By Ember Larregui and Tatum Lee
Anna Akana is a multi-talented musician, actress, and comedian. Born and raised in California, Akana is debuting her new EP No Longer Yours on Feb. 19 and we were fortunate enough to interview her about her transition from filmmaking to making music, the new EP and her music process.
Tatum Lee: I’m such a huge fan of your videos on YouTube and I was wondering what it’s like navigating through your career as a filmmaker and actress, and then going into music?
Anna Akana: It doesn’t feel that different because I used to do stand up as a teenager all the way ’till I was, like, my mid to late 20s and doing comedy music was such an integral part of that routine I would often have about 10 to 15 minutes worth of comedy songs that I would perform. I personally found comedy to be so much easier than real music. Real music on stage, or “real music”, felt very vulnerable in a way that I just wasn’t comfortable with. The idea of sitting through an entire set where people aren’t laughing and giving me instant validation where I just have to feel the vibe was really scary to be compared to going on stage and, like telling a bunch of jokes. But I honestly really love it like it’s just a whole different medium to kind of express myself and to channel my feelings and into something meaningful and the reception has also been really nice. Some people are like, “This isn’t exactly my kind of music, but I love supporting and I love hearing it,” so it’s been a wonderfully supportive transition.
TL: That’s awesome! I know you’ve previously released music back in 2012, 2013 and then released a couple of other singles in 2019 and 2020… What made you want to pick up music again?
AA: I mean it’s not a very original reason to get into music, but I went through a really bad breakup and my boyfriend at the time was a musician as well and I’ve often written songs when I’ve been particularly having relationship ruptures. So I would be super honest in songs that I wasn’t honest about anywhere else, or that I wasn’t consciously honest. Like I was with a narcissist for years and wrote all these sad songs about being invisible and being abused, but then you know in my everyday life I was like, “but I love him he’s great!” And so, music has always kind of been where my subconscious has also been able to be incredibly honest and so in going through this really rough breakup I just started writing so much music about it. It was the first time I had ever really had my heart broken, and I was like, “I understand now, really, fully, why all of these songs in the world about breakups exist.” I thought I understood heartbreak but I really didn’t until that point. And yeah, it just all kind of came about [that] I would love to make an album about this, because so much of it felt so raw and felt so real. “Let Me Go” was one of the first songs I wrote for the album and I wrote it in probably seven minutes because it all just kind of came out of me, like I had so much pain that it just translated really fast.
Ember Larregui: That’s super understandable, I mean, as you just said, like so many songs in the world are about breakups and about heartbreak. But it’s really nice to see you connect to that topic and then have it be something that all of your fans can connect to listen to that as well. You are, of course, a person of many talents: you’re an actress, filmmaker, author and comedian and now and a talented musician and singer, songwriter. You mentioned that you kind of shied away from singing over comedy a while back, but I’d like to ask what drew you to music in the first place?
AA: Yeah, comedy had a very special place in my heart, because when I dealt with my sister’s suicide, when I was a teenager, I was seeing Margaret Cho perform standup, two years after her death. That gave me 30 minutes of relief. I remember seeing Margaret Cho perform and after the set I was like “oh my God, I forgot Christina died for 30 minutes” because up until that point, it was all I thought about. It was always on my mind. So comedy to me was this beautiful escapism that you can give to people who are going through just awful, awful s***. And when I had my heart broken, I didn’t want to escape, you know. It was an inescapable pain as well, I wanted someone to tell me that they understood. And with the suicide, I was like “No one understands,” you know, and I can’t expect anyone to understand. It’s not like everyone’s lost someone this way. But with heartbreak I felt, “everyone understands what this is. This disappointment, this loss, this morning of a future you’re no longer going to have.” And I wanted music to sit with me and hold my hand through it. I didn’t want to escape. I didn’t want to laugh. So, when I really discovered that aspect of it, I was like comedy is beautiful, it’s a wonderful escape but I’m getting older now. I don’t want to escape. I don’t want to look away. I don’t want to laugh right now, especially with everything that’s going on globally [and] politically, in our world. I want to face things head on, I want to feel that pain fully so I can process it and move through it and so that’s what really attracted me to music. The fact that you can play one song on repeat forever and sit in that feeling for as long as you need to process it.
