DREAM BABY DREAM Antony & the Johnsons

 On Oct. 8 and 11, A&TJ perform in Norway with the KORK Orchestra. Rob Moose conducts; arrangements by Antony, Moose,
Nico Muhly and Maxim Moston.

BY A.D. AMOROSI

 

Antony Hegarty does not mince words.

 

The Antony
of hauntingly Heaven-sent voice fame may make ethereal chamber soul and
operatic pop with amorphously allegorical lyrics that reference the elements,
their deconstruction and how that ties into the angelic singer/composer’s
transgender reality. There is a cool vagueness to Antony and the Johnsons’ epically forlorn I Am a Bird Now (2004) the tenderly
austere The Crying Light (2009) and
the spectrally volatile latest album Swanlights that speaks vexing volumes.

 

Talking about the allusions to overawe-ing themes in his
lyrics such as love, nature and family in the grand may make him shy. And
chatting about his first coffee table book (also called Swanlights; see the sidebar at bottom) of diary pages, poetry
fragments, collages and photos done in tandem with the CD may bring him to the
brink of bashful. But he’s never silent – not when he’s talking about that
which matters beyond the scope of merely being Antony.

 

“Oh I can be a real chatty Cathy,” says Antony, while holding back what seems to be a
smirk.

 

People don’t think of him as funny or frolicking –  certainly not from his music now. But there’s
gentle humor in his lilting speech when prodded, a laugh line that extends to
some of the first times I witnessed him at Manhattan spaces like The Pyramid Club and in
residence at Joe’s Pub in 2000. “It’s true that back then I used to do a lot of
joking between songs,” he says. Antony
was, in reality, trying to capture people with humor so to alleviate some of
the weightiness of the dire and dear material so to make it easier and more
palatable. “Remember,” he continues, “I used to be the queen of making people
cry in three minutes or less. That was my goal. My songs were way too serious
for the environment I was performing them in.” As he got older he become more
direct as to what his primary purpose and focus is; to keep the jokes in his
personal life and just put the music forward. “That’s who I am at the end of a
day- a singer. I’m not a very good comedian.”

 

That doesn’t mean he’s removed himself from the gay/trans
performance art scene from which he stemmed and studied (the renowned
Experimental Theater Wing of NYU) in the 1990s. By identifying as transgender,
there is transmogrification in everything he does: shape-shifting, growth,
deconstruction, renewal. That’s the sound of Swanlights, his life in an evolving aesthetic at one with a planet
doing likewise, for better and worse.

Reminisce about the past of his days of demure drag and quiet funny cabaret
song on New York City’s Avenue A, the heartbreak of the gay and transgender
communities and his relation to God and you get a most candidly vocal Antony;
one more heartily dogmatic than the singer of Swanlights‘ retiring songs of virulence, hopelessness and joy; one
who finds clarity in speech most crucial. “Especially as a transgender person,
there aren’t many platforms; I don’t like to mince words in regard to my value
systems.”

 

To borrow a phrase from hip-hop-racy, he’s representing. As
a singer, the place that he comes from is a much more intuitive process. As
someone speaking out – whether on matters of art, sex, gender or religion – all
opportunities are a gift to take full advantage of a platform he’s been
afforded; to speak the truth about, in his words “a lot of queens who’ve been
buried under walls of rubble.”

 

“I’m pretty humorless in my work, that’s true to say,” he
muses, “but the work is particular to addressing certain things as a musician
and a composer; serious matters. I’m just following its lead.”

 

The focus of his personal and spiritual life: that’s the
work. Music is where he lays his head and his heart. He knows he takes things
hard, gets criticized for taking himself too seriously and hears often how
pretentious all that Antony
is, is. And he doesn’t mind it a bit.

 

“What I do affords me the opportunity to take a risk – to
put myself out there; allowing things to have the gravity that they have and
that that they have to have, as
opposed to flipping through them with denial. I’ve always been the canary in
the coalmine. That’s my role in my life. That’s what I think an artist’s role
is – to get on the forefront, leap into the frontier of consciousness and pull
up the next thought.”

Canary Antony
goes a few feet ahead, explores landscapes physical and emotional and reports
on the findings. What Antony
seems to have found for Swanlights is
that he has no answers – the greater questions confound and overwhelm him. Yet,
between the CD and the book, you get the feeling that he is glad to be
overwhelmed and overjoyed; confused and super-emotional about the changes he
perceives in the environment, as a transgender person.

