Antony and the Johnsons: The bird man

Antony (not to mention his Johnsons) is a creature in flight - flight from the assumptions we all make about sex, about identity, about the nature of the soul. He is nothing if not elusive. Undeterred, Simon Price tracked the Mercury Music Prize-winner down to an eyrie in Spain. First item on the agenda? Hairstyles...
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Trawl the internet, dig through the press cuttings and official biographies, and the same handful of facts crop up over and over. The surnameless Antony was born in Chichester, spent his teens in California, and idolised androgynous singers like Marc Almond and Boy George (whose Culture Club album Kissing To Be Clever changed his life, he says). In 1990 he moved to New York, where he formed the cabaret ensemble Blacklips, modelling himself on the Isabella Rossellini character in Blue Velvet. He formed Antony and the Johnsons and released a self-titled debut in 2000. He then spent 2003 touring as a backing singer to Lou Reed (on whose albums Animal Serenade and The Raven he also appeared), before working on this year's breakthrough, I Am A Bird Now. That, more or less, is it.

He isn't a widely photographed person either. There are just two famous photos of Antony. One, on the inner booklet of the CD, showed him looking angelic in a bleached blond crop and theatrical facepaint. The other, on the promotional posters, was slightly demonic, showing him peering, sinister and enigmatic, through a long black wig, as though preparing to play Richard III.

I wonder which Antony will turn up today. The answer is neither. Wigless and without make-up, he's a gentle giant in loose clothing and an embroidered, crocheted cap. The reason for the paucity of knowledge about Antony becomes immediately apparent: that's the way he likes it.

He knowingly eats up valuable interview minutes by asking questions about me: where I come from, what I think about Valencia (which is where we're sitting, in his hotel room ahead of a show at the Spanish port's new Greenspace venue); and when I attempt to ask my first proper question, he quickly interrupts it to make detailed enquiries about my hairstyle.

This could be genuine inquisitiveness on his part - and I could be a horrible cynical man for doubting him - but somehow I suspect it's a delaying tactic, like a footballer shielding the ball by the corner flag in the dying seconds of a cup-tie when his team are 1-0 up. To put him at ease, I say, "If there's anything you don't wanna answer..."

"Don't worry," he smiles. "I'm good at that."

I suggest that Chichester - a conservative southern English town - must have been a difficult place for someone like Antony to have spent his childhood. But already he's deftly confounding my expectations. "No, it didn't really occur to me," he says. "I was just, like, off pursuing my little projects. And I had my friends..."

I ask how the move to California came about. He's even hesitant about such a straightforward, factual question. "Um... my father..." he falters. "We moved around a lot through my parents' work. My father was an engineer, so we followed his work. We moved a lot, so we lived in a lot of places in the Bay Area - San Francisco, San Jose... California culture is different to England, but northern California is different again."

San Francisco - home, in succession, to the beatnik, hippy and gay scenes - is noticeably more liberated than the rest of the US - the sort of place where your taxi driver will strike up conversation about French literature and revolutionary politics.

"Maybe, probably... actually, yeah. I would say so," he replies. "You know, my feeling is you just meet people. There are interesting people everywhere. I certainly found a lot of interesting people there that I gravitated towards. Although I always had a sense that I would be moving away from there, as soon as I was able."

Was it always going to be New York?

"I didn't really have clarity about New York until I was about 18. Then I just realised: 'Oh!' I mean, if I'd stayed in the UK I probably would have moved to London. But because I was in America, it had to be New York. I actually tried to return to England for a while. I applied to all these colleges. But eventually I got into this art school in New York, so that's where I went."

I ask Antony at what point he realised he didn't quite feel right in his skin. "I don't really... I never really had that experience, to be honest. That wasn't really the issue." Yet in songs like "For Today I Am A Boy" and "Man Is The Baby", manhood is presented as a chrysalis form, and womanhood as the butterfly. I'm reminded of Valerie Solanas's much-quoted observation that "the male gene is an incomplete female gene". It's the tale of the Ugly Duckling.

"Yeah it's true. There's definitely issues around gender and identity that are dealt with on the record, but that wasn't my childhood experience. That wasn't my focus. If there were issues, it was more... trying to 'navigate through society' as I was. Because I was quite outspoken, quite colourful.