TL: Continuing on the music route, was this a long awaited project you wanted to do? Did you know you wanted to write No Longer Yours or did the idea come from a burst of inspiration? How did this project come to life?
AA: Ever since Casualty, I’ve been writing music nonstop and then it always kind of feels like a certain set of songs should be grouped together. They’re like little chapters of my life. I mean YouTube’s kind of the same way. They’re just like chapters of my life that are on YouTube and like a certain collection of videos that I’m like “oh that was that phase, and that was that phase.” And with this EP, with No Longer Yours, I wrote a song called “I Feel Nothing” that was supposed to be about the moment I finally saw my ex boyfriend and I wouldn’t feel anything anymore. And the song perspective is that I am over it, and I am fine and, at the time I wasn’t feeling that at all, but I just was like “I know this day will come, I know, eventually, like, I’m going to see him and his new girlfriend and it’s fine!” So because Casualty was about heartbreak, No Longer Yours is about finally moving on and getting over that and feeling empowered again and feeling beautiful again. And looking to connect with someone else again and reviving that hope for your love life again and really embodying, you know, just Beyoncé and emerging from the ashes.
EL: That’s amazing. Especially because everyone wants to be Beyoncé and everyone wants to get over their ex as soon as it happens.
You mentioned a little bit about 2020, as we all know, 2020 has been a crazy year for everyone, but we did get to see some really cool innovation in music come out of it as a result. How has your career as an artist changed during the pandemic? Did you find it challenging trying to make music during quarantine or was it kind of just going along for the ride一 or were you one of those people that felt like you had more freedom, creating in quarantine?
AA: Oh wow, um, well, acting has been kind of completely on hold because of quarantine. But writing and music have been thankfully able to move forward. I think it’s honestly, the only thing that’s kept me sane, to some degree. Actually I liked creating in quarantine. It created a lot of problems we had to solve. [In the] newest music video, “Run”, we were like “Okay, we don’t have any other talents, so it has to be just me. Ideally open spaces so people can keep their six feet of distance. We have to keep things to a minimum.” And so we created this video where it was me representing different kinds of inner demons that people had and we’d have all of our friends collaborate independently. So Manzi DeYoung, who made the beautiful costumes, worked remotely at home and just shipped me the costumes and made it very easy to put on. They look super intricate but they’re just like shrug on, clip-in-the-back and you’re done. Caley Johnson, who [is] @missgdesigns, did all of the ornate headdresses that you see portrayed and she creates those like left and right. She’s famous in the Coachella world and so she just like shipped me the headdresses for me to wear and then we sanitized everything and sent them back. But it was a wonderful sort of creative box… and I personally have found creating in quarantine to be quite lovely. It’s been quite a challenge, but like a fun one, so that we’re not, like, doom scrolling on the news all day! [laughs]
EL: I think it’s amazing too because honestly, “Run” as a music video is beautiful and if you had watched it any other year, you probably would not have looked at it and thought “wow this is made with some really heavy Covid safety precautions”, because it looks like just a fantastic music video.
AA: Aw, thank you! Thank you so much. Yeah and we all had our own little coolers filled with our own snacks and I was like I never want to do this any differently, like I want my own cooler of snacks and no one can touch it.
TL: That’s amazing oh, my goodness! Going off of the topic of music videos, your song, “Pink” is about your acceptance of being a bisexual woman. What’s it like being an openly bisexual Asian American woman navigating the music scene?
