Antony: Underground velvet

New York's avant-garde has accepted an extraordinary singer and performer from Sussex. Kevin Harley meets Antony
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

In pop music, the flaunting of influences can be a treacherous business. Come up short in the shadow of your heroes and you risk being seen as some kind of eternal third-stringer. That's emphatically not the case, though, with Antony, the remarkable voice at the front of Antony and the Johnsons (his surname's Hegarty, not Johnson, but he's just known by the more personable Antony). Indeed, when Antony talks about his admiration for, say, the tragically short-lived 1970s soul-singer Donny Hathaway, it's a testament to his talent that he could be describing his own music.

"I'm so obsessed with Donny Hathaway right now," says Antony, a Chichester- and California-raised, New York-based, six-feet-something singer with a towering talent and a winning way of whittling himself down with self-deprecatory remarks. "His work is aching but it's so hopeful, so radiant. There's almost a spiritual quality to it, something faith-like. It's sophisticated music with learned musicians but incredibly soulful. And there's something about his voice that just sits right on the nerve. It doesn't stop aching, but in a really contained way. It's just something else."

Well, so is Antony. And, as proof, he's been holding his own among many of his peers and contemporaries lately. In 2003, he toured as a backing singer for Lou Reed ("I was the coloured girl who goes, 'Doo do-doo do-doo'," he says), taking the lead vocal on a gorgeously plaintive, pleading reading of the Velvet Underground's "Candy Says" in the encores. On Antony's recently released sophomore album, I Am A Bird Now - a lovely, luxurious, artfully rendered set of chamber-soul and torch songs that swoons and yearns like nothing else in pop music right now - Reed returns the favour as guest crooner on the brazenly masochistic "Fistful of Love". The other guests whose voices colour the album include Boy George, the man of the moment Rufus Wainwright and the mystic folkie Devendra Banhart - a roll-call that deftly situates Antony in a lineage of gay singer-songwriters with staunchly idiosyncractic voices.

The list is growing, too. On the day I meet Antony, he's about to rehearse with The Tears' guitarist and one-time Suede-man Bernard Butler for a radio session. Last year, in Australia, Antony stood in for Laurie Anderson in Hal Willner's Came So Far For Beauty touring show, a celebration of the songs of Leonard Cohen featuring Nick Cave, Jarvis Cocker (Antony: "Who I'm in love with"), Beth Orton ("Who I'm in love with"), Rufus ("Who I'm in love with") and Martha Wainwright ("Who I'm really in love with"), and the McGarrigle Sisters.

Everyone's in love with Antony and his Bird, too, and with good reason. On the one hand, he has a heavenly voice: a richly emotive, free-ranging velvet-smooth vibrato that recalls the great female American soul singers. On the other, he has a distinct creative voice, ensuring that Bird maintains its singular, darkly poetic aesthetic identity among its contributing personalities. The opener, "Hope There's Someone" (as in, "who'll take care of me when I die"), suggests a core of pained longing rooted in meditations on mortality, a theme later picked up on in "What Can I Do?" (as in, "if the bird's got to die"). Elsewhere, the album unravels via themes of hoped-for transformations along existential, transgender and spiritual lines: from boy to woman ("For Today I Am a Boy" to "My Lady Story" and "You Are My Sister"), life to death ("Free At Last"), and to a kind of rebirth on the three-hankie hymnal of its closer, "Bird Gerhl". If you have tears, prepare to weep like a drain.

Church, sexuality, death, transformation, performance and transvestism were all keynotes in Antony's creative coming of age. Growing up in the UK - you can still catch traces of the accent in his voice - he attended a Catholic school, where everyone sang in church. "You joined the choir, there was no shame about it," he says, looking bemused when I ask how he came to have the voice of an angel. And the nature of the Church's ongoing influence? "I think it increased my sense of performance. You know - the show must go on!"

The influence of Boy George and Soft Cell could only enhance that God-given purchase on performance. Antony moved, with his parents, to California in 1981, at about the age of 10, but British pop music followed him in the shape of tapes sent by his uncle. "We got into music because my mother wouldn't buy us a television," Antony says. "I think she was worried we might watch too much Laverne and Shirley. We listened to music ferociously - all we wanted to hear was the English charts. One Christmas, my father bought me all the top 20 singles on vinyl, like 'Prince Charming' by Adam Ant and that cover of 'It's My Party'. Then Orchestral Manoeuvres, Laurie Anderson, Boy George and Marc Almond."

The inspiration of Soft Cell's Almond prompted Antony to seek out the likes of the cultish New York singer Klaus Nomi. Almond played a key role in sending Antony on what was a kind of archetypal gay pilgrimage for a certain generation. "I didn't know it but I'd been heading to New York since I was about 12," Antony says, "ever since I read my first Soft Cell interview, where he talked about the early 1980s sleazy underbelly of New York. Later, at university, I was doing lots of performance work and the teachers would point me in one direction. They'd say, 'Maybe you should go over there. That's where people like you go. Head you to Leper Island!' Anyway, it was early days for me, and I was becoming interested in what I termed 'transvestism and the avant-garde', so it was the place to go to."

