Podunks is a small, quaint East Village shop with nothing particularly flashy about it, from within or without; upon entering, I notice there’s a lot of wood (wood benches, wooden knickknacks on the walls, etc.) and am immediately struck by the feeling that I’m in Vermont. The old lady behind the counter, her gray hair wrapped in a little bonnet, reinforces this notion. I assume she will sell me a cup of coffee. I assume wrong. “This is a full-service tea establishment, honey,” she explains.
I’m meeting Antony Hegarty, lead singer of the temperamental piano-chamber group Antony and the Johnsons, and the venue wasn’t my idea. Appropriately, when I first laid eyes on the hulking but fragile singer back in 2003, that wasn’t my idea either. He’d shown up unexpectedly on backing vocals during a Lou Reed show at the Bowery Ballroom, completely unknown to most of the crowd, but you could instantly tell everything about him was . . . different. Here’s a towering fellow with an extremely delicate, quavering voice, backing a legendary—perhaps the legendary—New Yorker. Where does Lou find these guys? Toward the end of the night, Lou backed off and let Antony sing the Velvet Underground staple “Candy Says.” I’d paid good money to hear Lou and not someone else, so initially I was rather perturbed. But as it progressed, something hooked me—Antony was much more passionate about this song than Lou himself had been during any of the other VU tunes he’d done that night. Maybe it’s that they both have radically different deliveries, or maybe it was that Lou was just bored with anything not having to do with ravens, but Antony somehow channeled the song’s original delicateness into something that felt, decades later, like new.
Five years on, Antony is one of the most enigmatic and unlikely musicians to emerge from New York this decade. In 2005, he released I Am a Bird Now, his second record with the Johnsons, an understated cast comprised of former Jeff Buckley drummer Parker Kindred, bassist Jeff Langston, guitarist Rob Moose, celloist Julia Kent, violinist Maxim Moston, and downtown horn player Doug Wieselman. A complex piece of chamber music vacillating slowly between somber and uplifting tones, the album eventually won the U.K.’s Mercury Music Prize for Best Album—a surprise, given that the award is reserved for British artists and no one particularly thought of Antony that way. (He was born in Sussex in 1971, lived in England for six years before heading to the Netherlands, and then moved to the U.S. in 1981.) Critics raved about the record’s vulnerability and intimacy; the lyrics are an academic’s wet dream, delving deeply into gender/identity issues: Stand-out track “For Today I Am a Boy” opens with the yearning line, “One day, I’ll grow up and be a beautiful woman.”
But again, what stood out most to me was simply Antony’s voice: a deep, emotive, operatic quiver that’s off-putting to some, but somehow blossoms when paired with his own sparse-sounding piano compositions. At the Lou Reed gig, I’d assumed he was just another downtown weirdo—still a tempting description now that’s he’s sitting in front of me, his jet-black hair dangling over his eyes, starkly offset by his pink wool sweater and thin white pants. He’s extremely soft-spoken and slightly skeptical as to my intentions (initial small talk revealed that he wasn’t treated too kindly by the New York media earlier in his career). But he seemed genuinely amused by my tea/coffee snafu and acted more like a gentle giant than anything, humble and a bit reluctant to heap too much praise upon himself, given how many fans and critics now do that for him. He tenses up at times when discussing his third full-length, The Crying Light, almost as if he’s embarrassed, not by the album itself, but by the necessity of talking about it. “I guess I’ve slowly developed a clearer sense of how to make a record,” he says, a slight hint of a British accent slipping through. “I’ve become more involved in trying to create a landscape with the sound. And I’ve realized how much is going on, sonically. It’s really subtle in what sounds nice and what you feel comfortable with.”
He may take issue with what sounds nice and what doesn’t, but others have not been so restrained once they got him in the studio. He guested on the dub-infused “Beautiful Boyz” from CocoRosie’s 2005 album Noah’s Ark, and dueted with Björk twice on 2007’s Volta. More recently, he put yet another upstart DFA act on the international map with Hercules and Love Affair’s neo-disco critical smash “Blind,” an infectious club hit that found Antony channeling one of his first musical idols, Boy George. Odd as the pairing might’ve seemed on paper, the song wouldn’t have worked nearly so well without him.
Antony’s own body of work emerges from his performance-art days in the mid to late ’90s (where he developed both his singing and lyrical voice), and is organized by mood, not chronology. Some of the material on The Crying Light dates back to 2001; this time, he expanded slightly on I Am a Bird Now‘s minimalist approach, the familiar chamber-pop sound of “Kiss My Name” giving way to “Aeon,” an initially classical-sounding piano piece that morphs into an electric guitar ballad, with a striking moment of clear, unrestrained yelping at its climax.
Lyrically, he says he took inspiration from the Japanese art of butoh dancing, where pretty much anything goes in terms of style, presentation, and structure—a somewhat abstract and pastoral approach, of course, but one not entirely metaphorical either. “I think people might be surprised about how literal I can be in my thinking,” he explains. “In butoh, they’re always seeking to embody other aspects of the natural world. Finding a way to, or catching a momentum that propels creative expression. I can’t say it properly, but dreaming of something—dreaming of an inner life of a tree or a stone, dreaming of the mud that is within that stone—and catching that. Manifesting that expression, quite literally, in the creative process.”
He quasi-apologizes for trying to explain something to me that ultimately, to him at least, isn’t really something you can put into words very well. But on the serene, haunting “One Dove,” the attempt is there: Antony’s voice wrestles with tension and climax as he proclaims, “I see things you were too tired, too scared to see.” On the similarly fraught “Another World,” he solemnly lists all the things someone would miss when exiting this planet: the trees, the sun, animals, etc.—a haunting despair once again slowly transforming into something more uplifting. “You can imagine there’s a dreamlike space around you,” he tells me. “The past, the future could meet in a creative way—something that I wouldn’t understand properly. But it carries me in a really magical way, especially as a performer. I have a hard time in the studio. I’m much more of a live performer, and I’m still just learning about the studio. When you’re in front of an audience, you have a sense of abandonment. Whereas when you’re in the studio, you’re trying to capture something. It’s hard to get lost, but sometimes you can.”
Antony and the Johnsons play Town Hall on February 19 and 20