Mercury Prize Winner: The weird world of Antony

He's worked with Lou Reed. His heroes are Boy George and Nina Simone. His songs express extraordinary power and vulnerability. He wishes he was a girl. And now Antony Hegarty is the darling of the British music industry. John Hodgman meets the cult icon who came in from the cold

Antony had his laptop open, and he was watching a video of his recent appearance on Later, the music programme hosted by Jools Holland, who used to be in the band Squeeze. There he was on the screen in the long brunette hair extensions he has been wearing lately, which framed his gentle, full-moon face. He sang from the piano in his signature high quaver: " Hope there's someone/Who'll take care of me/When I die; will I go?/Hope there's someone/Who'll set my heart free ..."

"Hope There's Someone" is the first song on Antony's second album, I Am a Bird Now, which was released in January. Like most of his songs, it has the pace and intimacy of breathing. And like most of his songs, it's a sad song. Over two full-length records, two EPs and a series of downtown New York plays and stage shows going back 15 years, Antony has often returned to a kind of soulful, melancholic pining - for lost friends, dead loves and, especially, for transformation.

Antony, 34, sings often of wanting to become a spirit or to grow wings, to be set loose from a world where he is alone. Or of wanting to become a woman. Gender is a recurring note of disappointment for Antony - not necessarily his own, but the fact of it. Someday, he announces in a song called "For Today I Am a Boy", he will grow up to be a beautiful woman, and in his voice you hear the word "woman" as an embodiment of all the wisdom and power and fearlessness of his idol, Nina Simone. But for today, he then responds in tender resignation, he remains a child, a work in progress: a boy.

While his earliest work was presented in the gay mecca of the East Village's Pyramid Club in the early Nineties, it would be wrong to call Antony a drag act. The make-up and silk slips he has worn on-stage have never seemed to be an imitation of womanliness but more a pursuit of a kind of inclusive idea of beauty that he is still in the midst of defining.

As Antony watched himself on the laptop, Michelle O'Connor, who works with the company that booked Antony on Later, told him that his appearance had boosted sales in England of I Am a Bird Now by 59 per cent: almost 100,000 copies have now sold, including 34,000 yesterday alone.

"Hope There's Someone" was BBC Radio 1's "single of the week" in May. And while Antony has lived since the age of 10 in the United States, his childhood in southern England qualified him for a nomination this year for the Mercury Prize, Britain's most prestigious music honour.

In the United States, his work has received near universal praise from critics. He has gone from downtown New York cult status to national alternative status and, next month, to a concert at Carnegie Hall.

Antony, a serial self-deprecator, was not swayed by O'Connor's enthusiasm. "I look like the fat girl from Heart," he said with a hangdog expression. Then he sighed, as if to say, Oh, well. "At least I'm a fat girl."

Antony's voice is difficult to describe. It is a largely untrained but instinctive and wholly singular sound that keens in the upper registers, somewhere between male and female, between childish innocence and weary adulthood, at once ethereal and earthy. It emanates from a diverse tradition of divas and divos, including Nina Simone, but also Boy George and Otis Redding, Marc Almond of Soft Cell and Donny Hathaway.

But Antony's is not a voice to soothe a ride down the highway. It is beautiful but unsettling. He often multi-tracks his own backing vocals, and when his voice occasionally swoops in to accompany itself in spare, churchy harmony, you might almost drive off the road - surely there could not be two such rare and fragile creatures in the world.

He told me, beaming, about some of the shows he has been doing. "It's amazing to see how diverse the audiences are," he said. "It's a whole panorama of different kinds of people: young people, cute kids, older people, straight guys with shaved heads and beards. I think in the United States I'm still more subcultural. Here I think it's really straddling the normal world and the underworld."

Born Antony Hegarty, in Chichester, Sussex, he is the second of four children. His father, an engineer, and his mother, a photographer, moved the family to the Netherlands and then California. By the time he was 10, Antony's parents had settled in San Jose, where he went to a Catholic elementary school and then a magnet high school for the performing arts. He sang in the choir and in a death-rock band.

As Antony moved into his teen years, in the early Eighties, punk had already moved on to post-punk, and pop culture was beginning to be subverted in a quieter way by the cool gender- sedition of synth pop and the New Romantics - bands like the Human League, Adam and the Ants, ABC and Spandau Ballet, who casually added cosmetics to sharp suits (or pirate shirts).

And then there was Boy George, whose unapologetic androgyny was so brightly obvious that it burnt a huge blind spot on the culture's eye. At the time, Antony told me, the sexuality of a performer like Boy George wasn't the sort of thing that was even discussed. "Now a presentation like that would be inextricably linked to a dialogue about sexual orientation, or gender orientation, whereas then it could still fall under the umbrella of 'plumage'," he said. "People could perceive it as wacky performing - the way they received Little Richard or Liberace."

If some people failed to decode the message Boy George was sending, Antony heard it clearly. By his late teens he was staging plays based on John Waters movies while at the University of California in Santa Cruz.

