It’s a long way from Hawaii to New York, and Anjani Thomas’ journey was not the most direct. “It’s a contorted story”, she says laughing. It was a journey which has led her from being a struggling musician in a local band while attending high school in Honolulu to the Big Apple and performing with internationally acclaimed master, Leonard Cohen. More than that, with two albums to her credit, she is now establishing herself as a powerful songwriter and solo performer in her own right. But back to those early days when the journey began.
Like many Hawaiians, she comes from a musical family: “Everyone sings, though no one’s a professional musician.” But music was constantly around her and was inextricably part of her life. “I started as a very tiny girl singing.” And her first instrument? “Probably ukulele; and then guitar; and then piano. I started hula dancing when I was about seven years old.” Public performing started with a high school soul band which would play almost every weekend at proms, dances, military bases, wherever gigs turned up.
Graduating a year early, she soon found herself on the road. “It was some crazy Hawaiian show in Canada—Edmonton and Calgary. I was young and it was a fun thing to do. I was playing keyboards and singing and actually dancing a little bit of hula as well.” Then came the night club scene in places like Waikiki as she gradually honed in on the direction she wanted to follow.
“I grew up on a lot of R&B and soul, Stevie Wonder, Millie Ripperton, kind of more obscure singers as well. And then by the time I got into high school, I was pretty much into jazz. I listened to a lot of Chick Corea ... I also listened to quiet things, James Taylor, Carole King. But I really went through a pretty heavy and severe jazz phase for a good part of my life. The problem with that was that I altered my voice a lot to sing. It was a sort of blue-eyed soul slant, but it wasn’t really my voice. I couldn’t (reconcile) what I was hearing in my head with my voice, which has a clearer, folkier, pure sound. It doesn’t lend itself that well to that kind of material. It was hard for me to convincingly sing a blues tune, you know, the old jazz standards. I don’t have the grit; it’s something not that quite right. But as I grew older, I had a better acceptance of myself, and who I was and then different songs began to emerge.”
As part of that understanding process, Thomas moved to Boston to take up jazz studies at Berklee School of Music. A year later, realizing she was heading in the wrong direction, her academic studies came to a premature end and she eventually wound up in New York City. The attraction of the big city, however, was lateral rather than logical from a musical point of view: “There were a couple of moves in between, but I ended up in New York. (It wasn’t music that drew me there). It was a man. I never would have gone there otherwise, I don’t think.” But sometimes things work out with unexpected results. One romantic avenue closed and an unrelated musical opening occurred with the appearance of John Lissauer, who among other things was Leonard Cohen’s producer at the time.
“John was a really great and wonderful man.” Along with album production, he was also responsible for producing jingles; and it was at one such session, the two met. “After he heard me, he hired me for a session on Leonard’s record and he offered me the job of keyboardist for (a Cohen) tour.” She has since recorded with Cohen as backup singer and the Canadian writer and musician has also become a friend and mentor, encouraging her to express herself as a writer and musician in her own right.
In 2000, she released a solo album, Anjani. “I’d wanted to make a record ever since I was a kid and it didn’t look like it was going to happen unless I did it on my own.” She fulfilled the ambition using the proceeds from selling her house. The result is a stunning debut CD featuring a dozen songs written or co-written by her which bring together traces of the many musical influences that have touched her over the years. It defies labeling as it presents elements of jazz, blues, Hawaiian slack key, pop, world music and more. Lyrically, songs cover such subjects as friendship, love (lost, won and pined for), social concerns (homelessness), and political/spiritual matters (military occupation and desecration of the land). It is a flowing album that envelopes and hypnotizes.
“It’s a real quiet, quiet thing,” she says. “It doesn’t stir the blood, but it stirs the heart.”
The songs are personal, yet relevant to others as well: “(They’re) all written from personal experience.”
She has a strong sense of humor: “I’m a virgo moon with a leo heart/.../Now according to my astral chart/I’m getting off to a late start/It’s a karma thing/But I don’t mind/Gives me time for the scenic ride” (from “Here and Now”).
