Antony Hegarty: 'It takes nerve to get through your sense of shame on stage'

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When it comes to magazine interviews, there are, as a rule, expectations on both sides as to how the conversation should go. While the interviewee is invariably there to promote their latest product, the interviewer is looking to find out something about the person behind the work. These differing objectives can sometimes lead to tension, with each party reluctant to yield to the other. But with experience and mutual understanding, a middle ground is usually found.

I say "usually". When, on a rare sunny day in London, I sit down with Antony Hegarty, of Antony and the Johnsons, there is a brief and perfectly comfortable period of small talk. We discuss the heat, which we both loathe, and Sussex, where I live and where he spent the early part of his childhood. We talk about his recent trip to Mexico and the stomach bug he picked up there, and even a little about the Queen's Jubilee.

It's when I suggest that we get down to business and shift the focus on to him that the usual rules are thrown out. Enraged by a recent newspaper interview which he felt was "degrading", he now wishes to redraw the lines of how interviews are done.

"As a transgender person it's shocking to find out how many people in the press are willing to euphemistically or directly try to talk about your anatomy, in a way that you never would another person, in this really degrading way," he says wearily. "Sometimes, I have fallen under the illusion that the writer wants to conspire with me to say something that's meaningful. But often, when you're trying to put a point across, they're more interested in framing you as the source of all these eccentric ideas. Actually, my thought with journalists is, 'Why don't we take this opportunity to have a platform to express ourselves and our concerns.'" He looks at me admonishingly. "A lot of writers are throwing that [opportunity] away."

It was perhaps daft to think that an audience with Hegarty, now 41, would be anything but unusual. Looking back over his career, it's clear he has always operated according to his ideals, without any concern for outside approval.

In his early days as a struggling artist in New York he would stalk the streets in a black satin slip and army boots with the words "Fuck off" inscribed on his forehead as a warning to gaping passers-by. Even now, while he appears to have ditched the nighties, he doesn't exactly melt into the crowd. With his pale complexion, his towering build (he is around 6ft 4in), the curtain of thick black hair and enormous beseeching eyes, he looks like he might belong to another century, perhaps even another world. Then, of course, there is the voice, which in conversation emerges as a half-whisper but while singing turns into a beautiful, quavering falsetto. Not for nothing did Lou Reed, a man not exactly liberal with his compliments, once say: "When I heard him, I knew I was in the presence of an angel."

After a long period on the cultural margins, Antony has been embraced by the mainstream. Following a Mercury Prize win in 2005 with the album I am a Bird Now, in which he sang with enormous candour about gender displacement, violence and abandonment, he has been fêted by critics and fellow artists alike. It's a measure of the esteem in which he is held that he has been invited to curate next month's Meltdown Festival at London's South Bank, following in the footsteps of Patti Smith, David Bowie, Nick Cave and his close friend Laurie Anderson.

Not that acceptance from such institutions matters a jot to Hegarty. Nor, indeed, the customary modes of self-promotion while engaging with journalists. His disinclination to act as salesman for his creative endeavours (we're here, ostensibly, to discuss his new album) is matched only by his inertia on being asked to recall potentially key moments from his past ("You can Google it, it's all out there," he says kindly). There are, he states, more pressing matters to discuss. Such as? "Such as the ecological collapse of the world," he replies. Ah yes. That.

In New York, where he has lived for the past 22 years, Hegarty is the co-founder of the Future Feminist Foundation, a growing band of artists and thinkers united by their quest for "a shift towards more feminine systems of governance, a shift away from patriarchy and a reorganisation of our society and our civilisations". The foundation is made up of a large network of friends and associates, among them Laurie Anderson and the performance artists Marina Abramovic and Kembra Pfahler, whom he describes, in terms of their work, as "out on a limb by themselves".

If it weren't for them, and other like-minded artists whom he met in the 1990s, Hegarty maintains, he would never have had the courage to publicly talk about these ideas, "because I wouldn't have been able to evoke the hope that is necessary to put forward thoughts like that in a strong way. I wouldn't have been able to look beyond my own cynicism."

