band member Dane Orr before their sold-out show at Johnny Brenda’s. Wise is the creative powerhouse behind The Feminine: Act 1, a seven-track EP that combines glimmering pop and R&B sensibilities with lyrics that will make you stop what you’re doing and listen. Frequent Kendrick Lamar-collaborator and Grammy Award winner, Wise gave me a closer look into her solo release, highlighting tour shenanigans, struggles with mental health and of course one thing she is very passionate about: being a woman.

In the green room of Johnny Brenda’s, Anna Wise sat cross-legged in a zen-like trance as I walked in. This is the second time we’ve met and I was greeted me with a warm hug and a friendly smile. Immediately, Wise began telling me about wild stories while touring in California when the band got pulled over by the police. “We had a grinder in the trunk that Dane had boiled and the police dog was going crazy. I had just finished a 13-hour driving shift. I had an hour and a half of sleep wearing pajama bottoms under a short dress. I looked like a fucking freak. The cops were just like “You look like you do drugs, do you have any LSD on you?”

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ROP: Are you originally from LA?

We get that a lot. We lived in LA for about three months. I think it’s just the association with Kendrick, Terrace, Thundercat, Flying Lotus, and Teebs. I grew up in Northern California in a place called Sonoma. I grew up in basically in farm country and wine country where there was a thirty minute drive to the beach. Not like the beach (she says striking a pose). There is a sandy beach but it’s very much like forest around it.

There’s also a really strong community of environmentalists there, so we outlawed styrofoam and plastic bags. There’s places that are protected in perpetuity for infinity. Like it will never stop being protected land. Which is so dope because all people want to do is develop in California. When you go back it’s like “Ah, it’s the same.”

ROP: I know you both were originally in Sonnymoon. What was the birth of Anna Wise?

It was in a van on a Sonnymoon tour in 2012 somewhere in the Midwest, just getting pissed about the way women are treated in general. And I started conceptualizing this record. Originally the whole thing was going to be called “BitchSlut” and then I changed that because it’s not very marketable as an album name. 

Anyway, I just started writing prose about it and then I had this idea. And the whole thing came to me right away. The way it was going to be, different themes, things that I haven’t yet revealed, so I don’t want to go into too much detail. I knew what all that was going to be right then.

ROP: So you had one entire vision that stemmed from prose?

Yeah, I wouldn’t call myself a poet. I feel like that would be insulting to true poets, you know? I would absolutely call myself a Prose-er, I guess. Everything with music and with my lyrics, it’s all very anti-form. If something does end up rhyming, it’s just because that’s what flew out at that moment. I’ve always been a huge truster of ‘the moment,’ and that that is perfect. Where, I know a lot of people will take the seed and then change it. I guess I do that with backgrounds and adding sounds, but the core of the song, the lyrics and melody are always whatever came out in that first moment. So anyway, that album idea came about in 2012. I was like “I’m gunna do this solo Anna Wise thing.” I figured in my head that a feminist album coming from a boy-girl duo wasn’t as strong as something coming from a straight-up woman’s voice. Especially because we get asked all the time, still “Oh, does Dane produce and Anna sing?” or “Dane writes and Anna performs?”

ROP: You executive produced the whole album right?

Yeah, I did. Well, everything is me, all of it. So, I’m telling everyone what to do. I’m calling all the shots in terms of visuals. I edit my own videos, I edit my own songs. I take them away from whoever helped me co-produce it and then I change it even more from that. It’s cool because we just finished the credits to my next music video for the song “Go” and it says “Executive produced by Anna Wise.”

ROP: On my 2016 “List of Things I Want to Do” was to be in a music video. What would be on yours? You’ve already won a grammy, what’s the next milestone for Anna Wise?

I’m working towards buying either a Biodiesel, Electric or Solar bus, or combination of all three. And that’s something I’m super passionate about is being sustainable and not contributing to waste as much as I can. I want to be successfully autonomous. So, continuing to call the shots and do exactly what I want but on a bigger scale.