"But I was lucky, because I had a lot of friends who were older than me, who harboured me, and even if there was trouble in one end of my life, there would always be people at the other end who were saying 'You're all right, you're going in the right direction'. You know what I mean?"

If anything, Antony's first feelings of displacement were connected to geography rather than gender. "America's different than Europe," he says. "In Europe, culture's constantly building upon itself. And there are so many centuries of culture. Whereas in America, especially in California, it's constant new development - it's this sprawling kind of question-mark. And almost a slightly vacuous sensation with some of those suburbs of California. There's a certain emptiness to it. But then there's the landscape itself, which is beautiful and really inspiring. And the 'story' of America, which is kind of... dramatic."

The gender issues, presumably, came later on? "Well, you know, there's an assumption that the record is entirely autobiographical. But when I sing, for instance, 'For Today I Am A Boy', I'm not necessarily singing it for myself. I can sing it for myself, and often do, but... it has a more open feeling for me. I like songs to be free, like a loose garment. Sometimes I sing it for the room. Sometimes I sing it for a girl in my mind. Sometimes I sing it for a girl I know. Sometimes I sing it for a ghost hanging from the rafters."

Assuming that all art is autobiographical is a classic critic's error, but in this case it's surely understandable. Antony's naked, emotional style sounds as though he's pouring his heart out. ("I think I'm pouring my heart into it," he corrects.) Perhaps the most extraordinary song on I Am A Bird Now is "Fistful Of Love", a song apparently written from the perspective of the victim within a violently abusive relationship. Pop songs have been written about this subject before (recently Jamelia's "Thank You", for example), but they tend to be the retrospective voice of someone who's woken up and fought back. The reason "Fistful" is so moving is because the narrator seems to be still inside it, and still in denial: "And I accept and I collect upon my body the memories of your devotion/ And I feel your fist, and I know it's out of love."

"That's a song I wrote when I was in my early twenties. It's funny singing it now, because I don't really sing it from a victim's perspective any more. I'm finding it's a little bit about turning the tables too, I dunno. Sometimes a song is a little bit like a puzzle, and it doesn't make sense to you, even as a writer."

The latest single to come off the album is "You Are My Sister", a duet with Boy George. It occurs to me that for Antony, George was something of a guardian angel figure, and perhaps the song is addressed to George as much as sung with him. "Well, I wrote that song for my sister," he says. "My actual sister. But yes, what's nice about it is, I didn't write it until George said 'Yeah I'll do a duet with you'. I'd already written the chorus, and it was then that I wrote the verses. Immediately, like splat! It was unbelievable how that song struck me. It was the least laboured song I ever wrote. There are so many levels of it for me. It can be about family, but obviously having George in the song creates a whole other powerful context and meaning."

Antony can rhapsodise all day about George. "He's totally intuitive," he says. "We had such a hoot doing 'Happy Christmas (War Is Over)' for the War Child album, and he was so funny - because his whole ethic is more! He's quite Otis Redding-y in that way. Otis used to keep shaking it, and really worry each word. George was like 'Sing HARDER!' He just kept pushing and pushing me. Whereas I tend to just dissolve into warbles and nuances, and George really pulls it up. He's dredging for soulful emotion."

For George, gender always seemed like a playground. In Antony's songs, it feels more like a prison. "Well, the dialogue around George's gender identity was playful. At the beginning it was a very feminine, vulnerable gesture: 'Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?'. I think that was a lot of his power: it's that lack of artifice which appealed to me. On the cover of Kissing To Be Clever he's wearing hardly any make-up. It was just him, 20 years old, with a few pimples, and those rivery eyes, and he just looks like a beautiful woman. Or - more - like an androgyne. You wouldn't even necessarily call it a 'queen'. It's what you might now call someone who's transgender."

To what degree does Antony himself (and I'm still hearing the words "One day I'll grow up to be a beautiful woman" and taking them at face value) feel female, or at least latently, potentially so? "Do I feel female? Y'know, I feel like a mixture. I feel pretty mixed. I don't think George identifies as transgender. Whereas I probably would identify as transgender."

You would?

"If you had to put a sticker on someone's forehead, yes. But I'm not a sticker-on-the-forehead type of person. That always ends up making me squirm a bit."

Transgender to the extent of considering yourself pre-op?

