"The Long Way Home"Hawaii's Anjani Thomas, a musician, singer and composer filled with wanderlust, has found love and the right pathby Gary C.W. Chun
June 30, 2006
About six years ago, Anjani Thomas was briefly back home in Honolulu for a much-needed vacation. She'd been trying her mightiest to find success as a jazz singer in Los Angeles, a career she had begun years earlier in Hawaii. But admitting "being a bit of a gypsy," she had been using the islands as a touchstone since she was a teenager, in pursuit of that seemingly elusive dream.
This particular summer, she happened upon her old guitar in her parents' house, gathering dust in a closet. Playing it awakened her muse, so she stayed for the remainder of the season to write. She said it felt good to be creative again.
Thomas would end up with enough songs for two albums, but copies of her debut, Anjani, and its more meditative follow-up, Sacred Names, would end up sitting in her garage, "selling in dribs and drabs."
The problem wasn't a lack of talent or charismatic presence. Thomas' wanderlust -- leaving Roosevelt High School just before graduation, flying to Canada and living briefly in Boston, New York, Austin and now Los Angeles -- has informed her clear singing voice, one that has grown in its intimate persuasion over 46 years.
Now, the musical career she had just about given up on is blossoming with the help of an iconic poet and singer-songwriter. Leonard Cohen, 71, is her mentor, friend and lover, as well as producer of her first major-label album, on Columbia, Blue Alert.
This project hasn't been overlooked, thanks to the famous Cohen. Their association began when she was a backup keyboardist and singer in his touring band, and she has recorded with him since 1984.
It's a fortuitous time for the both of them. While Cohen fans in Europe and Canada have raised Blue Alert's profile, the man himself is getting his share of press as well.
Recently dubbed by the New York Times as the "master of romantic despair," Cohen has a recent book of poetry and drawings called Book of Longing and is the subject of a music documentary, Leonard Cohen: I'm Your Man. The film -- scheduled to screen July 21 to 27 at the Honolulu Academy of Arts -- mainly draws from a 2005 tribute concert in Sydney and features such simpatico acts as U2, Nick Cave, Rufus Wainwright and Beth Orton.
So Thomas is obviously in high company, thanks to the man she's been associated with on and off (and now very on) for more than 20 years. Billed as a singer and music writer for the man's usually dark, erotic lyrics, Thomas prefers to go just by her exotic first name, pronounced Ahn-jah-NEE. It's a romantic-sounding moniker that matches her striking features, an ethnic mix of Okinawan, German, French, Irish, Welsh and Dutch.
SPEAKING by phone from L.A., Thomas reminisced about the long and winding road that has led to this momentous time in her life.
"When I was young, I took classical piano lessons for a while. I studied with Clem Low, who worked with Sonya Mendez as her music director. I then studied pop piano when I was around 14, finding another teacher in Clyde Pound.
"Hawaii was happening back then in the mid-'70s. I was exposed to some terrific music, and the club scene was happening." One of her first gigs after she turned 18 was with Teddi and Nanci Tanaka, taking over the keyboard seat left open by a departing Kimo Cornwall.
"Somewhere along the way, I also worked with Loyal Garner and Barry Kim. I also got a gig at a local hotel with a jazz trio." It was there that she fell in love with a visitor from New York. "I was in my 20s, and he was the kind of man that swept you off your feet." She went back with him, but the relationship ended 18 months later. Thomas returned, specifically to the Kapalua Resort on Maui, where she had a steady gig -- that is, until the young and restless singer got "rock fever."
Throughout it all, Bob and Hilda Thomas were always there for her. "My parents were so cool. They supported me when I was young with whatever lessons and education were needed, whether it was guitar, hula, piano or viola. My mother chauffeured me, every weekend, to my lessons. And I also remember all of the extended family coming over to the house, and nearly everyone was musically inclined. My aunt married into the Ka'aihue family, so Henry Kapono's a cousin of mine."
Kapono would later be a guest vocalist on Thomas' first album in 2000. Recorded at Pierre Grill's Rendezvous studio in Manoa Valley, the song "Kanaloa" also featured slack-key guitarist Ozzie Kotani. It was translated into Hawaiian by Manu Boyd, who also helped out on another song, "Queen of Your Heart."
An autobiographical song on the album, "What's Left of Our Dream," showed Thomas facing her life dilemma head-on: "Why do I make it so tough / status quo ain't good enough / I know it looks like a blunder / but I'm being guided homeward."
She met Cohen in New York in the mid-'80s, through his producer, John Lissauer. Her most memorable contribution was singing backup on what would turn out to be one of Cohen's signature songs, "Hallelujah," later covered to great acclaim by the late Jeff Buckley.
Thomas actually abandoned music for five years, in between residencies in L.A.. "I was so burnt out. It seemed everything I tried to do in music didn't work out. I ended up working in a jewelry store in Austin, Texas. It was great because they offered benefits and I could develop a credit history. I even bought a house there. I started to enjoy the regularity of normal life."
A few years later came her return to Hawaii and that reacquaintance with her guitar. When she went back to L.A., "I started marketing my records as best I could -- and ended up a complete failure," she said with a hearty laugh.
By then, Cohen was back in her life and told her to do something that was easier to concentrate on, apart from trying in vain to grab the brass ring.
She worked on Cohen's next album, Dear Heather, even taking a lead vocal on one of its tracks, "Undertow." She then started putting her music to his writing.
"How (Blue Alert came about) was really in a sweet way," she said. "I saw a lyric written on a piece of paper on his desk, and told him I would give it a shot with my music. When I played it later for him, he said, 'That's it, this is finished.' So I did another treatment for his poem 'The Mist,' and from then on, I culled through his journals and put together a number of lines and verses to make songs.
"After we had about eight of them finished, we went to New York and played them for a couple of record companies."
Clearly noticeable on Blue Alert is the predominance of Thomas' voice in the recording mix. It's a chancy move to set her in such stark relief from the minimal arrangements, but her singing is so finely controlled that it brings added emotional depth to Cohen's lyrics.
"We tried adding other instruments, but my voice was picking up much of the sound's total bandwidth. Other times, it felt the instruments cluttered things up." A fine balance is found on such songs as "No One After You," an expansive and dusky "Never Got to Love You," "Crazy to Love You" (featuring a bit of string quartet) and the closing "Thanks for the Dance," which adds a touch of clarinet.
"This is very much a word-of-mouth record," Thomas said. "While this album isn't something you can dance to, or usually hear on the radio, the people who have heard it have told me they're blown away by the boldness of it. I don't have to make any apologies for its musicality. I stand behind every single note, and it's exactly done the way we wanted it."
She and Cohen are in Montreal now, sharing concert dates, with an upcoming small tour in Spain next month. Thomas said they'll continue to tour in earnest through next year, while they gather material for her next album.
It seems that Anjani Thomas has finally come home.
The Leonard Cohen Files