Even in quarantine, Anjimile Chithambo is setting the bar high. Late last month, the 27-year-old singer-songwriter opened for Yo-Yo Ma.
Chithambo performed a socially distant concert for essential workers alongside the world-renowned cellist at Hancock Shaker Village in the Berkshires.
“My dad was super pumped,” said Chithambo, who records and performs as Anjimile. With their buzzy debut studio album, “Giver Taker,” out Friday from Father/Daughter Records, the Jamaica Plain musician said the spotlight has taken their family by surprise.
“I sort of just revealed to them that I have all this music stuff happening. They didn’t know how serious it was until pretty recently — maybe a month or two ago,” Chithambo admitted with a laugh.
Following a series of indie releases, the nine-track debut is the slick, soulful brainchild of Chithambo and producers and musical collaborators Justine Bowe and Gabe Goodman. The album was recorded with the support of a Live Arts Boston grant from the Boston Foundation and borrows from a lifetime of influences — ’80s pop, Moses Sumney, early Sufjan Stevens, and the late Oliver Mtukudzi, the legendary Zimbabwean musician and one of their father’s favorites.
Recording and production wrapped before the impact of COVID fully arrived in Massachusetts, with the trio splitting their time between New York, New Hampshire, and Somerville from March 2019 until January 2020. Bowe and Goodman worked with Chithambo to pick standouts from the singer’s catalog, adding rich, layered arrangements and a keen eye for curation (both are artists in their own right and were members of former Boston-bred band Magic Man).
Chithambo began penning songs and performing while a student at Northeastern University in the music industry program. Literature was their first love, but music was a throughline in Chithambo’s childhood, with Whitney Houston, Bob Marley, Madonna, and their parents' favorite, Dolly Parton, echoing through the family’s suburban Dallas home. With a doctor father, a computer programmer mother, medical professional older sisters, as well as a musically talented younger brother, Chithambo’s pursuit as a creative professional was originally met with a “For god’s sake!”
But familial support has proven encouraging now that the singer has opened up about their musical achievements. Chithambo’s Twitter timeline features several heartwarming text exchanges with their father, nonchalantly revealing the extent of their success. A screenshot relaying news about the singer opening for Ma captured his reaction: “!!! What?????”
Lead single, “Maker,” rerecorded for the album and released in July, is a bright, grooving tribute to Chithambo’s journey to understanding and acceptance. The lyrics croon a response to a demand for a definitive identity and life path and a difference between want and need: “Oh, oh, why don’t you do as you’re told?/Oh, oh, happiness isn’t your goal.”
The song was written before Chithambo’s 11-month stay in 2016 at a Florida rehab to be treated for alcoholism, a time of reflecting, learning, growing. “It took traumatic rock bottoms before getting into rehab, and thankfully that happened,” Chithambo said. “I learned my alcoholism was not my fault, but it was my responsibility. It was time to take responsibility and grow up.”
Revisiting the track for “Giver Taker” felt apropos to Chithambo, a reclaiming of time through the lens of a new artistic vision.
“I feel like ‘Maker’ is a representative of my artistic vision and everything about me — my music, my transness, my spirituality, my queerness, my exploration of this newfound life in recovery,” they said. “It felt like an accurate display of who I am as an artist.”
“Maker” also raised Chithambo’s profile in the trans community, with many listeners sharing their own stories via DM. “When we were discussing marketing with the label, they were like, ‘You don’t have to be like, “Hey I’m trans,” ' but I was like, ‘No, that feels right to me.’ I want queer and trans people to know I exist. It’s been really surreal to have people message me about their own experiences — I can’t believe people are so willing to share such vulnerable information with me, it makes me feel so honored.”
The remaining tracks swell with emotion and intimacy through playful twists on beat and Chithambo’s warm, inviting rasps. Standouts include bop-worthy breakup jam “Baby No More” (recognized by Rolling Stone as a “Song You Need to Know”) and “In Your Eyes,” a sweet, mellow indie folk song with synths that we could label low-fi Toto. “To Meet You There,” the last track on the album, brilliantly builds and closes with a celebratory crescendo, as though to promise this is only Chithambo’s first act.
“I wrote that song about six months into recovery, when I was feeling super hopeful and spiritual for the first time. I was feeling a lot of gratitude for my newfound sense of joy and a lot of the pain I had been experiencing. For me, I needed that pain to grow,” said Chithambo. “Before I got sober I figured I’d die an alcoholic. But 4½ years sober, what a plot twist. Holy hell, I made it.”
Anjimile and Justine Bowe, Sept. 18. at 8 p.m., hosted by Newbury Comics and Father/Daughter Records. Follow on Twitter at #AnjimilexNewbury.