"I don't know," he ponders. "I haven't really thought about it. When you asked if I felt female and I said I felt mixed, I... it suggests a confusion, where there can be a lot of dignity and clarity in ambiguity. Maybe 'ambiguity' is the wrong word, but there are all these other shades and colours of identity. People try to force you into one section or the other."

The social coercion to align with one camp or the other would appear to be what annoys Antony the most. "We're not a hunting and gathering society any more! We don't need this division of labour! There's not this pressing need to be the one who kills the meat or, er, stirs the baby! Even hunting and gathering societies, like Native American cultures, had this really beautiful space for transgender people. There's this incredible book called Spirit in the Flesh [by Walter L Williams] which is about Native American transgender people, who were considered to have 'two spirits'. I deal mainly with boys - and it's another question where people who started out as women go - but in the book most of the focus is on androgynous boys and transgender queens. Often they're creative, sometimes they're a little bit shamanistic, and nurturing... And also a liaison between men and women."

Even within the gay scene, there's pressure to conform to cookie-cutter clichés. "Sometimes I think with this issue of gay identity that people get the wool pulled over their eyes. So many people, particularly gay people, whittle down their identity to this notion of sexual orientation. And it's important legislatively to identify that as a difference. But I think a lot of gay people wake up as adults and think 'Wait, you mean all that stuff that happened to me, all that notion of my difference, was just because I wanted to put my thing in this hole, as opposed to that hole?!' But obviously that's not the case. Most kids growing up gay are identified for their gender difference long before their sexual behaviour. Whether it's a boy dressing up as Wonder Woman, or being too masculine of a girl.

"Sometimes I wonder whether it's time to make a new kind of assessment. Sometimes I think people are a little bit cheated by this new kind of corporate consumerist culture that's emerged around gay identity, and being deprived of some aspects that they should be treasuring around what makes them different."

At first, the reputation of Antony and the Johnsons was a slow-burning, word-of-mouth thing. For myself, it was a chance meeting with Andres Lokko (effectively Sweden's John Peel) at a pop singer's wedding, who said "I think you'd like this". It was a self-selecting thing: people recommended A&TJ to people who would "understand".

This year, however, especially with the Mercury Prize victory, Antony's popularity has snowballed. The following Sunday, I Am A Bird Now leapt from 135 to 16 in the charts, and sales increased twentyfold, the greatest boost in the prize's history. By definition, Antony's music was reaching the ears of people who had not only never experienced feelings like those expressed in his songs, but possibly never even met someone who had.

"I don't really get the sense that that's the way people are taking my music on," he disagrees, "as the experience of this marginalised section of society. My feeling is that people are finding their own connection to the songs..."

Having grown up in the UK, Antony will surely have been aware of the slang meaning of "bird", and the amusing extra nuance this lends the album title. "No it wasn't intentional - but obviously I knew it," he says.

And growing up in the States, he will also have known that "Johnson" is a euphemism for the penis? "I didn't know that until after I'd named the group," he says with distaste. "We were actually named after a person whose last name was Johnson." Both entirely coincidental, then? "The second one makes me sick. The first one... reminds me of that Leigh Bowery thing - having no embarrassment at all. Sometimes you have to hold your nose and plunge through the many layers of your own shame and embarrassment to get something that's meaningful. And take a risk and throw caution to the wind."

Following a hunch, based on the album's opening lines ("Hope there's someone who'll take care of me when I die...") and the imagery on older songs like "Virgin Mary", I ask whether Antony is religious at all. "No," he flatly asserts. "I'm not religious."

So the choice of gospel as a musical style was completely secular?

"It wasn't really a conscious choice. It was emulating the things I loved as a singer. You talked about George, and he does the same thing - there's a long tradition of European people grabbing hold of things that black Americans did - and clinging on for dear life! Because they're expressing themselves, connecting to the voice - something very spiritual, very essential - you feel life passing through you in a shaking way. It's a way to have a dialogue with the greater world."

My dictaphone clicks to a halt as the tape reaches the end of side A. I reach to flip it over, but Antony is already standing up. "I think the interview's over," he says, quietly but firmly, and shows me the door.

Antony and the Johnsons play Glasgow Academy (0870 600 100), 30 November and tour nationwide into December