And I’d say for Anna Wise, when I’m creating and when I’m traveling, I’m happy. I’ve been so happy the past few months. And I’m able to execute my dreams, like the “Go” music video. Doing something like that and having that dream and then meeting Emma the director and her and I being like “Shoop” (magnet sound).

ROP: Was that the first time you guys had worked together?

No, I’ve known her for about a year and a half. We did the “Precious Possession” music video together. Just the two of us, an assistant and the lead actor. And then “Go” was our magnum opus. That was our big thing that we wanted to accomplish. It’s so funny because we read this article the other day about “Music videos can’t be made for less than 40,000 dollars” And we’re just like “we’re about to prove you so wrong.”

ROP: Did you consciously pick to stay independent or did you ever consider becoming a label person?

I’ll take meetings with anyone, you know? Not anyone, but whatever they want to ask me or offer, I’m open to hearing. Yeah, I’m willing to talk to anybody about whatever. It can be obvious right off the bat if it’s wrong. I’m not going to throw anyone under the bus.

ROP: Would you consider yourself impressionistic with your music?

It’s funny you say impressionistic because my favorite favorite musician is Debussy. I listen to him every single day. I’m at this point right now where I’m not listening to any music that has singing. I’m only listening to instrumental music.

I’d say I love Debussy, Phillip Glass a lot. There’s a composer called Jocelyn Pook who did the soundtrack to Eyes Wide Shut. A vocal group that I love called The Roches. I really like Meredith Monk.

ROP: How did you envision The Feminine: Act 1 to be listened to? 

I imagined headphones and girls walking down the street. Like when I’m walking down New York City’s streets and some fucking dudes are making noises at me. I’m in whatever I’m in. And that’s what I wanted to have, something powerful to walk to and have motion with.

ROP: Should we expect an Act II?

Oh yeah, of course. We were just working on it last night.

ROP: Will it be a full album or an EP?

It will be longer than an EP and shorter than an album, like a little mini-album.

ROP: What is your trick to maintaining looseness in the studio? Is it just fearlessness or the openness to be as creative as you want to be?

There is no trick. A little bit of both, but mostly the second.

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ROP: What does The Feminine mean to you?

It’s just a declaration that we are here. Like that theory that if a tree falls in the forest and no one hears it, does it really happen? That’s how I feel with women and other marginalized groups. A lot of times, we’re erased.

ROP: Would you say that you’re giving a voice to those groups?

I can’t say that. I wouldn’t want to say that. I’m a big believer in fate and energies and I believe that what’s coming out of me when I’m singing and when I’m writing is a gift from this other realm, this unseen realm. Kind of like the Upside Down on Stranger Things. Like the Red Room. It’s always been there for me, ever since I was a little girl. That other realm has been opened to me through real awake experiences, but mostly in dreams. I commune with these spirits every day when I’m singing and then every night when I’m dreaming. My singing is like my spirituality, it’s like my meditation. It used to be really scary having sleep paralysis and false awakenings when I was 4 years old and not understanding what that was. Now I have a deeper understanding and I am able to lucid dream and astral project. To have these experiences that I can control now instead of me saying “Fuck, I’m going to sleep now and everything’s going to be fucking weird again.”

ROP: Do dreams influence your music?

I sing about dreams, I get songs in dreams. It’s all there and it’s all connected. Everything we do, every single person we meet, every breath we take is effecting the next and the past. It’s all this big thing.

ROP: Does your music reflect a journey or a particular moment?

Probably both because sometimes something that reflects a moment can later reflect a journey.

ROP: More specifically, when you finish lyrics, can a song reflect a specific point in time for you?

There’s a Sonnymoon song called “Soft Shoulders” that I wrote. I grew up taking anti-depressants and then when I was 19 years old and we started Sonnymoon, I was like “fuck this, I’m not taking any prescriptions.” The pharmaceutical industry is an industry. It’s a corporation. I understand some people have serious chemical imbalances and that needs to be addressed however they can feel okay. For me, I was like “I’m going to figure out how I’m going to be okay without these drugs.” I don’t want to be dependent on something that causes honestly more harm than good most of the time. There are those commercials that are like “Do you have restless leg syndrome after taking this? Do you have suicidal thoughts after taking this? Well now, take this. You might have anal leakage.” So when I stopped doing that [taking prescriptions], I started having intense, intense suicidal thoughts. And I would walk over this overpass every day to get to class at Berkeley and I was just like “What if I just threw myself off this right now? What would happen?”