AA: There’s plenty of women who’ve done it [and] have led the way, particularly Hayley Kiyoko. But it’s hard, because at this point, I want to be so good with my representation, but not feel like I’m exploiting this part of my identity. I feel like the politics around representation can be so confusing because you don’t want to just be tokenized and like do [a checklist] “make sure I’ll show one female love interest and one male love interest…” But at the same time, like as someone who only ever had, what? The yellow power ranger to look up to on TV, I do want to explore this side of myself. I’m still relatively like, I’m a queer baby so I’m relatively new out of the closet– only like two years– so there’s a lot of jargon and rules that I’m trying to learn and not in a bad way or anything, just like definitions and how to operate in the queer community and what what it’s like to be in here. So far, I found it to be really liberating and welcoming and I don’t know, it just feels very special and tender to me because, bisexuals and Asians, I feel like have so much erasure in media like I always joke like I’m practically invisible I’m Asian and bisexual, I just don’t exist when it comes to traditional TV. But in the music space, I feel like it’s just so much more visible and celebrated and accepted so I don’t know. It’s much better than my representation in TV, I’ll tell you that.
TL: That’s a very insightful perspective. The songs on the EP are all about very personal experiences, revealing the not so fun parts of yourself, someone you used to love, overcoming sadness and your own bisexual identity, but as a whole, what does the EP mean to you?
AA: As a whole, the EP to me is reclaiming identity and reclaiming love-ability. I think, particularly when you’re a woman in this world, a lot of your value is very often tied up to your romantic entanglements. Like we define ourselves, and we’re taught to define ourselves, by how we look, our f***-ability, who we’re with, how we are “of use”. To be a woman, I feel like the main message you get is, “the best thing you can do is to be of service, to be of use, to give.” And very often that’s, “for the patriarchy” it’s not for us. And so, with No Longer Yours, I really wanted to reclaim so many aspects of myself. Not just my broken heart but also my worth as a woman and putting that into myself and my art. Not necessarily accomplishments on a material level, but what I, as Anna, can accomplish in my own life, independent of who I’m with or who doesn’t want me. I think that’s my message.
EL: And it’s an amazing message to take away. So the next question: a major staple of your YouTube content, thus far and overall presence is your humor. Did you find it hard alternating between making serious music, that was really emotional and personal, as well as making comedy sketches for YouTube as well?
AA: No, I feel like comedy is a little bit harder for me because I’ve just done so much of it versus when it comes to music, I was like “oh everything I’ve ever experienced is now freely up for grabs”. Whereas on YouTube I’m like “well, I made a video about that… this idea is done”, you know, so I feel way more restricted in comedy and limited in terms of what I can do, because of the sheer volume of work I have out there in that space. Whereas with music, I was like “oh, I have never talked about my abortion in a song or my sister’s suicide.” I get to revisit these feelings and just be sad and… I don’t know I’m a Pisces moon, so I have so many feelings. So I found writing serious music, writing music based on feels was kind of easy. Because I’m not that, out of touch with my angst. Whereas comedy was like “nothing’s funny right now, we’re in a pandemic, everything’s s***, how am I supposed to make anybody laugh?” So yeah, serious music was a nice break.
EL: You’re like “yeah, we’re in a pandemic, it’s time to not be laughing, it’s time to get into the feelings.”
TL: Going back to the EP一 I literally sat down and just listened to it, and I was like “I’m getting emotional.” Each song is super empowering and I can tell how much love you put in each song and personally my favorite songs on the EP are “I Feel Nothing” and “Swim”. Those songs are just so liberating. And I’m curious, what’s your favorite song on the EP and why?