With confidence and encouragement, however, he has found his voice, and it's these ideas he wishes to share with the world today. "It's not such a fantasy to think that women could collectively develop a new kind of consciousness and create a stronger alliance with each other, than with the men and the patriarchy that they've been serving for the past 2,000 years," he states. "And that's just a subtle shift. This isn't just about women, or the feminism of the 1960s, which was about crawling towards economic equality within a patriarchal k system. This is about faggots and women and indigenous people and sensitive men all getting on deck to save nature itself, which is about to boil us down to a prune."

That's no small goal, I remark. But Hegarty is, despite the apocalyptic nature of his concerns, inherently an optimist. "I feel heartened by the collapse of the Berlin Wall. I feel heartened by the collapse of the Soviet Union. These were [edifices] that you couldn't have imagined collapsing, just falling away. The end of slavery was a miracle. Even the end of the Bush administration was, to America, a miracle. Everyone was crying so deeply. The end of unregulated, predatory, virulent capitalism will be another miracle."

"The systems that ensure the subjugation of the feminine," he continues, "are the same systems that have divorced people from nature and from a sense that nature is our creator. Everyone is so hypnotised by religion that they don't even belong to the Earth. Half of them are waiting for an apocalypse as a climax to their experience. It's that bonkers! We're dealing with a lot of people who are fast asleep."

I ask whether he has ever engaged directly with these sleeping people, and challenged their beliefs.

"No," he grins. "I just send them messages through the media."

For the time being, the Future Feminism Foundation is trying to enact these changes through music and performance, though further strategies are "in development". Hegarty's forthcoming album Cut the World, a collection of live symphonic performances of songs from his past four albums, touches on these issues. The second track, "Future Feminism", is a recording of a speech on global ecology and the ludicrousness of religious ideology that he made during a concert, to audible applause.

Hegarty is keenly aware that there are those who will think that, as a musician, he's not qualified to be talking about such things, that he should get back in his box.

"All I can do is say to them, 'You're probably right, but I feel so strongly about the way I see we're headed, that it's become my passion to do so.' I am an artist. I'm a naïve, clumsy folk artist, but I can see still speak from my intuition and from my 40 years of observing the world. I speak from experience. The greatest success I can have is to get these ideas over the wall and across to people."

When Hegarty was young, he liked to read about pop stars in magazines, and watch them on television. Marc Almond, who is now a personal friend, had a huge impact. Watching Almond, a sneering imp in eyeliner and bondage clothes, on Top of the Pops offered Hegarty hope for a future in which he wouldn't feel out of step with the rest of the world. In early adulthood, he tells me, he would read artist biographies "to figure out exactly how they became what they were or are".

I have an ulterior motive, of course, in asking Hegarty about his fanboy past. We are back on the subject of interviews and his frustrations with them, and I'm trying to explain why a journalist, and by extension readers, might want to know more about his history and interior life.

He argues that what we have already talked about is his interior life; these are the things that weigh most heavily and that he thinks about every day. It's with enthusiasm, rather than ill humour, that he again suggests we abandon the regular rituals of the press interview and I allow him to expound further on how to bring about a positive future for humanity. But I wonder aloud why we can't do both.

"For me to pore over the biographical stuff, it's irrelevant," he says. "It's not where I'm at as an artist. But anyway, I'm not going to stop you." He leans back in his seat and smiles. "So tell me what you want to know."

Hegarty's family moved from Chichester when he was 10, first to Amsterdam and later to California in the early 1980s, where his father got a job as an engineer. He and his siblings brought five records with them, among them debut albums by Depeche Mode, OMD and Marc Almond. It must have been an unsettling time.

"It was surreal, being in this really isolated environment on the top of a mountain in California where none of that music was being played," he recalls. He attended a Mexican school in San José which had a special arts programme, and where he felt immediately at home. "The girls there, even though we were from the other side of the world, were just like me," he giggles. "We basically dressed the same. We all had really long black hair and eyeliner."

He was raised a Catholic – "although," he says, "you can't really be that Catholic and watch [the new-wave singer] Lene Lovich on television". Early on he embraced religion, though he was terrified at what he saw as the inevitability of going to hell. Then, at 13, he decided that if he was to be sent to eternal damnation he "would go kicking and screaming and do what the hell I wanted".

He moved to New York in 1990, ostensibly to study, but in reality to find himself and like-minded people. k He found his spiritual home in underground theatres and nightclubs, and formed the Blacklips Performance Cult, a radical troupe who performed bloody tableaux involving nudity and the throwing of raw meat. By the mid-1990s, tiring of the late-night cabaret scene, he formed Antony and the Johnsons, the name a tribute to Marsha P Johnson, a transgender gay-rights activist who was involved in the Stonewall Riots.

