Anna Wise is very good at keeping secrets. The Berklee-trained singer knew Kendrick Lamar‘s surprise release of To Pimp a Butterfly-era demos, untitled unmastered., was coming for two weeks before it actually arrived on Friday, March 4. So was it hard for the recent Grammy winner, who lends her delicately robust voice to “untitled 03” and “untitled 05,” to keep such big news to herself? “Oh, no,” she tells SPIN over the phone, “especially when it’s someone I care about.” Admitting she’s partial to speaking in metaphors during our brief conversation, Wise asks if she can indulge in another one: “Imagine you’re a robot, and you open your stomach, and put a piece of coal in there, and it cooks inside of you and becomes a diamond the longer you keep it. I’m talking positive secrets,” she clarifies. “Specifically, ‘Don’t talk about this release date.'”
The Brooklyn-based Wise — who also appeared on Butterfly and its predecessor, 2012’s good kid, m.A.A.d city, and is in a duo of her own, Sonnymoon, with producer Dane Orr — is currently busy working on a forthcoming solo EP. “Precious Possession,” the first listen off of it, shimmers with jazzy post-dubstep drips and synthpads, as her “alien”-sounding murmur weaves in and out of focus like cigarette smoke in a speakeasy. Below, Wise recalls how arguably the best rapper of our generation found her online, and compares him to a “firecracker” lighting his collaborators’ eager fuses.
Did you know that these were going to be demos when you recorded them? Did you think they were going to appear on the album?
I don’t usually think about it like that. We record so many songs, I think of them as a little slice of a cake. I don’t know which kind of cake is going to come out when — or if ever — but it’s always a pleasant surprise when something like this happens.
So you just recorded them, and then were just kind of like, “Whenever they come out, they come out?”
Yeah. I have to remind myself of that often, because we record so many songs. There’s probably 20 songs from good kid, m.A.A.d city that nobody’s ever heard. We’re constantly working on the beginning of a song, or we’re always in different phases of songs. Whenever [Lamar’s team] brings me out to check in, I’m like, “Where are we now?”
It’s always this fun game I play with myself, like, “I wonder if that thing we recorded on the bus outside that college show with the Dirty Projectors three years ago — if they’re going to bring that up in the session today?” It’s been happening for so long! I’ve been working with them since 2011.
Do you remember the day that you recorded “untitled 05?”
I don’t remember the day. I know it’s old. It was unique because we were all in the studio room together, as opposed to separating the vocals into the vocal booth. We all had to be really quiet and still while recording each of our parts. I never know what [Lamar] wants or what’s going to happen. I just sit there quietly and enjoy myself and being there until he’s like, “I need you to do this!” It was probably one of the most intimate sessions we’ve ever had.
Terrace Martin said “untitled 03” was written the day before [Lamar’s] Colbert performance. What was that like for you?
Oh, gosh. It’s hard to remember. It was like entering a room that already has an intention, that we’re coming together to create something — me, Derek [Ali], Bilal, Thundercat, Kendrick, and Dion, who was on percussion. I’ve actually said this before in interviews: It’s really hard for me to describe anything literally. I exist in metaphors.
If you were to describe it metaphorically, if that’s easier for you, how would you describe it?
Me, Terrace, Kendrick, Bilal, Thundercat, and Dion — it’s like putting six firecrackers in a room. We’re each a different color [of energy]. Kendrick is a firecracker, but he also has the flame, and he’s walking around lighting us all. And then he lights himself and he’s like, “Let’s go!” And then we just go “BOOM!”
How did you find out that this was going to be released today? Did you just see it on Spotify, or wherever, along with everyone else?
I knew it was coming out. I didn’t tell anybody. I love that they trust me enough to tell me when things are happening. I’m so proud of myself for not saying anything. It’s a little personal victory, you know? I actually congratulate myself. Like, “Yeah, I did that! I kept that!”
Can you tell me how you guys found each other?
Kendrick found me on the Internet. I believe it’s a video of me singing a song from my band, Sonnymoon. The song is called “The Nursery Boys.” It’s funny because that kind of nasally tone I’m using in that song was the tone he wanted to learn. He’s since credited me, like he talks about that in interviews. We met because he heard that song on YouTube, and then he asked around for my phone number and text-messaged me. I was driving across the country, and I think it was in Idaho, or Iowa. I got his text message and was just like, “We’re driving to Carson, California.”
What’re you working on? I heard you have an EP coming down the pipeline?
It’s coming down the pipeline! That’s such a funny thing to say. Like, is it like a sludgy pipeline? Is it like water? What kind of pipes are we talking about? It’s always interesting to think about clichéd metaphors. Anyway, I have a solo EP coming out that I’m super excited about. I have a lot of music in my bag right now. Like a Mary Poppins bag of material.
Did you have sort of an overarching concept for this EP, or is it just a collection of songs?
Yes! There is a theme, and the theme is “women.” Women are great. We’re f**king great, and I want to talk about us. And talk about myself, because I’m a woman. I guess it’s kind of selfish. “Let’s talk about me!”