The Real Hyphenate: Anil Sebastian

Prepare to get inspired on all fronts. Our conversation with Anil Sebastian, the multi-disciplinary artist, writer, singer, actor, co-founder, and director of the legendary London Contemporary Voices Choir, is captivating, full of useful insights on expression, identity, self-love, and artificial intelligence. 

As a mixed-race, non-binary queer person, Sebastian admits to having ‘a second-generation immigrant mentality imprinted in them – to always be justifying my existence on the land’. At the first glance at their portfolio and past involvements, you wonder how do they do it. Despite a national lockdown, Sebastian’s visions do not sleep. “My flat is chaos, I’ve found myself really busy with a number of projects. I’m happy to be alive, here. Trying to find a slower space”, they acknowledge from the start of our chat. 

With their list of accreditations and responsibilities to multiple parties, I silently speculated how such a vibrant creative person like Anil Sebastian keeps entertained during a lockdown, whose answer makes me want to hop on a train and join them for a weekend getaway. “Firstly, I want to just acknowledge that we’re not all in the same boat. There are those in rafts, or in the water hanging on to the side, you know? So before I say anything I want to just acknowledge that. I’m relatively lucky. I live by the sea – in that sense, I feel like I’m on dry land – maybe for the first time – like I’ve got a safe place to be. So for me, it’s been nature. Nature and my three cats. I saw a seal the other day. It looked right at me”.

Briefly touching upon all the different things this hyphenate of a human is capable of, managing everything can get tricky if your toes are dipped in so many waters. They explain: “We have a whole water theme going on here! I love that. I find the more in the moment I am, the more I can get into a flow with things and let go – accept help. I do a lot, it’s also true and I do frequently overwhelm myself and had a major burnout last year. 2019 was hellish for me. Fundamentally, I have a second-generation immigrant mentality imprinted in me – to always be justifying my existence on the land. So I have to keep that sense of value in check, be careful with it – each thing in its own time”, they truthfully clarify.

Before burnouts, and juggling multiple passions at once, the first way of escapism and form of expression for a young Anil Sebastian was writing: “Pen to paper. I wrote a lot in notebooks from around 9 – dreams, journalling – stories, thoughts, and of course, music. I’d be dead without it. I locked my way a lot – to sing, play instruments – write music, or make homemade tape loops like a wannabe Stockhausen”.

Maybe contrary to popular belief, despite Sebastian’s multi-disciplinary nature, they admit that only now they started really owning up their talents. “It’s a gradual process that in a lot of ways I’m just at the start of. It’s only really now that I’m able to be more open and less performative. We’re so layered, aren’t we? It’s a slow ongoing thing often sabotaged by false epiphanies, that self-aggrandising part of me. It’s good to feel a new lightness of late. The last couple of years have been incredibly tough”.

For people like Anil Sebastian owning who they are and becoming very well-spoken can help so many people around the world. Self-identity is a journey specific and unique to every person. Sebastian advises and also gives an outlook on self-love that is very comforting: “It’s fucking hard and it’s OK to feel what you feel and not go into fixing it. Identity is always moving, changing – you can feel many things at once. Allow those mixtures when you can and it’s OK when you can’t. How you feel, whatever it is – belongs. Self-love can come with love. Love for and from others is just as valid when you haven’t discovered or figured out your self-love yet. In other words, you can love, be present with others, real, beautiful even if you don’t always love (or even like) yourself”.

A milestone not many get to celebrate is playing the guitar for Imogen Heep when young as a teenager. Yes, Anil Sebastian did that. It did not stop there. This opportunity grew into something so beautiful and magical it will go down in history – the birth of London Contemporary Voices Choir. Anil shares the full story behind it: “LCV is the cause and cure to so much madness in so many ways. I played guitar for Imogen Heap back in my teens and she asked me to sing in the choir for her Royal Albert Show back in 2010 — and well, it turned out there wasn’t one, so she asked me to make one. So Didier Rochard, the co-founder, and I did – and it was the beginning of it. It’s been completely unexpected”. 

Having sung with some of the biggest names in music, Sebastian never lost sight of what and who creates truly special moments. “For me it’s the small things, watching people watching fireworks at a festival, laughing together, dancing, singing a breathe a part around a fire – it’s not the big-name things. Those are ephemeral”, they say. But they also celebrate LCVC’s accomplishments by listing big-name collaborators: “That said, I guess the highlights are recorded on the Harry Potter play soundtrack with Imogen Heap, Burberry runway shows, The BBC Proms – and we’ve worked with lots of collaborators like Laura Mvula, Nitin Sawhney, Sam Smith, Orlando Weeks, Kelly Lee Owens, Manu Delago, U2”. 

They mention their 10th anniversary as they mourn over not being able to be all together for this special year. “As well as doing our own concerts – those are always really special. Feels like family backstage. It’s become a creative community of nearly 200 singers and musicians – life long friends. I get quite emotional thinking about it because it’s the beginning of our 10th year and it feels so strange to not be able to be together”. 