Then he saw the 1988 cult documentary Mondo New York, a tour of the city's underground music and performance-art scene. What impressed Antony most was Joey Arias, the drag diva, dressed as Billie Holiday, singing "A Hard Day's Night". "It was so punk and so aggressive and so extremely beautiful - and even curiously vulnerable," Antony later told me.

He moved across the country in 1990 and enrolled in the experimental theatre programme at New York University, where he met Martin Worman. Worman was a former member of the Cockettes, the San Francisco song-and-dance troupe of cross-dressing hippies led by a young actor with glitter in his beard who took the name Hibiscus.

Antony began building new worlds, staging plays and musicals and seeking out contemporaries. Blacklips was the performance collective he founded in 1992 with his friend Johanna Constantine, a performance "cult" that, according to a website devoted to its memory, consisted of 15 or so " downtown artists, gender mutants and drug-addicted hybrids".

After Blacklips he formed a new performance group, which he called the Johnsons, in order to focus more squarely on his own plays and songs. In 1995 the Johnsons staged a play at PS122, an East Village performance space, in which a businessman becomes mysteriously pregnant and ends up giving birth to Anne Frank. It garnered him a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, which he would use later that year to record his first album, the self-titled Antony and the Johnsons.

Things began to gather momentum for Antony four years ago. He released his EP, "I Fell in Love With a Dead Boy," which featured a cover image of Antony writhing on the ground beneath the gaze of a nude Japanese hermaphrodite named Julia Yasuda and also Antony's old friend Constantine - nude but for antlers, leaves and body paint.

This image caught the attention of the producer Hal Willner, who bought the EP and played it for Lou Reed, with whom he was working at the time.

Reed said: "He's a great guy, absurdly talented, and he seemed ready to sing." But it's not only that Antony can sing, he added. "It's these parts he can come up with, these ways of double tracking, these really unusual harmonies - I could listen to Antony all day." Reed invited Antony to tour with him throughout 2003, and every night Antony would sing "Candy Says", Reed's spare, sad tribute to Candy Darling, the transvestite Warhol superstar who died young of leukemia.

Meanwhile, the soul and blues and jazz that Antony had been listening to since he was a teenager began to assert itself more prominently in his phrasing and arrangements. "Fistful of Love," a song he performed back in his Blacklips days, was, on I Am a Bird Now, heated up by horns into a chugging, growling wonder that almost lets you forget that it is sung from the point of view of an abused lover celebrating his own bruises.

Lou Reed opens that particular song with a short soliloquy. He's one of many guest voices on I Am a Bird Now, including Boy George, who Antony got to know through working briefly with him on Taboo before its short run on Broadway. "Antony's vulnerability is so honest and powerful, and that is what makes a true star," Boy George told me in an e-mail message. But, he pointed out, "I've seen live audiences twitching when he performs, because some people get very uncomfortable with such raw vulnerability. I love it. It's what we need now."

The song Antony sings with Boy George is a slow, stately duet called " You Are My Sister". Earlier this year, they sang it together at Joe's Pub, and Boy George says he saw Reed in the audience with tears in his eyes.

And then, when his spring tour swung through Ireland, Antony had to sing it in Belfast by himself. "You seemed to move through the places that I feared," he sang. "You lived inside my world so softly ..." The crowd, already knowing the words, sang Boy George's chorus back to him: "You are my sister, and I love you/May all of your dreams come true."

For the first time in a long time, Antony began to feel hopeful. But, he said as we finished our lunch: "I love that quote from Candy Darling, from her diaries, when she says, 'Love is a delicate spirit that loses its essence under scrutiny'. I think sometimes hope is the same way. Do you know what I mean? You have to be gentle with it."

Antony Hegarty, the story so far

1970

Born in Chichester, Sussex.

Attended St Richard's RC Primary School, where "the dinner ladies tried to get me to play with the boys on the other side of the playground".

1970

The family moves to Amsterdam.

1981

The Hegartys relocate to San Jose, California. Antony attends a Catholic elementary school and a high school for the performing arts. He finds school in the US more difficult than in Britain, and reacts to being "singled out" by wearing more make-up

1990

Joins New York University to study experimental theatre - "about as useful as a degree in knitting," he later says. He finds the city more accepting of his sexual ambiguity

1992

Fulfils his ambition to become "a transvestite chanteuse at 3am nightclubs bathed in blue light, like Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet" by forming Blacklips, a theatrical troupe who put on a new, barely rehearsed play every week. After Blacklips he forms a new group, the Johnsons and decides to concentrate on music

2000

Antony and the Johnsons release their self-titled debut album. He appears in the Steve Buscemi film Animal Factory

2001

His EP "I Fell In Love With a Dead Boy" comes to the attention of Lou Reed; he tours with him in 2003, singing "Candy Says", and appears on Reed's album The Raven

2005

Releases second album, I Am A Bird Now, with cameos from Lou Reed, Boy George and Rufus Wainwright. Wins the Mercury Music Prize for "songs that send shivers down the spine". Antony and the Johnsons will tour the US and Europe for the rest of the year

Oliver Duff

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