Singer-songwriter Anjimile drapes sobriety in the gossamer sounds of wonder

Anjimile
Courtesy of Kannetha Brown

The gossamer strains of “Giver Taker” take flight with the lead-off track “Your Tree,” a gorgeous, ambient song of reflection and gratitude that colors every song on the artist’s new album.

The Ties That Bind UsThere’s good reason for it, of course: The bulk of the record was written while Anjimile — born Anjimiile Chithambo — was emerging from the fog of addiction, coming into their own as a nonbinary trans folk artist who cut ties with expectations and preconceptions through music, and has emerged into the light of recovery having reclaimed their own voice. Influenced in equal measure by the shimmering beauty of like-minded artists Sufjan Stevens and sounds from Malawi, where their parents were born, “Giver Taker” is a song cycle of experience, strength and hope — little wonder, of course, given that they credit the good fortune that’s followed in the wake of the record’s release to their sobriety.

“This is one of those brought-to-you-by-recovery things,” Chithambo told The Ties That Bind Us recently. “Everything started falling into place perfectly, things that I never imagined could happen, when I decided I wanted to be an artist for real and do it with my heart, and in good faith, and in keeping my recovery first. Because of that, things beyond my wildest dreams have happened.

“This entire thing is because of recovery, because when I woke up in a hospital bed, feeling like shit, I didn’t know what was happening, but I wanted to be alive, and I wanted to be a good person, because I had been a shitty person. That’s what I wanted to do, and music just kind of crept up. The universe was like, ‘Hey, why don’t you do this. Maybe you could help people, because you’re good at this. Maybe you should try it.’”

Try it they have, and the results are more than extraordinary: They’re miraculous. But then, as those who stumble or stagger or fall into recovery discover once they start working toward the principles promised by those who went before, miracles are commonplace. Chithambo, like their peers and predecessors, is the miracle, and the music that stems from their soul is an expression of it.

“I didn’t see any of this coming at all, because this is a gift of sobriety — nothing more and nothing less,” they said.

Anjimile: Their childhood

Courtesy of Kannetha Brown

Chithambo — who alternately identifies as he/him and they/them, depending on the day and the context and the day’s penchant for whimsical mischief (“I think the last one I did … shit, I can’t remember, so let’s go with they/them,” they said) — is clear that the songs on “Giver Taker” are autobiographical ones. However, it’s not your typical “sober” record, because for them, the experience had more to do with personal transformation than simply moving past a problem with substances.

“A lot of it has to do with my getting sober, and the experience of getting sober for me involved developing a newfound sense of spirituality, and I think that permeates the record as a result,” they said. “Growing up in a conservative Christian household, I wasn’t really interested at all in my parents’ religious beliefs. They were conservative Presbyterian, and I remember sitting through two-hour church services having no idea what was going on and being really bored.

“When I got older, as a teen, I decided I didn’t really believe like that, because it never resonated with me. And then 10 years ago, when I came out as a lesbian, they weren’t super-excited about that, and it appeared to me that their prejudices were based on their conservative religious beliefs. Because of that, I was less interested in it more than ever before, because it felt harmful. That’s when I started to identify as atheist or agnostic.”

Their journey toward nonbinary identification — essentially meaning the individual doesn’t identify as a man or a woman — began for Chithambo in childhood as a general sense of apartness, or being shoehorned into an identity that was uncomfortable, they said.

“I just remember, when I was forced to go to church as a kid, my parents would make me wear a dress and dress shoes and tights, and every Sunday, I would just throw a huge fit from ages 4 to 7 because I had to wear this dress,” they said. “It was upsetting enough for me to continually throw a fit every week, because I just didn’t understand why I had to wear a dress. It jut didn’t resonate with me — like, ‘Why do I have to wear a costume to go to this two-hour thing where I don’t even know what’s going on?’”

As they got older, being gendered as exclusively female felt more and more inaccurate, Chithambo said: Wanting blue Hercules shoes from Payless but being told they needed to get pink shoes was confounding, and as the growing awareness of identity blossomed in adolescence, the more they struggled to find their own voice vs. what society expected of them.

Solace was found, however, in music.

“My parents both love music, and they both were always playing music when I was growing up,” Chithambo said. “I also have two older sisters who were in choir when I was growing up, so I was just surrounded by music always. I remember going to my older sister’s choir concerts, seeing these pimply middle schoolers singing traditional choral music, and I thought it was the coolest thing ever. I loved the sounds of vocal harmonies, and I wanted to do that and be just like that.”

Singing became a form of expression, and performance came naturally: Chithambo chuckles at the stories their mother told of how, when it came time for the family babysitter to call it a night and depart, Chithambo would cajole and beg for the sitter to sit for just one more song.