One of the things that kept Sebastian busy is their audiovisual short film ‘Daffodil’ directed by Thiing Studios and written by themselves. If that wasn’t enough, Sebastian got to portray the character of a scientist as well. ‘Daffodil’ explores the future of artificial intelligence and looks at what it means to be human and how we define identity. In hindsight, this does not seem like an overnight idea or a spur of a moment project. 

The mastermind behind ‘Daffodil’ themself demonstrates how it all came to life: “It started with lyrics – my notebook scribblings of thoughts and words about consciousness, AI – identity, grief. I found myself searching through old archive footage with my brother Ingmar who has been a huge huge part of this film both in producing the music with me and Cherif Hashizume and the film itself. I would then sing and create musical sketches often with the harpist Glenda Allaway in mind – layering voices and strings. As the project went on Thomas Rawle, who did all the animations would send me sketches and ideas, and the narrative began to grow from the lyrics. So it’s been a really unusual way to work and there’s definitely a huge amount of love from me for people having to be extremely patient with me,” Sebastian tells, still humble as ever.

As soon as I ask them about their role in the film, Sebastian jumps in: “Can I be honest? I’m feeling major imposter syndrome right now… haha…  God, if it’s not that, it’s eating the chips off my shoulder – Where’s the balance Anil?” While depicting their character, Sebastian does not forget to give everyone credit. “Honestly, I’m not a trained actor. I have so much respect for trained actors – what they can do is a whole world beyond – the sensitivity, subtly, and nuance. Simple things (like walking for fucks sake) are suddenly impossibly complicated and I mean I didn’t even have any lines.  Joking aside – Honestly, I didn’t need to do much, it was about going very very small and doing the least for the story to do the most. Tom, the director, and my brother Ingmar had to be extremely patient with me – they were brilliant”.

Playing a scientist is not something that really aligns with the Anil Sebastian persona and aesthetic, as they said themselves. They touch upon stripping back and the significance of post-production, and editing: “It was hard at first to connect, especially feeling so bare in the aesthetic we chose – I tend to what to Björk out and really push the aesthetic these days but this was about stripping back more and finding a simpler resonance with myself. It was strange playing an almost-me-but-not-me character in a near future. It felt like a chance to live in the film – kind of like being in a dream about it. Interestingly, the narrative changed a lot after we filmed – and a lot of that came out in the editing process and in the sequencing of the music”.

The topic of artificial intelligence has been in the back of our minds for a while now. As the future is uncertain we do worry about the effects of AI on humankind. Sebastian digs deep into their thoughts and opens up the door to a whole different perspective that should be discussed further. 

“If we really understand what it is we value about people then AI can only be a great thing. However, we’re far from that place. Many people experience a feeling of fear of redundancy when AI starts to edge closer to doing what humans do. Why do we measure our value by what we can or can’t do rather than by who we are? We’re at such an interesting point aren’t we? Where that can change – perhaps for the first time”. 

He continues by questioning the basis of AI: “Is consciousness something special? Can it be replicated and programmed into AI? Despite our strong emotional reactions to these questions, we still don’t know. With that in mind, my greatest concern is moreover who AI isn’t learning from. Seldom heard voices are not in the picture. Whether that be people of colour, women, trans/non-conforming, queer people, differently-abled people, neurodiverse people, older people, people with learning differences, dementias, and so on. If those voices don’t inform AI algorithms then AI will always carry an implicit bias against those groups. Worse still, they’re likely to favour the dominant group. This problem because exponentially pronounced when you factor in the near future possibility of neural implants. If access to neural enhancement is only available to rich folk. We’ll have an even more extreme binary ‘them’ and ‘us’ society and it frightens me how little we’re doing about it”.

Circling back to another of Sebastian’s endeavors – music. For the soundtrack of ‘Daffodil’, Sebastian put together six tracks including ‘Kali’, and a new single ‘Saudade’. They talk about the yearning this track holds: “In a lot of ways it’s really vacuum-packed – up close, inside the mechanism of the instruments, the harp strings and my voices right up close and fragile – but then it blows out into an expanse. I love that in nature. Intimacy to the expanse. Saudade is about a deep yearning – a homesickness for a place that never was. It’s a Portuguese word. I wanted the film to have a heart. That intimacy was felt watching old archive footage of my childhood – and this idea of recreating that child – what would they make? Some kind of endless underwater universe – a strange expanse”. The full soundtrack is available below.

When it comes to future plans for Anil Sebastian, they disclose another project and that is their involvement in an Icelandic band ‘Hrím’: “I’m part of Hrím an Icelandic band and we’re working on our debut album. London Contemporary Voices is going to be announcing a year of happenings and collaborations around our 10th birthday”. 

The last note Sebastian wants to put forward is their residency with the charity Living Words and we cannot stop being impressed with their capabilities: “I’ve spoken a lot about seldom heard voices with you and about how we’re not all in the same boat. I’m a writer with the charity Living Words under the direction of Susanna Howard. We’re hearing the words of professional carers, people with advanced dementia, and their loved ones during the pandemic which will be made into a book called Bringing The Inside Out which will be out on 14th December. It’s my third residency with Living Words”

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Words: Karolina Kramplova