 

“That theme is most active in the book; that being
transgender makes me like a wild animal or a witch”-here it should be noted
that although he refers to both the Virgin Mary and Christ on “Christina’s
Farm,” Antony is anti-Catholic, anti-structural religion, and consider himself
a witch – “and gives me a feral connection to the land and to nature. There are
great opposing forces in nature. Transgender people manifest themselves in the
face of great opposition. People in your own family don’t encourage you to
develop in that way. Therefore it’s about manifesting in the face of such
diversity. There is a wilderness emerging from deep within, despite opposition.
That’s the nature of a gay or transgender person-they emerge in the face of
opposition. That’s their nature. For me I’ve extended it to become an
expression of the natural world. My identity as a transgender person is an
expression of nature. It connects me with greater empathy to all nature.”

 

***

 

Deep connection is the largest part of Antony and his work. When Swanlights‘ voice shows him at his most
grittily soulful (“Thank You for Your Love”) quietly lamenting (“The Spirit was
Gone”) or softly scatting (the title track), there is an implied intimacy the
likes of which conjure the feel of I Am a
Bird Now
and how its living room blues drew you closer. Even when this
album of extremes speaks wordlessly or in simple mantra-like phrases, you can
sense him reaching out.

 

Though he’s feeling quite solitary at the moment, the singer
with ties to California, England and New York always felt as if he belonged to
the city that never slept. And while he doesn’t necessarily feel possessed by
Björk (he’s paired with her several times during his career, including Swanlights‘ “Flétta”) and Lou Reed
(another several time collaborator), Antony
regards these artists as friends who have embraced him and remain connected. “I
do feel as if Lou’s protective of me and I appreciate that,” says Antony. “He taught me a
lot about how to navigate the professional world. He’s been a real mentor in
that regard.” That connection leads to the chamber ensemble-like strings that
jut throughout “Flétta” and float longingly on “Salt Silver Oxygen” – a sonic
vibe that sounds so much in league with Reed’s former partner in the Velvet
Underground, John Cale.

 

“I hadn’t though about that, I mean, I loved his production
of Nico’s records and these have been real touchstones for me making music, especially
Desertshore and The Marble Index. They’re both so beautiful. They sound like
nothing else especially because of the strings.”

 

Funnily enough, Antony does
not feel so very connected to Cale and Reed’s old band; odd, because the VU’s
elegantly forlorn noise is so much a guidepost to what Antony does. He wasn’t a fan until after
having spent his youth listening to Reed’s latter day solo records. “When I was
a kid I was more into ‘80s music [his well documented love of Culture Club and
Boy George] and more contemporary things than the Velvets.”

As always, Antony’s
biggest connection where the book and the record is concerned is to the elements;
circling around the images and ideas of joyfulness (“I’m happy to be alive I
am”) yet hopelessness regarding the environment.

 

Hopelessness?

“Yeah a little bit,” he says quietly. “The book and the and record is me
wrestling and struggling with a sense of where I am within the environment, the
changing eco-systems of the world, the vanishing landscape and my evolving
sense of responsibility within that.”

 

Being that these thoughts come through Antony’s usual sense of
transgender-allegorical allusion, the struggle isn’t revealed in atypical
protest or ever-greening theology. Swanlights is a record of back and forth extremes (dense wordy songs and mantra, differing
viewpoints) and is more volatile than any of his past recordings. “Or maybe
it’s that I’m more volatile,” claims Antony.
Swanlights is more varied in its
lyrical positions, even oppositional at times, with lot of opposing
perspectives. He isn’t just playing devil’s advocate. It’s more like a Eugene
O’Neill play where one character is talking yet expressing differing ideas in
thought bubble fashion. “On a song like ‘Ghost’ where I’m expressing joy at the
same time spirits leap from every body: that’s what I’ve been wrestling with – these
voices, these options. I don’t have any solutions, though. And that’s my
resolve, that it’s more a bunch of questions than answers. Swanlights is very much a photo of me in the process of doing more
than I’m able to do, while questioning the structure that I’m part of. There
are a lot of extremes for me here in so many directions.”

As we discuss the decline and fall of landscapes – trans-human, animal, eco-systems
– I wonder aloud if he thinks, as I do, that each of his albums are signified
by individual elements; Bird as land,
Crying Light as air, and Swanlights as water. There seems to be a
connection between the elements of each album and how they describe the most
vulnerable aspects of each.