“I was always a kid who loved music,” they said.

Anjimile: The discovery of music and booze

Anjimile

Courtesy of Kannetha Brown

And as they got older, they developed another fondness for drugs and alcohol. By their teens, they were in full-on rebellion mode, listening to the Dead Kennedys and occasionally stealing a can or two of their father’s beer. At first, they just fell asleep, but when experimentation with weed at a friend’s house lit up their brain, everything changed.

“It was with my best friend in high school, and we found her sister’s stash,” Chithambo said. “Obviously, we didn’t do it right, because we were just, like, youthfully smoking weed. My friend didn’t get high, but I got incredibly high. It was like, ‘Whoa, this is awesome.’ I remember having a great time, thinking it was super friend, and a couple of months later, this same friend, her parents used to have these huge backyard block parties every now and then, and so I went to one.

“It was a bunch of adults eating and drinking, with margarita machines and booze, and someone gave me a shot of tequila and lime, and I drank it. I proceeded to get trashed that night. I don’t really remember a lot, just drinking a bunch of different things and then throwing up, and when I woke up the next morning, I thought, ‘Wow, I feel sick — and that was awesome!’ So I started partying on the weekends with my buds, just us drinking Four Lokos and going bowling or some other stupid shit.”

Little did they realize it, but the disease of addiction was off the starting block by that point. There were bright spots, especially when music was concerned: As a teen, they picked up the guitar, eventually giving up on the electric because they couldn’t thrash like Jimi Hendrix right away. An acoustic six-string, however, felt different, especially when they started listening to artists like Bob Dylan and Iron and Wine, which helped them figure out how to fingerpick.

“That really helpful to me as a guitarist, because I never felt comfortable using a guitar pick,” they said. “Fingerpicking was a new way of playing that felt right for me, and I felt I could finally be good at it.”

By that point, however, they were spending more and more time away from home, drinking and smoking weed, and by their senior year, a previously unblemished academic record was becoming tarnished.

“I used to love school, but that year, I was failing economics, skipping class to go get drunk, and I started stealing my parents’ liquor and just drinking it in the middle of the night,” they said. “I was bringing liquor home from parties and keeping it underneath my bed, and I just thought, ‘What if I was this drunk all the time?,’ since it seemed like I had fun when I was drunk.”

Their folks soon discovered that their liquor cabinet had been depleted, and upon finding Chithambo’s weed paraphernalia, they realized their child had a problem. They sent Chithambo to Christian counseling, which did little, but they also grounded them for the rest of their senior year. Their drinking came to a screeching halt, mostly because they weren’t allowed to leave the house. However, they cast their eyes on anywhere but Texas for college, and once they arrived at Northeastern University in Boston in September 2011, they picked up right where they had left off.

“By October, I had already been hospitalized for alcohol poisoning,” they said. “That freshman year, I remember my roommates being like, ‘Yo, did you drink this entire fifth of whatever?’ And I was like, ‘Obviously! This is college!’ Very immediately, when I got to college, it was not normal to be drinking the way I was drinking. By my second year of college, I was really depressed, smoking a lot of weed, drinking a lot of alcohol, isolating a lot, skipping classes, and I started stealing whatever pills I could find.”

The downward spiral deepens

Courtesy of Kannetha Brown

Around that time, they also changed majors, from English to music, but by that point, their depression was so overwhelming they took a medical leave of absence — which only served to push their drinking over the line into full-blown alcoholism.

“By that point, I was 21, so I could go to the liquor store — and I was always at the liquor store,” they said. “I would go to different liquor stores throughout the day so they wouldn’t think I was an alcoholic. I was an around-the-clock drinker, and there was a lot of denial and a lot of vodka. I would drink from the minute I woke up, and once I started running out of money, I would steal quarters and stuff from my roommates, drink 40 (oz. malt liquor) exclusively, drink until I passed out, then wake up and drink some more. I really lucked out in not being exposed to more drugs, but I would have done them if they were there. They just weren’t.”

Alcohol began interfering with their personal growth as well. Musically, Chithambo had begun dipping their toes in the Boston scene, but they were always “more or less insanely drunk,” they said.

“I would just be really drunk,” they said. “My band would say, ‘How did you get this drunk! We’ve only been here 2 minutes!’ But I had been drinking since that morning. I was always shit-faced.”

At 17, Chithambo came out as gay to their parents, who were upset — but in high school, they became the “cool queer person” who had a mohawk and became something of a celebrity in their Texas high school for flaunting convention.

