While As If It Were Forever may stand as her official full-length debut, Anna Wise is not new to the music industry. Her latest solo effort is the long-developing cherry on top of a 10-year career that includes two EPs and a Grammy-winning collaboration with Kendrick Lamar. With ethereal melodies and soul-arresting lyrics, As If It Were Forever, released today, is a pensive, honest statement from an artist whose voice has floated in and out of pop culture via songs like Lamar’s “These Walls” and soundtracks for shows like Insecure and Dear White People. There’s an immersive quality to Wise’s 12-song debut, outfitted with swelling compositions that allow room for the listener to wander. In September, Wise talked with The A.V. Club about mining her own personal growth for her latest album as well as the combined powers of patience and a decade’s worth of know-how.
The A.V. Club: As If It Were Forever is a departure from The Feminine Acts 1 and 2. Whereas the EPs were rooted in womanhood and feminism, the album digs into relationship dynamics and vulnerability. What was it like to record something more personal?
Anna Wise: It was absolutely intentional for me to be more personal this time. Through personal growth and just over time, I realized that if I want to change the world, I first have to change myself. That’s actually a mantra of mine. I believe in the collective unconsciousness and raising the average of every human by working on the self. So the album reflects that journey, my desire to be better.
AVC: “Nerve,” which you wrote with Jon Bap and Nick Hakim, radiates this exciting, spontaneous energy—which seems appropriate, since the three of you wrote the song in one night. What had to align for that to happen?
AW: I think it was the magic of my relationships with those two people, as well as the build-up of us wanting to work together for so long and then finally getting to. When all three of us got in the room, it was like magic happened—one person would quickly come up with an idea, and the other two would love it. So I believe it was the energy of the three of us, the genius of Jon Bap and Nick Hakim, and the fact that we had never worked together before. There’s also the power of trying something for the first time—I think the book The Alchemist talks about that, how the first time you do something can be super magical.
And that actually happens to me a lot, where these downloads will come through really quickly and I have to be prepared. I’ve had to learn how to catch the idea and give it the space it needs to transpire, and I feel super lucky and blessed. I believe that ideas are swirling around us all the time, and it’s best to be prepared to receive them. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’ve been making music my whole life and professionally for 10 years. I was in a band called Sonnymoon before going solo and making my own stuff, so I would like to think that my channel is pretty well-tuned, and when I open myself up and I’m ready, things can come through in an efficient and often quick way.
AVC: Recently you said that, lyrically, “Nerve” is “about spring cleaning your relationships and not being afraid of letting go,” which you recognized was a lesson that you’re still learning. What do you think makes these kind of lessons timeless breeding grounds for art?
AW: The lessons never end. We’re always learning, and I think it’s all about giving in to that, surrendering to the fact that we know so little, and just being open to learning and not being ashamed of not knowing something. I’m learning so much every day—from my child, my partner, my friends—it never ends. It’s just about being honest about not being perfect and having it all together and that it’s always a process.
AVC: You’re also a producer on this album. Did you have any guiding philosophies that played into your process?
AW: Just listening. I like to make room for the vocals. I don’t know if there’s any guiding process. I love to put it on in the room or in my headphones and just mess around with levels. It’s a micro process and so fun once you tap into it. I can work on one section of a song for three days working on getting right.
AVC: You’ve collaborated numerous times with Kendrick Lamar. Did you take anything from that experience and implement it into your own process for this debut?
AW: He is patient with the muses, too. I’ve learned a lot about the recording process and that if a take isn’t what I want it to be, I maintain patience with myself and I just say to my engineer, “Okay. Go back. I’m going to try again.” He taught me how to have extreme patience with myself and maintaining a balance of coolness that facilitates great work.
AVC: You collaborated with quite a few artists for As If It Were Forever. Was there any particular collaboration that had an interesting lead-up, or was hard to get?
AW: With Little Simz, we had been speaking in DMs, and then she happened to be at a music festival that I was at. We were both backstage during this Robert Glasper jam, and when I went onstage to sing, she was just hanging out, catching the vibe. And then we were like, “We need to do something together.” Everything felt like that—stars aligning. For instance, meeting Jon Bap, who heard my record as it was before he got involved and being the only person who had the courage to be like, “No, I’m not really feeling track. I think you can do better.” Hearing that from someone was so I’m refreshing. I’m always looking for honesty and hoping that they will tell me how they really feel and not just be impressed with me because of what I’ve done in the past, you know? I feel super lucky that he is in my life, because the album wouldn’t be what it is without him or any of the other people who I worked with.
And the song “Vivre D’amour Et D’eau Fraiche”? The backing track on that had been done for a few years. I made that with Jake Sherman and Dane Orr. I would put that on when I was flying, and I would repeat it over and over again because I found it to be so soothing. I was obsessed with it, but I couldn’t think of what to write on top of it. Then when Jon became involved with the project, it was like a light bulb going off. Like, “Oh shit, he can write it. He can do the impossible.” We ended up writing the lyrics together, then he sang the melody and did the bass and the guitar. The whole album is just serendipitous and beautiful, lovely friends weaving in and out of my life to give me these beautiful gifts.
AVC: Is there a particular song on this debut that resonates with you the most?
AW: I love “Blue Rose.” I don’t know what it is about that song. It makes me cry, and I don’t know why. There’s a sadness there that you can’t translate. I love that song so much.