ROP: I walk over a bridge to get to class everyday and I can relate to that in a very real way. It’s amazing that we can have just an open conversation about mental illness. Was there ever a time when you took on therapy?

Well, I did a few times as a kid. The idea of someone having all my deepest deepest things on a piece of paper in their office, to me, I can’t get over that. I can’t imagine someone having a file on me. And that’s just what keeps me from therapy.

ROP: That’s what makes the government scary.

They totally have a file on all of us. They know every time we’ve looked at porn. They know every time we’ve said something bigoted. Maybe not actively, but they can just tune in. I just think it’s cool you had the same experience.

ROP: I walked over that bridge today.

It’s like a temptation, a “what if.” I think a lot of us, people who are dissatisfied with this reality, are so depressed about it because it’s so backwards. Why can’t we all just love each other, accept each other, love ourselves, love the earth, and take care of the animals. It sounds so idealistic, like it could never happen. But to me, it’s like one little thing went off two thousand years ago when modern religion came into play. And then everyone was like “Patriarchy! We’re going to rape the earth and rape our women. We’re going to shame men if they’re gay and hate other people because they don’t look like me or look like the ideal person!” I’m so sick of all that. I try not to focus on it.

ROP: It’s hard not to. Homophobia and sexism are still so rampant today.

That’s exactly what I was thinking. My background singer is gay and wears the dopest fucking clothes. And we were in Whole Foods in California buying groceries for our cooler. This woman was like staring him down and with a southern accent was like “A shirt like that on a person like you, okay then. I’ve never seen a person like you.” It was just so backwards. But you have to pick and choose your teaching moments.

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Backstage, Anna Wise tosses her water bottle in the trash, it bounces off the rim and falls to the ground with a crash. “That’s my second miss, I just don’t have it today.” But that certainly did not transfer over to the stage when she performed later that night. On stage, Wise thanked local openers Kate Faust and Air Is Human for performing. She joked that her and Kate, who had only just met, were already finishing each other’s sentences backstage.

Wise began her set singing solo songs off The Feminine: Act 1 including singles “BitchSlut” and “Precious Possession.” Her ethereal vocals seemed to invite everyone into her world, taking them on a journey with her into that other realm she spoke of. With nothing more than a MacBook, loop pedal and a glass of red wine, she called all the ladies in the audience to to the front of the stage and made sure she connected with each and every one of them. She ended the Anna Wise set with the single “Go” and made her way into the front row to dance in the audience with her fans.

Eventually the rest of Sonnymoon was brought on stage including Dane Orr on keyboards, guitar and backing vocals along with dancer and backup singer J. Hoard. The second half of the show became more avant-garde and included synchronized tribal dances and other-worldly sounds that are starkly Sonnymoon. At one point, Anna caught my eye in the crowd and said, “this is the song I was talking about,” in which her and the band played a live version of “Soft Shoulders.” It included a haunted interlude done by J. Hoard that echoed something along the lines of Pink Floyd’s “Great Gig in the Sky” in that it was completely vowel sounds, rather than words. The set ended with a spine-tingling live version of “Just Before Dawn.”

I left that night with a “BitchSlut” sticker in hand feeling musically and spiritually rejuvenated. Getting to see the ever-evolving creativity and changing dynamic of such a talented group of individuals will resonate with me long after the band drives back to Brooklyn. Now I play Sonnymoon in my headphones as I walk over the bridge each day to remind myself that someone else felt the same way as me but found hope in music. Whenever I walk past a man sitting on the side of the road ready to cat-call or holler some profanity at me, I know I have Anna there in my pocket to back me up. 

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Check out The Feminine: Act 1 on Bandcamp, Spotify, and iTunes now.

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