The cover of Bird is richly suggestive in this sense, hinting at both Antony's position in relation to the underground New York art world he was seeking out as well as the album's meditations on death. The cover photograph, titled Candy Darling on her Deathbed, captures the transgender Andy Warhol star in the process of dying, all too young, from leukaemia. It was taken by Peter Hujar, who also died too young, of Aids-related illnesses in 1987. In part, Antony's music is suffused with an insider's reflections on a community dealing with the many too-early deaths in its still-recent history. "I think my work reflects that because my growing-up story was sort of in that panorama of Aids," Antony says. "It was a sad period in New York back then - lots of men in their thirties or forties were dying, people who might have been mentors to me as a 19-year-old. People like Jack Smith and Charles Ludlum.

"It was like a kind of miniature World Trade Center, except among the artistic or gay community," he says. "It's like when people say, how many blocks were you from the World Trade Center when it fell? I think the same way with Aids, except in terms of years rather than blocks. If you were two miles away from the World Trade Center when it fell, you witnessed a silent, majestic atrocity. If you were one block away, you had lumps of bodies falling on your head. The trauma sustained is very different, and I think the experience is similar for people who went through that first urban phase of Aids. It was quite a chaotic period, emotionally."

During this period, Antony was a founder member of the performance troupe Blacklips, alongside such resoundingly monikered figures as Kabuki Starshine and Johanna Constantine. The work they staged at the Pyramid. "There was a sort of hystericalness to some of it, a dark humour, a ridiculousness. We were interested in David Lynch, Blue Velvet - the way he nailed that kind of Reagan-rot in America. We wanted to go for a surreal beauty-aesthetic mixed with gore. I never called it cabaret because it was more about people performing themselves. Cabaret, for me, always seemed to be about striking a pose. What we did was more a bunch of drug addicts or sex workers or transvestites or drag queens just reacting, at 3am on stage."

Some of the fruits of that period can be found in Antony's earlier work, ranging from a cover version of Julee Cruise's spookily beautiful Blue Velvet song "Mysteries of Love", to his baroque debut album, released in 2000. (It isn't on a par with Bird, but if you hear one love song featuring the lyrics "Happy bleedy happy bruisy" and "I am very, very happy, so please hit me" this year, make it Antony's incomparable "Cripple and the Starfish".)

Antony's impetus for Bird was to strip away much of his earlier theatrical flourishes and make something more direct. Along with the arch electronic-folk duo CocoRosie, Devendra Banhart encouraged him as he worked to find his studio voice. "There's a temptation with technology to perfect everything just because you can. You can tune every note automatically. But these kids are coming in and saying, 'No, we want the real thing, we want the warts and the scratches and the clicks and the breaths. They make it human, that's the intimacy that we want.' That's how Devendra and CocoRosie really helped with this record."

Cat Power's extraordinarily spectral, spare album of cover versions, The Covers Record, made an impact, too. "I wanted something," Antony says, "that I could bring close to the ear - something people could have in their bedrooms and ponder in a comfortable, reflective way, as opposed to being something arch that they watch as though it's unfolding on a stage. I really love that Cat Power album, I thought it was so delicious that I could just fall into it forever. That was a constant reference in making this record, I wanted it to sound as close as that."

If any sense of theatricality does lingers from Antony's Blacklips days, it's not in the sense of seeing it as a front or a veil; for Antony, with his Downtown performance-art background, you get the sense that performance pieces can be as true as confessionals. Instead, you'll find it in Antony's acute orchestration of the album's various voices. "I've never been particularly good visually, as you can probably see," he laughs. "But I wanted to create tableaux and meaning by placing people in different relations to one another and casting a light on them. In a way, I think I've transferred that to the way I arrange a recording or create the artwork - it's the same process I used to use to create little tableaux on the stage."

He insists that the album is "very much a village at work, contributing to a collective voice". It's a voice that stretches right back into the New York underground via early 1980s Anglophile pop. But there's no doubting that Antony is the auteur here, no doubting that, among the cast-iron icons on Bird, it's his voice that will have hearts fluttering. "One of the impetuses for me ever doing theatre-like work," he says, grinning wryly, "was as a way of gathering people around me like a big flower. Then I'd appear in the middle, like in some expensive water ballet, singing a love song." Florid? Not at all: Antony's talent is seriously blossoming.

'I Am a Bird Now' is out now on Rough Trade; the single 'Hope There's Someone' is out on 25 April. Antony and the Johnsons play the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London SE1 (0870 380 0400; tomorrow