Anna Wise on Working with Kendrick Lamar and Being a Maxine Waters Fangirl

Emari Traffie
Even if you've never heard of Anna Wise, you've heard Anna Wise.

She plays the Greek Chorus to Kendrick Lamar on the rapper's last three albums, her voice bringing hooks, pathos, and beauty to Lamar's songs. But Wise's work goes beyond backup: She's an accomplished songwriter, solo artist, and performer in her own right.

When she's not stacking writing and performing credits on King Kendrick albums, Wise is hard at work on her solo material and as one half of musical duo Sonnymoon. A versatile singer with a deep knowledge of and appreciation for R&B, she helps bridge the gap between Aaliyah and Kate Bush fans. Her songs are full of modern hip-hop swagger, but with eccentric vocal tics and production flourishes. They also have a sharp feminist edge, like on her 2016 track "BitchSlut," in which Wise sings, "If I say no, I'm a bitch / Say yes, I'm a slut," turning a no-win misogynist scenario into the kind of catchy anthemic chorus that LeTigre would kill for.

We got a chance to talk to the prolific singer-songwriter about her inspirations, politics, and working with Lamar while she was on tour to support her new record, The Feminine: Act II.

New Times: Hello, Anna. So what have you been up to lately?
Anna Wise: I did the coolest thing. I recently went to D.C. with the Grammys. They have a whole team of people in D.C. who work to lobby for artist rights. I went with them to see an artist advocate and do our own lobbying with different congressmen. They’re trying to defund the NEA by 2018, even though it only makes up .004 percent of one-tenth of the budget. It’s only $150 million a year, which breaks down to like seven cents per American per year. We’re trying to protect that and do a couple of other things. I got to meet a few congress-people. I got to meet Maxine Waters, who’s one of my heroes. I actually started crying when I met her, I got so excited! She’s from my home state, California. It was a really fulfilling trip.

Wow, that sounds fantastic! How did the senators respond to your lobbying efforts? Did you find that they were receptive to the message your team was trying to convey, or was it a hard sell?
You know, we got really lucky. I had the R&B singer Mario on my squad: There were five of us. Him and I, we have this energy together. We figured out that we can bounce energy off each other really well. So we worked together on three Democrats, and they all said yes. We wanted them to co-sponsor a few different bills that we’re trying to get passed.

I heard from some of the other teams that they didn’t have a lot of luck with the Republicans they met with. It was interesting that we had such a great day, while some of the others struggled; it makes me want to go back and have some challenges next time! It was cool to get my feet wet because I’m really interested in politics. I wanted to meet some real-life politicians and insert myself into the guts of politics and understand these people. Not to just dismiss them as statues on a hill, or faces I see on the news. It was really humanizing.

Since we’re talking about politicians: If there was any politician you could talk to for 10 minutes, who would it be? Whose ear would you most want to bend?
Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Maxine Waters are my top three heroes. Any one of them. I literally saw Maxine from across the hall and ran up to her like a little child. I love them so much! My Brooklyn representative, Hakeem Jeffries, was the first one we met with. He was really cool, too. I’d also be up for meeting people who disagree with me — I want to understand how their brains work.

Are you working on any new material at the moment, or are you focusing on touring and promoting The Feminine: Act II?
Both — I’m focused on touring and making new material. I’m constantly thinking of new ideas for songs. I have about 5,000 voice demos on my phone and a couple of hundred notes on there as well. And notebooks full of stuff. It’s easier for me to take notes, because with notebooks when I fill them up they become these relics of time. Whereas with phone notes I can scroll through them when I’m bored.

Do you ever get worried that your phone will get wiped or that you’ll accidentally delete those demos?
Yes! I have them backed up in multiple formats, just in case. Technology sometimes will be like, ‘Bye-bye, fuck you!’ Like it’s a little angel of death with x’s on it eyes: “Ha-ha, I got you!”

In past interviews, you’ve cited Lauryn Hill as an inspiration. What other songwriters and singers do you draw inspiration from? When you’re in the studio, working on your own material, who do you look to to draw strength from their working methods and styles?
Absolutely Lauryn Hill. Joni Mitchell is another one, Bjork, Kate Bush. And Kendrick — being so close to a genius, to someone I’d consider a modern prophet … being around him and absorbing his methods has been influential beyond what I can express.

Do you have any more Kendrick collaborations in the pipeline?
I have 50 to 100 songs in the vault of stuff we’ve done in the past. And I’m constantly sending him voice memos of stuff I’m playing around with. So it’s always an option that I could be included on something he’s working on.

You’ve also talked about your music video work in your interviews. Directing videos seems to be something you’ve really taken a shine to. What are you working on now?
I’m in the process of editing two videos. One of them I directed, shot, and I’m not in it. It’s for “Stacking That Paper.” The other is for “Some Mistakes,” which I’m in, but I’m not as excited about that one because I didn’t shoot it. I’m over the moon about how “Paper” came together.

Making music, directing videos … to me, working on my art is a privilege. I get to do it. If I ever feel overwhelmed, I can always switch gears and work on something else to clear my head and heart.

You’ve been working with Dane Orr for years as part of Sonnymoon. Is there any plans to release new Sonnymoon material in the future, or are you focusing on your solo career at the moment?
Phoenix Ale Brewery Central Kitchen's first anniversary. There’s definitely going to be more Sonnymoon stuff. The great thing about it is that for me, Anna Wise is the "pop" vehicle. At least we try to make it the pop vehicle — people still call me avant-garde, even when I try to write a typical pop or R&B song. With the Sonnymoon stuff, because my solo work is covering that accessible lane, we can go as crazy and experimental as we want with Sonnymoon. We just don’t have the time to do a new record right now, but it’s in our hearts to do another one together eventually.

Anna Wise will be performing on Tuesday, June 6, at Valley Bar.
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Ashley Naftule