Antony Hegarty - Bitter-sweet memories of the voice of chamber-pop

Antony and the Johnsons' new album features a revealing book of art by Antony Hegarty. He tells Elisa Bray about growing up an outsider

Sometimes, to meet a creator of other-worldly music is deeply disappointing when the musician's ethereal image is stripped away to reveal somebody ordinary and down-to-earth. But in the case of Antony Hegarty, singer/songwriter of chamber-pop band Antony and the Johnsons, the person behind the music is just as complex, otherworldly, and warm as his music implies.

Bulky and more than six feet tall, his all-black outfit setting off his pallor, the feminine gentleness that the 39-year-old embodies is the antithesis of this size. "What kind of milk is this?" he queries, softly, as we take tea at the London hotel where Hegarty always resides when over from his home in Manhattan. "I get all these rashes on my face if I drink normal milk. I just found out; I had all these symptoms that I never really knew."

Antony and the Johnsons have just released their new album, Swanlights, with a 144-page hardback book filled with collages and sketches by Hegarty. It's a thing of beauty, and exhibits the visual arts which first interested Hegarty as a child, when he started drawings which have up to now only been seen in the band's album artwork. Hegarty has been working on the project for a few years; while making last album, The Crying Light, Hegarty was writing and recording Swanlights, which he calls the "cacophonous side thing".

"I simultaneously started doing a lot more collages and impressions on paper just to develop ideas and to spend some solitary creative time by myself, and this book really reflects the last four or five years of visual thinking I've been doing. Mostly I just would draw line drawings in my leather diary. I always keep my diary."

The Swanlights concept, he explains, is a reflection of a spirit on the water's surface at night. "Like you'd imagine there's a ghost flying over a lake and her reflection on the lake's surface – it is a couple of layers removed from the physical manifestation, but still something visible – do you know what I mean? It's something intangible that's very real."

"Of all my records it's the least singular approach – generally my records have had a single theme that they've circled. This record is all over the place, really. There are a lot of happy moments, down moments, it's a full spectrum emotionally, but I guess it's a reflection of where I've been in the last couple of years. I've been doing a lot of reflecting about how I feel – it's a mixture of really joyful feelings and some sadness too."

The sadness, he explains, emanates from his musings on the environment, a theme which recurs throughout the drawings of his book. "Sometimes around the environment I can feel a bit hopeless. I spend a lot of time thinking about that." On first perusal, some of the drawings appear to be quite bleak, but Hegarty prefers to see his drawings as "constructive". "It's a gesture towards human-ness, wanting to improve things. I put it forward in the hope that other people are experiencing a similar feeling of powerlessness and yet a desire for things not to go down in the way they're going down, in terms of having a sense of how the environment is shifting. It makes me frightened, uncomfortable and sad. I read a lot of scientific journals and scientists' opinions on these things, but they're not experts on the human spirit; they're just experts on statistics. So they're not necessarily the right people to ask. But I think we're definitely on a crossroads."

It is a quandary for a musician who increases his carbon footprint with every tour and promotional visit – like today, for example. Hegarty looks glum. "This last year I haven't travelled at all. I've been in a quandary – I have a problem with the amount of travelling there is, so it's a huge issue. And does that mean I'm never going to tour again? I don't really know."

Antony and the Johnsons emerged in 2005 with their Mercury Prize-winning debut album I Am a Bird Now. It was Hegarty's otherworldly voice which wooed critics and fans alike, but it had taken him many years to discover his talent. Growing up transgender with three siblings in a Catholic household in Chichester and then California, and identifying foremost with gay artists Boy George and Marc Almond, Hegarty always knew that he didn't fit into the role set out for him.

"Whereas the little boys and girls in standard roles develop in mirror images that they see on television, transgender kids often manifest despite having no role model. I think for transgender people there's no going back – it's almost from the dawning of your consciousness. Society tells you that you're so different and there's really nowhere to hide it."

Hegarty recalls the moment when he fully embraced his identity. "I suppose there was a pre-pubescent moment when I decided I was going to do my own thing. There was a point when I was at war with the locals and I had to leave. I had to tell my parents I wasn't a Christian. It was when I realised very consciously that I wasn't a part of the programme. If I was in Jamaica or Afghanistan I'd have been buried under a wall of rubble at the age of 12." Up to this point, all Hegarty knew was that he was going to be a kind of artist.

"When I was seven there was this book my older brother had about careers. It had a list of about 100 different jobs you could have. And I remember I chose all three of the fruitiest professions. I don't think it said 'singer', but I didn't consider being a musician. I always thought I'd be more involved in some physical craft like drawing. It was only when I hit puberty that I got into music and I saw people like Marc Almond and I thought, 'oh well, that's what I have to do'." His mother bought him a Casio keyboard when he was 11 and he started singing and playing along to electro-pop songs from the early Eighties – Depeche Mode, Soft Cell.

"My sister was very sweet. She could hear me singing through the wall and she told me years later that she used to listen to me. But it must have been a horrible sound. I just tried to sound like Marc Almond – he was my first music teacher. There wasn't anyone telling me I was good at music, but I started writing songs when I was 13 and I don't know what compelled me. I was just determined."

It wasn't until years later, when he performed at 19, after moving to Manhattan and enrolling at the experimental-theatre wing of New York University, and people approached him to say they were deeply affected by the show, that he realised he had a gift.

"I was shocked – it was the first time I'd had that feedback that anyone thought my singing was emotionally affecting. I remember when I'd been a kid, at my grandma's house hearing Alison Moyet and feeling the same strange feeling as when I listened to Boy George. Now I realise I was having a really emotional response to the music. It was beautiful and magical."

When Hegarty needed a break from touring recently, he felt burnt out and exhausted. "It took me a year to recover. It wrings out the marrow from your bones. I remember Devendra Banhart once told me, 'I feel like a piece of charcoal'. When you've poured everything out and there's nothing left, you feel like a piece of coal." So he retreated to his home in Manhattan, taking a year out. What did he do? "Just normal things. Drinking teas and coffees. And laughter. I'm not a culture vulture."

If he has a goal, it's to offer something different. "I've been commissioned by the public as an artist to think about things differently – you sort of go out and try to find out things to bring back to tell people."

'Swanlights' is out now on Rough Trade

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