AA: Oh man… I honestly really like “You Don’t See Me” a lot right now, but it changes… whenever a musician puts out the work, you hate everything. It feels terrible and old. So right now, I hate them all. Even though I’m very proud of them and I’m excited about them, I feel like anytime you’re putting something out it’s like “this feels old! This feels ‘ugh.’” But I think “You Don’t See Me” is one of my favorite tracks on that EP right now, because I was dating a guy who didn’t want to be seen with me in public. He took another girl to a wedding and like put it all over his Instagram story. It was like the audacity was so strong. And I wrote this song about being someone’s second option and not feeling valued and being like “you don’t see me but I’m valuable and I’m worthy and I’m going to walk away from this because you don’t recognize that and that’s not my f***ing problem.” So “You Don’t See Me” is something I also always try to remember just because someone rejects you it doesn’t have anything to do with you as a human being so yeah, I’m really vibing that one right now.
TL: That’s awesome. I love that. Are there any artists that you would like to collaborate with in the future?
AA: Oh my God, yes! So many. I mean I love Tessa Violet, she’s a good friend of mine, I’d love to collaborate with her. dodie as well, dodie is great. Lizzo, I mean who doesn’t want to collaborate with Lizzo right now? K.flay, she’s like such a great rock vibe. If I was shooting for the stars to T-Swift, Mama Swift [Taylor Swift]! Oh, and I think X Ambassadors too.
EL: I’m personally a fan of Tessa Violet and K.flay and I think it would be a great collaboration.
TL: I love dodie!
AA: Yeah all the feelings!
EL: You mentioned when answering the question about what the EP means to you, kind of about that idea that women who are more than just what they can serve and more than just their presence outside of romantic relationships, and I’d like to ask: what do you want to tell your listeners, or what do you want them to take away from this EP?
AA: Yeah, my main goal, for my life is to empower younger women to try whatever the f*** they want to try. I think there’s a deep fear of failure we have as women, this deep embarrassment. It almost feels like to me, life is like when you go to the gym and you don’t really know how to use the weights section, so you just kind of to stick to one side of the gym and you’ve always wanted to try the barbells but you’re like “eh, it’s too scary and there are men over there and everyone’s going to be looking and they’ll know [that] I don’t know what I’m doing”. And I was always that person. My sister was the one who was like “I’m going to try this! Now I’m going to try gymnastics. Now I’m going to do this” and she was just such a brave, beautiful light of energy. So I’ve tried to live my life serving her in that sense and serving her image and the things that I admired about her. My hope would be that women who are fans of mine, or who are listeners would feel empowered to do the same. To try, to take risks, to fail because failure is just a precursor for success. And you know, to put their art out into the world, because even though someone doesn’t like your art doesn’t make it any less valid. It’s a beautiful way to channel your feelings. And there’s always gonna be someone who hates something or who loves something. So more importantly I hope young women feel empowered to go after things that maybe they don’t feel like they have the right to.
EL: As a young woman who’s been a fan of yours for well honestly I do get that message from a lot of your videos.
AA: YES! It’s working! [laughs]
TL: What’s next for Anna Akana? Are there any other upcoming projects you can share with us? Can you give us an inside scoop?
AA: Yeah! I mean the EP comes out on the 19th so that’s like my main goal right now. Jupiter’s Legacy is a show on Netflix that I’m a part of that I think is supposed to drop in the first half of 2021一 they won’t tell us any details, but I play a telekinetic telepathic super strong ninja, which is very exciting. So really stoked for that show and it’s based on a comic book by Mark Miller, who wrote Kingsman and Kick-Ass and Wanted and, like all these dope comic books so I’m very excited for that. And then you know just like everyone else, waiting for that vaccine hopefully we get vaccinated and me and my friends can go on tour next year, maybe we’ll see but yeah! Those are my main three.
EL: Amazing! We’ll definitely be on the lookout for that Netflix show and the EP when it drops. But those are all the questions that we have for you today. Thank you so much for sitting down with us over Zoom. Letting us pick your brain about the music process has been super super amazing and you just made two fans very, very happy.
AA: Thank you guys so much for a well researched deep dive and the wonderful and thoughtful questions. I really appreciate it!
Check out Anna Akana’s new EP No Longer Yours which comes out on February 19th!