“I was a very confident, older teenager, and I think because it was 2011, my queerness was never an issue with anybody except for my parents and my immediate family,” they said. “I just thought I was fucking cool, and I think because I thought I was cool, everybody else did — and then my confidence was boosted when I started drinking. My senior year, I had a girlfriend, and we would just walk down the hallway being cool together, and nobody gave us any shit. And because of my hubris, I wasn’t afraid. Maybe I should have been, but I was pretty defiant.”

Their gender identity — or lack thereof, to be more precise — was something they were never able to articulate, however, until they got to Northeastern. There, an embracing queer community taught them what nonbinary really meant. Two friends helped them understand that identifying as nonbinary wasn’t as much as the declaration of a new identity as it was the discovery of something that was there all along:

“Imagine going to the grocery store and getting your favorite fruit every week,” they said. “It’s delicious, you love it, and you eat it all the time. And then you come home with it one day and say, ‘Man, I love this fruit. This is the best,’ and somebody finally says, ‘Yeah — that’s called an apple.’ And you’re like, ‘Oh — that’s what this is!’ It was giving a name to something that already existed for me.”

Alcohol, however, complicated all of their relationships. Chithambo freely admits that because of their drinking, they were not a nice or pleasant person to be around, and by 2015, they emotionally dynamited a romantic relationship, the aftereffects peeled back the covers on just how bad their drinking had gotten.

“My close friendships were starting to really suffer as well. My close friends were like, ‘We can’t be around you,’ and I was like, ‘Great. Everybody just leave me alone,’” they said. “2015 was the year all of my friendships kind of disintegrated, and later on I realized it was because I was shitfaced all the time, and I was acting like an asshole all the time.”

Anjimile: Into the light of recovery

Courtesy of Kannetha Brown

That final year of their active addiction was a downward spiral of Sisyphean proportions. They were hospitalized four or five times, they said, many of them after expressing suicidal ideations to friends, who contacted authorities, who carted Chithambo away in an ambulance. After a psychiatric hold would expire, they left the hospital and headed straight for the liquor store.

The last time they drank, the light of sanity had shrank to a pinhole. Chithambo was in a relationship that was on the rocks because of their lying, stealing and drinking, but they asked for help. Their girlfriend told them to call their sister, who is a nurse. Their sibling told them to go to the emergency room, which they did, reluctantly, after banging their head on the door of the cab that arrived to transport them.

“I remember the doctor asking me questions and being really obnoxious and really drunk,” they said. “I woke up the next morning, I had a raging headache, I had a huge welt on my forehead, and I felt like I was going to puke — and then I did a couple of times. I remember thinking, ‘Fuck, I’m in the hospital again,’ and that was the lightbulb moment.

“Except for me, it felt more like a flame that was about to go out. I thought, ‘OK, I think I’m going to die if I don’t do something. I don’t want to die, but I cannot live like this. And so that’s when I was ready to receive help. I was just so dilapidated as a person, I was willing to take any and all help.”

It was January 2016, and Chithambo had received the gift of desperation. At the hospital, doctors recommended them to a psychiatric hospital, and they went. Psych unit administrators recommended a drug and alcohol treatment center, and they went. Rehab counselors recommended another facility in Florida, and they went. The folks at that facility recommended a halfway house, and they balked — but they went anyway.

“I just started saying yes,” Chithambo said. “At that point, I wasn’t resistant to anything. I had had enough, thank God, and I started listening to people who were trying to help me. Along the way, they suggested that spirituality might help, and I just said, ‘That’s fine, whatever,’ because I had given up on my best thinking.

“I was not making good choices, and because the people giving me advice had experience with alcoholism and were trying to help me, I decided I was going to listen, because that was the one thing I hadn’t done yet.”

Once their friends saw that Chithambo was serious about getting better, they immediately returned into their orbit. They drove to the psychiatric hospital to bring them their guitar, and that’s when they started playing again. At the first treatment facility, they wrote a song for a fellow patient, Rachel.

“She was an older woman, one of my fellow addicts/alcoholics, and we got to be good friends,” Chithambo said. “When I wrote a song for her, I don’t remember it feeling like anything in particular — it just felt as natural as breathing. I hadn’t played in a while, but it didn’t feel like there was an absence. But — the moment I started feeling hope again is when I started playing the guitar again.”

Establishing a stable foundation

Anjimile

Courtesy of Kannetha Brown

By the time they got to the halfway house, they had fully immersed themselves in the recovery process — attending 12 Step meetings, working with a sponsor, attending intensive outpatient counseling sessions. When asked to take a drug test, they gratefully agreed — and passed. For 10 months, they lived in a halfway house in Florida, taking recovery suggestions and, as cliché as it sounds, taking things one day at a time.

