Anjimile Chithambo has had quite the year. The singer-songwriter’s debut album, Giver Taker, was released in September, and it quickly gained critical acclaim. The Guardian called it “a compelling debut.” Pitchfork described it as radiating with “happiness and pride.” Rolling Stone offered a glowing review. And this month, NPR named it one of the 50 best albums of 2020.
All of this happening against the backdrop of a pandemic made it “a really interesting, exciting, confusing, and humbling year,” said Chithambo, who graduated from Northeastern in 2019 with a degree in music.
It was surreal, he said: The same day that the Rolling Stone published a review of the album’s single, “Baby No More,” Chithambo was laid off from his day job as an after-school teacher. The full album review came out a month later, on a day he spent on the phone sorting out unemployment insurance benefits. And during an interview with Rolling Stone journalist Jon Blistein, Chithambo had to pause because his building’s superintendent arrived to fix the refrigerator.
“Quite a shock to the system,” Chithambo said, with a round laugh.
The musician—who performs, in the tradition of Cher or Prince, under the single name Anjimile—spent six years working on the songs that appear on Giver Taker. The album covers Chithambo’s path to sobriety as well as an exploration of his own sexuality and gender expression. (A transgender non-binary person, Chithambo uses both he/him and they/them pronouns.)
“Giver Taker is a response to my recovering alcoholism, and the emotional upheaval I experienced when I was in rehab,” he said. “I’m becoming a new person, and getting to know myself again after feeling lost for so long.”
The title itself, Chithambo added, is a reference to the dual experience of “feeling the joy of a new lease on life while mourning the death of a past life, as corrosive as it might have been.”
During that evolution, Chithambo’s music started gathering steam.
In 2018 he entered NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert contest, and Boston affiliate WBUR named him the best entrant from Massachusetts.
The following February, he made NPR’s list of 20 artists to watch in 2019, and two months later, he won a grant from Live Arts Boston that enabled him to create Giver Taker. In the fall, he signed with indie record label Father/Daughter Records.
In the meantime, Chithambo met regularly with producers and fellow musicians Justine Bowe and Gabe Goodman, both of whom worked on the album. Each month, they gathered to record in a closet in Bowe’s Somerville apartment, and finished recording the tracks just before COVID-19 lockdown measures went into effect in Massachusetts, Chithambo said.
The measures affected some of the artistic decisions behind the album—Chithambo’s original idea to shoot the video for “Baby No More” in a bustling burlesque club went out the window—but didn’t affect the music much, he said.
“It’s a really hopeful record,” Chithambo said. The tracks are infused with what he described as his “hippie spirituality,” and layered with musical texture from Goodman.
“It’s a snapshot of this healing process,” Chithambo said. “And it’s been wild releasing an album that people give a shit about,” he added with that same open laugh.
So what’s next?
Chithambo is looking forward to touring with the record in 2021-22, or whenever it’s safe to do so again, he said. And he’s writing again—churning out a huge volume of work in response to and in conjunction with the protests over police violence this summer.
“Overall, I’m just keeping my mental health afloat,” Chithambo said. “I have a dope therapist. And I’m certainly ready for this year to be over, but grateful that things have been all right. My parents and siblings are safe. I live in a safe place with good roommates. And it’s been a good month.”