She can hit below the belt: “I can’t get used to dinner for one/at our table for two” (from “Over You”).
She also has commitment, as “Kanaloa”, a beautiful duet with Henry Kapono to the slack key guitar accompaniment of Ozzie Kotani, shows. This Hawaiian language song is dedicated to two activists, George Helm and Kimo Mitchell, who died during the campaign to return the sacred island of Kaho’olawe to the Hawaiian people. It had been desecrated and destroyed by years of bombardment by the US Navy, which used the place for target practice. Kaho’olawe has also become a symbol of what has been taken and spoilt by outsiders.
“My larger perspective on land and ownership is that no one owns it ultimately,” explains Thomas. “But we’re caretakers of it and we the Hawaiians are especially sensitive caretakers of the land because everything that we did came as a recognition that the land provided the livelihood, that it provided the means of survival. So it’s essential to keep it pure, keep it clean and to keep it fruitful and to acknowledge and give thanks and respect for it.” (A portion of the proceeds from Anjani are going to Protect Kaho’olawe Ohana, an organization she has much in common with. “The contribution that I’m making is very small but at least something and I hope it will grow in time with other efforts. (Generally) the resurgence has already started happening,” she says. “Restoring is symbolic, necessary and it’s about time.”)
Most accompaniments on the album are kept to a minimum (keyboards, guitars, bass, percussion and voices) and often feature a single instrument. The production ensures no clutter or unnecessary intrusions. “(The musicians) on the record really (were) the right person(s) for the right songs. ... There’s such a purity to the acoustic instruments and the vocals, you can tell I’m not into over-produced stuff. I like to listen to what people are saying and doing.”
Each track is a story and each story needs to be heard. Thomas takes this a stage further on her second release, Sacred Names.
“I’d pretty much left the music industry. I got disgruntled with the whole thing. I’d done just too many jingles, played in too many bands, I was just burned out.” It was at this stage in her life that she found a day job, bought a house and tried to live a regular 9-to-5 life. But the call of music eventually proved too strong and her self-titled album began to take shape. And at the same time, the seeds of the second album also began to sprout. “I was at Leonard’s and I picked up his guitar and played him a song called “Kyrie”. He made me play it five or six times and then he insisted I go into a studio and set it down. ... It wasn’t the hardest thing to do, to run back into the studio, which is where I really love to be.”
The resulting album is a collection of 10 songs based on the sacred names of God in Hebrew. “Leonard helped a lot without doubt with the second album. He made an interesting statement. He said at some point, ‘down in the annals of history, the only thing that people will remember Leonard Cohen for is he helped get “Kyrie” recorded.’ A pretty bold statement!” But an understandable one: it is a beautiful, moving track with Thomas providing her own accompaniment on guitar as she sings the melody in a clear alto voice; as the song progresses, she adds a series of moving harmonies, demonstrating her wide range.
Looking to the future, Anjani Thomas has plans to record a follow up which will explore more deeply the possibilities this second album opened; “I’ve already got two of the pieces done. They’re much more meditative.” She is also brimming with other ideas and talks of possible collaborations with different musicians and of potential recording projects. Taking time off from music has had a re-energizing effect on her as she has come to understand more about the direction in which she would like to travel. “I’m just not contemporary. I’m living back in the, I don’t know, I’m back in the ‘70s,” a simpler time, she believes, where “you’re going to hear everything that you don’t get (to hear) when you go to some enormous concert and people are howling out (with) their synthesizers and their pre-recorded tracks.”
Anjani Thomas has taken a route through life with many twists and turns and along the way has acquired and developed the skills to reach others with her music. From her ability to communicate feelings and events with her voice and as an instrumentalist, to her talents as an expressive songwriter, she has become a person who is worthy of a wide audience. As her albums attract attention, hers will be a voice people will listen to.