Anna Wise may be one of the lesser-known names in the liner notes for Kendrick Lamar‘s studio debut Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City and his recent sophomore release To Pimp A Butterfly, but one listen to the Berklee-trained vocalist’s work with her band Sonnymoon and you’ll quickly understand why she caught Lamar’s attention. She’s credited with background vocals throughout TPAB, and is featured on “Institutionalized” and “These Walls.”
Wise spoke with Billboard about being in the studio with Kendrick, her artistic process, and the best music to listen to when you just want to stare at the stars.
How did you meet Kendrick?
I was on a road trip with my bandmate [in Sonnymoon] Dane Orr in 2011 — we were driving across the country — and Kendrick found me on the internet, asked around for my number and started texting me. We were texting back and forth, and then we just decided to reroute our road trip down to Compton. Dane and I showed up maybe like a week later, and we lived there in the houses they had set up at the time, the recording studio — we just stayed there and we worked for like, many, many weeks in a row. It was really cool.
As soon as we entered the room, we just knew that it was going to work out between us creatively — like love at first sight, but creatively.
Did he say exactly how he found you? Was he just going through Soundcloud?
Yeah, pretty much. I think it was a YouTube video — he found a song called “Nursery Boy” from my first record with Sonnymoon, and that kind of has the same alien voice that he ended up using across the record.
With Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, you said you were in the studio for a while — were you writing as well as singing?
No I didn’t write anything on GKMC — Kendrick writes all the hooks. I contributed harmonies. Just like, energetically, when you’re in a room with someone, as they’re writing, that is an influence — but he wrote everything.
Kendrick is kind of like the director and the screenplay writer of his own movie. He’s like a Quentin Tarantino type. I feel like my part in his record is almost like an actor. I’m playing a part, but also inflecting my own personal experience on it.
That was 2011. Then you came back to Boston? You went to Berklee, right?
I did — I actually dropped out. I was there between like 2008-2010. Then Dane [the other member of Sonnymoon] wanted to finish his degree, so I stayed there and we just worked on music, on our second album.
So you come back, you’re working on your own stuff — how did that transition into working on To Pimp A Butterfly?
I just kept going back and forth with him. He would fly me out and I would stay for extended periods of time. Even up to about a month after GKMC came out, I was kind of jumping around, I wasn’t really staying in Boston at that time. I was upstate [New York], I was in San Francisco. Sonnymoon did three tours — so we had a lot of stuff going on. But in between that, I would always come back to him.
We immediately started working on it — we did the “Institutionalized” intro almost 2 years ago.
Just hanging out in the studio.
And on the tour bus, in the studio in the tour bus.
Also I’ve heard rumors that you had something to do with the title of the album.
There’s truth to that, there absolutely is. We communicate about more than just music. We consider the music that we make together to be art, and so that comes with a sort of mental mindscape that we’re always in.
How does working on hip-hop contribute to your own art?
I don’t really consider the genre — to me art is art, and I want to work with the greats. But I’m also really reclusive — I don’t want to work with that many people. It’s way more than just making the song, it’s about how it feels to make it.
The cool thing about our relationship in the studio is that we’re operating at such a high level, it’s almost like being in a trance. It’s really meditative. We sit and we think and we listen, and we find like what the song needs.
[TPAB] was definitely more collaborative — we wrote the “These Walls” intro together, and we had never really written like that together, at least not on anything that’s made a record. It’s really hard to explain. The way that we work in the studio is similar to the way that I sing live. So many of our shows, we play for an hour and we get off the stage, and someone’s like, “I love how you did this one thing,” and I’m like, “I don’t even remember doing that.”
It’s hard to even remember what happened — I just remember the feeling, and the feeling is joy, and a sense of purpose. Regardless of genre, I support Kendrick as an artist 100%, and I support his message.
When you’re in the studio together, is it with the other producers?
Oh yeah — it’s like a rotating cast. Sometimes it’s just me and Kendrick, sometimes it’s me, Kendrick and [Derek “MixedByAli”] Ali, sometimes it’s just me and Ali, just me and Sounwave and Thundercat, Flying Lotus. It’s all different combos.
Getting back to your album with Sonnymoon that’s dropping today, for someone who’s never heard your stuff, how would you present it to them?
I would say that our music is something that you would want to consume with headphones, lying in a really pretty place — say you bring your music player up to a mountain or a hill or wherever, the rooftop of your apartment even, and you just stare up at the stars. Music is really powerful — it can change your heartbeat, and in my opinion if it can change your heartbeat, it can change your mind.
We make art that is music, and I think it requires a few listens to be able to appreciate it. There’s obviously a female voice at the forefront, and we get pretty experimental with the additional sounds. This record actually has live drums on a good portion of the songs, which was a really cool thing. But even then, with the drums that are on the record, Dane cut them up. He edited it to make it like its own instrument.
Female vocals, rhythmic, even polyrhythmic a little, pagan, super energetic.
It sounds like your writing process for that is pretty collaborative.
We both produce and play instruments and write and sing. It’s really fun.
Are you touring to support the album?
Yeah — it’s not solidified yet, but it should be within the next few weeks.
That’s really where the Sonnymoon experience makes the most sense — we have so much fun playing live, and it’s so full of energy. When we play live, we see that people are like getting it.
Music is the most fun thing and the most rewarding thing that I feel like I can do with my time, I love the whole process. Conceptualizing, writing, figuring out what colors go with what — like for the Sonnymoon album, our whole theme is like turquoise and mustard, those are our colors. It’s just fun. To be able to make a living off of it is dope.
Sonnymoon’s new album The Courage of Present Times is available now on iTunes.