Theatre is still at the heart of what Hegarty does; he has been known to appear on stage in a toga bathed in a single spotlight, a heavenly apparition with a voice to match. I wonder what it requires for Hegarty, apparently such a private person, to make himself so vulnerable. "It takes nerve," he says, "to move through your sense of shame on stage, especially if you're revealing something quite personal in a song. "'Today I am a Boy' [about a young boy longing to grow up to be a woman] was a song that was quite embarrassing for me to perform. But I enjoyed the challenge of moving through that shame and seeing if it could expand and have resonance for other people."

Hegarty winces when I suggest that, through the candour of his early songs, he has made himself a de facto spokesman for transgender people. "I am speaking out about my experiences but I can't speak for anyone else," he cautions. "Especially because my situation is ambiguous because I haven't transitioned from male to female. My experience as a transgender person has been to become comfortable expressing my sense of difference within the identity of being trans. For a lot of people, that's not their experience at all. They don't want to be trans, they want to be the opposite sex. I have so much love for those people because their condition is very real. It's almost like a sacred condition. Kids experiencing that are in a sacred crisis. They have all these gifts that boys and girls don't have."

Did it feel like a gift to you? "No, of course not. For a lot of kids it feels like an absolute curse and it's very painful. And, in fact, a lot of that experience of alienation is part of the reason that people become so tremendous. It's growing through the pain of that experience."

When I ask if that early experience was painful for him, there is a long silence. "You know honestly, for me, I wouldn't…" He stops. "I don't want to get into that. I don't have a language to frame it. What's important is that I'm very grateful that I am transgender and I feel like the 10 million other people who are transgender, they're my family."

Our time is officially up but we carry on chatting – about feminism, about his affinity with nature and about what drives him forward artistically. ("My creativity has always been a way to interface with the things I don't understand. That is the point of music and dance and colour.") He is extremely courteous and is keen that I am left feeling that I have got the best possible interview. "This is my truth," he says. "I'm sharing this with you because I hope it will be resonant for other people. I want to shake people out of their complacency. We can just try to get by, have a pleasurable life and achieve certain benchmarks of what we have been told is an honourable life – to reproduce and make a certain amount of money or whatever. Or we can try to participate as vitally as we can, and save our world, which is going to be dogshit in 100 years. I mean, what do we have to lose?"

The album 'Cut the World' is released on 6 August on Rough Trade. The Meltdown festival is at the South Bank, London SE1, from 1 August. For tickets and information, visit southbankcentre.co.uk

The hottest acts at this year's Meltdown

Elizabeth Fraser

The former frontwoman of Cocteau Twins performs her first full live shows since the dream-poppers disbanded in 1998, wrapping her ethereal vocals around a mix of new material and re-interpretations of her former band's songs. Royal Festival Hall, 6-7 August

Planningtorock

One of the line-up's rising stars is this Bolton-born avant-electronica diva, aka Janine Rostron, whose foreboding 2011 sophomore album W was an underground highlight. Complementary support comes from gothic synth-poppers and labelmates Light Asylum. Queen Elizabeth Hall, 1 August

Hercules & Love Affair

The New York collective will bring some hedonism to bear on the festival with their nostalgia-swathed disco grooves. Antony Hegarty himself will feature on the roster of guest vocalists alongside acclaimed singer-songwriter John Grant. London Wonderground, 6 August.

Marc Almond

The new-wave icon is giving a rare live performance of his cult album Torment and Toreros. Recorded in 1983 with Spanish-inflected, Soft Cell side-project Marc and the Mambas, it was one of Hegarty's formative musical inspirations. Royal Festival Hall, 9 August.

CocoRosie

Expect surreal sensuality from the Paris-based sister duo of Sierra and Bianca Casady who, with their penchant for toy instrumentation, painted-on moustaches and trans-historical dress, push freak-folk to its boldest and most esoteric limits. Royal Festival Hall, 4 August.

Laurie Anderson

With husband Lou Reed also on the bill, the legendary musician-cum-performance-artist will be presenting Dirtday!, offering "her views on politics, theories of evolution, families, history, and even animals". Royal Festival Hall, 3 August.

Hugh Montgomery

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