 

“I love that idea” says Antony, in the most enthusiastic breath of
our conversation. “Water is the most volatile of elements-more unconscious-and
it’s a conduit for fast and unpredictable movement and energy. Water is more
amorphous too. I think this record has that feeling, volatile and more
amorphous.”

 

He’s quick to point toward the new album’s title song and
how it’s light, shadowy and unpredictable in its complexity, much like
swanlights truly are in a night’s water. “The whole album is definitely shrouded
in that sort of watery nighttime imagination,” he notes, of the record’s
soulful – even psychedelic – opening chamber surge. “That’s the extremes again,
the volatility. Then again, the last one [Crying
Light
] was so austere and super-reserved that anything would seem extreme
in comparison. This one has more of a gleam in its eyes… more emotional…”

 

He drifts off a second. Antony isn’t necessarily more emotional than
he was in the past. This is a different time and a different body of work to
pick through. It’s later in his development; where Antony’s been and what he’s done in the last
couple of years, and that moment’s mixture of gratitude and despair. “The same
with the book,” he says. “They’re both mulling over this sense of things
vanishing and our responsibility and virulence and brokenness. Both projects
are about the beautiful saturation of the colors in the world, all the
creatures and the gift of life and vibrancy. And light – don’t forget light.
It’s all such a confusing time, and it’s conflicting at that. I think I wanted
to intuitively make some sort of reason to it – a panorama – that’s not
necessarily organized into something that makes a lot of sense to me. That’d
make it a panorama of my process.”

 

As he mentions the process of development and time past, I
consider aging while we get ready to wrap up our interview: how it’s been 10
years since he’s been a public singing fixture; how he’s nearly 40 now. Is that
age an end point, a beginning, or something more fluid?

“Hmmmmmmmmmm,” he muses. “It feels like a finishing of something and a
beginning of something new. I just hope the next phase involves less reaction
to the world and personal development, and more development as to how the world
should – things willed by own dream. Hopefully I’m graduating from the class of
reacting to my situation to – not manifesting a response to the world-to making
that situation. I’d like to dream what I can be, and be that instead.”

***

 

Antony Hegarty as Visual Collagist

 

Antony
is not, by nature, a visual artist. Yet here we are with a 144 page book of his
original collages, paintings, drawings and photography – all with epigram-like
poetry, diary entries, lyrics and cut phraseology. As dreamy and bleak as his
musical landscape is the dusky environment of Swanlights, the book, reveals his worlds under siege: spiritual,
organic, natural and supernatural.

 

“During Crying Light I started doing drawings and that became a place where I could develop my ideas
in private,” says Antony,
adding that he never imagined he would push his visual work forward. “I never
had confidence in myself as that kind of artist.” As time wore on, when he
showed the drawings and photos to friends, they saw it as a body of work, one
in league with the lyrical trajectory of Swanlights the album. “Writing for the CD and making the book came in parallel. I work
from a diary and scraps of paper; it’s a process of collage. I keep piles of
ideas – melodic, lyrical piles and visual piles, and collide them together as I
find relationships.” Collage has always been his work; musical collage for him
is complex, but the visual is an opportunity for something very basic and
conceptual.

“I was taking pictures of different architecture and drawing onto magazines
from the twenties and thirties, daily newspapers, older Victorian lithographs,
yellow aging advertisements. As opposed to writing a song, which is very
structural, making the drawing was more of a process of erosion. I was thinking
of it a meditation, a scratching away and tearing away at something; washing
it, scraping it.” In some instances he would cut pages in half then sew it back
together with threads. In others, he was engaged and engaging with the process,
so that it became an artifact of sorts. Some works are more direct, like the
series of photos that “cut away the bad”: where he takes away elements of the
finished photo that are painful and restores a degree of balance, as if placing
sunny cloud over shots of hunted animals and corrupted lands. (No, he doesn’t
do it quite that literally, but you get the idea.)

 

“You can play within a space, literally and figuratively,
and toy with the past and the future as it represents lines from all those
points in time in a single space,” says Antony, of the extremes that litter his
book. Somehow at this volume’s end, there is magic that music can only allude
to.

 

A version of this story originally appeared in BLURT #9.

 

[Photo Credit: Don Felix Cervantes]

 

 

 

 

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