Anjimile Chithambo knows what it takes to heal. Over the last few years, the 27-year-old Richardson-raised musician has reckoned with addiction, spirituality, and his gender identity—and made it to the other side. Those journeys, and their conclusions, are laid bare in his debut indie-folk album Giver Taker, one of the best and most buzzed–about releases of the year.
The album is stunning: a master course in tenderness and emotional growth, with influences ranging from Sufjan Stevens to Oliver Mtudukudzi to William Shakespeare. Giver Taker was released in September under Father/Daughter records.
Chithambo, who makes music under the name Anjimile, spoke with the Observer about getting sober, John Steinbeck, and leaving (and loving) Texas.
Texas Observer: Tell me a little bit about growing up in Texas.
Anjimile: I grew up in the suburbs of Dallas, in Richardson. It’s a pretty chill upper middle class suburb. My dad is a doctor, my mom is a computer programmer, so my family is very science-oriented. Very grades- and school-oriented. My parents are first generation immigrants from Malawi. They came to the U.S. in the ’80s, so they were like, ‘You need to go to school and make A’s.’ So that was what me and my siblings did.
They also loved music, and they used to play music around the house all the time. All of my siblings are musicians. They’re not professional musicians, but they all sing and or play instruments. So when I was 10 I joined the Plano children’s chorus and I was kind of off to the races as a lover of choir. I think my huge love of choir has definitely influenced my sound in terms of my love of vocal harmonies. And then I was like, ‘Let’s leave Texas.’ I didn’t really love it there. Dallas is pretty conservative, and I’m pretty gay, so it was uncomfortable growing up there. So I left as soon as I could.
What was it like moving to Boston after growing up in Richardson?
It was super exciting. I found a vibrant queer community. And I expected to find a progressive community, but Boston’s not that progressive, so it was interesting to see the ways in which the North is and is not as progressive as it may profess to be, just in terms of how segregated the city of Boston is—mostly just how white and segregated Boston is. But I was really, really excited to be able to be a queer human in a comfortable way. So, yeah, I was pumped.
What music, literature, etc., influenced Giver Taker?
I love Sufjan Stevens, probably to my detriment. He’s a big influence. Oliver Mtukudzi, a really sick Zimbabwean musician—may he rest in peace—he’s incredible, and his guitar playing is incredible. His singing is so soulful. He’s a huge influence. And then shit like Iron and Wine, Solange, D’Angelo. Also Madonna a little bit, because I fucking love Madonna. My parents, when I grew up, would play ’80s pop, so that as well. Also Moses Sumney, who I love to death.
This is kind of nerdy, but definitely Shakespeare. I used to just love Shakespeare in high school. There’s a Shakespeare quote in one of the tunes called Ndimakukonda, towards the end there, from one of his mushy little love sonnets. And then I think another literary influence on this album is John Steinbeck. When I was in high school we read East of Eden, and there was an overarching theme of the value of free will and the ability of a human to engage in free will or become lost in the cycle of intergenerational trauma. I think that influenced a lot of my perspective in general, and also my perspective for songwriting on this record.
The album deals a lot with shame and healing. What was your approach to both of those things?
The core of the record was written while I was in treatment for alcoholism and just getting sober for the first time. A cornerstone of the cycle of addiction is shame and the ability of shame to take over one’s mental faculties and become an obsession. In the past, shame fed into my cycle of addiction and was a huge part of my life. When I got sober, I began to recognize the value of shame and deconstruct it.
And I started to understand the value of guilt as something to move towards, away from shame. Which sounds kind of weird, but it was basically just me realizing that shame is like, ‘I am a shitty person,’ whereas guilt is like, ‘I did a shitty thing.’ And I needed to recognize that I was doing shitty things, and that my belief that I was a shitty person was also more or less a cop-out absolving me of my shitty behavior. And so reckoning with shame resulted in accountability for my actions, which subsequently resulted in the beginning of my healing process.
How did it feel to move through that in the album itself?
The recording process was definitely more emotional than I was expecting. Some of these songs are a couple of years old, but once we started recording them I was like, ‘OK, these experiences are still alive, I’m just at a different stage of working through them.’ And that was nice, to recognize that healing is more circular than a diagonal pyramid up to the top—like, ‘HEALED!’
I think if anything, recording the album made me very aware of that.
You’re kind of blowing up right now. How does it feel, especially being so young?
It feels surreal. It’s just not something I was ever expecting, so it feels completely surreal.
When I got sober, I also began to develop a newfound sense of spirituality. Folks in my treatment center described it as like surviving a shipwreck and then getting on your knees and praying to god that you survived the shipwreck. It’s kind of like that, where I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m still alive, I can’t believe this. I think that the universe might be trying to help me out with this one.’ Because I could have slash should have died multiple times over the past couple of years.
This newfound sense of spirituality coincided with my reckoning with my gender identity. Ten years ago I identified as a lesbian, and then five years ago I learned about nonbinary and the concept of gender as a social construct. I started expanding my community and idea of what queer meant, and discovered the ‘T’ in LGBT and began to slowly recognize that that resonated with me.
I kind of just realized, in the same way that my spirituality is personal to me and does not apply to anybody else—I’m like basically a hippie; like, I have fucking crystals and shit—like the same way that applies to and resonates with me, so does my gender identity and sexuality. And it’s not something that I need validation for. That realization was important for me as a human and as a queer person, to no longer feel the need to explain myself. I now explain my gender identity and sexuality by choice and out of a desire to, and not out of a feeling of obligation. That’s totally different than it was before.
So coming into this and accepting this integral part of my identity fueled my sense of freedom and, thusly, my spiritual life. And that’s just continued to be the case over the last couple years.
How do you feel about Texas now, years later?
I love Texas. I love New Englanders, but they can also seriously eat shit. They’re such assholes. And that is on the record. It’s nice to go back to Texas and just relax, and have people say ‘Howdy.’ And although Texas is racist and sexist and transphobic and all of these things, it is at least… forthright. Which doesn’t make it a good thing necessarily, but New England, for example, is incredibly racist and kind of incapable of reckoning with that history and present reality. I think at least down South it’s like, ‘Yeah, that’s a thing.’ Anyway, I’ve got mad love for Texas.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
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