“I was playing as a thing I loved to do, and the longer I stayed sober, the more songs I started writing,” they said. “I write a lot when I’m healthy, and the healthier I got, the more songs I would write. I started going to meetings and meetings and meetings, and I started feeling like joy again. I started engaging in my 12 Step program, and I did whatever my sponsor told me to.

“I didn’t always understand what was going on, but I always said, ‘I’ll do this, sure!’ My sponsor would say things like, ‘OK, I’m going to take you through the Steps,’ and I was like, ‘OK! I don’t know what that is, but whatever!’ Or she would say, ‘Believe that I believe!,’ and I was like, ‘What? OK!’ I just did what she told me, and I started feeling better, and I started feeling hopeful, and I started feeling the presence of spirituality in my life, because I could feel the spirit in myself.

“That flame that was flickering in the hospital bed was starting to burn brightly again, and I remember thinking, ‘Holy shit, I’m alive and I’m feeling alive — I’m feeling joy and anxiety and regret and anger and fear!’” they added.

And through their recovery program, their IOP sessions and their halfway house, they continued to stay sober — and although they didn’t know it at the time, put together the skeletal framework of “Giver Taker.” The year before they got sober, they released — as Anjimile (pronounced ann-JIM-uh-lee) “Human Nature,” which garnered a mention by the Boston Globe, among other publications. “Good Boy” and “Colors” followed, mostly lo-fi affairs while they worked through emotions with the assistance of program and sponsor.

“I wrote because I felt feelings, and I had no intention of making a record or anything,” they said. “I was in a halfway house for 10 months, and then I worked at a halfway house for one month, and the whole time, I was thinking I wanted to return to school eventually, return from my medical leave of absence and finish school at Northeastern.”

In the spring of 2017, they returned to Boston for the spring semester at Northeastern, slowly and methodically dipping their toes back into the Beantown music scene while they worked at Chipotle — “my ‘get well job,’” they said with a laugh.

“While I would be washing dishes in the back, listening to my favorite music, I would think, ‘What if I could make music again? That would be cool. But I’m also really happy, and I’m not trying to make myself go crazy or relapse or put myself  in a bad environment,’” they said. “As I started navigating music spaces and spaces with alcohol, I also started working with a new sponsor, and I talked to her about that. I was just trying to safely engage, and I started trying to figure it out with her help and meetings and starting the Steps again.”

Anjimile: Now a 'Giver,' no longer a 'Taker'

Courtesy of Kannetha Brown

In 2018, a gig at O’Briens Pub in Boston led to a friendship with another musician on the bill — Justine Bowe (of the band Photocomfort). Not only did they become musical partners, with Bowe joining Chithambo’s band, they struck up a close friendship. It was Bowe, in fact, who provided the nudge Chithambo needed.

“She was like, ‘Your music is really good. Are you interested in a music career?’” Chithambo said. “I said, ‘I think I am!,’ and she said, ‘OK. Here’s what we’re going to do to make this happen.”

First, they wanted to tour. But they also wanted to do that on the strength of a high-quality album that wasn’t recorded on a Chromebook. But they needed money to do so — which came in the form of a $15,000 Live Arts Boston grant, followed by another $15,000 grant.

“In the year 2019, I graduated college, I got two $15,000 grants, I started recording a full-length album that’s high-quality for the first time, and I did it with Justine and our friend, Gabe Goodman, who became the producers of this record,” they said. “We met up once a month, for a year almost, and we recorded this album of songs I wrote, most of which I wrote in recovery — some of which are a little newer, some of which are a little older.”

The trio reached out to Father Daughter Records on Twitter, of all places, to ask for advice on distribution and marketing. The plan was to independently release “Giver Taker,” but the label so loved the record that in November 2019, as the perfect capper to a whirlwind year, Anjimile signed a contract with Father Daughter Records, which put out “Giver Taker” last month.

Since then, Chithambo has gotten a shout out in Rolling Stone, been featured on NPR and landed a positive review on the standard bearer of indie music website, Pitchfork. All of it — every single triumph and accolade, they said — is growth that can be traced back to seeds planted in recovery.

Is it any wonder, then, that they have no compunctions, no reservations at all, shouting that from the great heights to which their music has taken them?

“When I first started working with Father Daughter, they gave me a rough draft of the press release for that album and were like, ‘OK, you don’t have to put that you’re sober or in recovery. You don’t have to say anything you don’t want to talk about,’” they said. “But here’s the thing: I love talking about recovery. I feel really comfortable talking about that stuff, because it gives us an opportunity to tell our story 101 times, as long as we maintain the work we do to stay sober, and stay sane. I love talking about it, because I love what it’s done for me.”

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