It’s a warm autumn night in 2008, and a hundred or so patrons have been invited to venture inside a disused clock tower, hiding in plain sight among the buildings south of Houston Street. Films of blurry vegetation are projected on scrims around the space. Clusters of women who look like war refugees and fallen angels scatter to every corner. As luminaries including Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, and Michael Stipe look on, a towering physical figure, beatific in draped white cloth, enters. Like filings toward a magnet, the women move toward the figure of Antony Hegarty. Eventually, a makeshift choir of 10 converges at the center of the room, Antony looming a good foot taller than the others.
“I’m gonna miss the sea, gonna miss the snow/I’m gonna miss the bees, miss the things that grow,” they sing together on the lament of “Another World,” and this poignant if brief performance ends with the choir ascending a spiral staircase that leads to the clock itself. Even though that particular night transpired some three years ago, the edges of my eyes still water at the memory of watching Antony between the two levels, mid-ascent.
Affected yet assured, at once heavenly and earthy, at its core infinitely sad yet disarming in its sincerity, its 15 minutes encapsulated Antony’s appeal. “That particular performance of ‘Another World’ was prophetic in a way,” he recalls. “That was my first collaboration with P.S.1 and MOMA, and it was the earliest prototype for what we’re doing at Radio City later this month.” So Antony tells me at his apartment in the West Village. To someone only familiar with his singing voice, hearing Antony in person startles, as his English accent becomes evident. He sips a white mug of tea and tugs at his ink-black locks as he talks.
The subject matter of “Another World,” about the absolute and imminent annihilation of our ecological system, marked a sea change in Antony’s musical focus that carried through the course of that EP, 2009’s The Crying Light, and 2010’s album and art book, Swanlights. A MOMA-commissioned performance of the same name at Radio City Music Hall this week (assisted by light artist Chris Levine, lighting designer Paul Normandale, and set designer Carl Robertshaw) and an exhibition of Antony’s visual art going up at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles later this month will represent the culmination of Antony’s multidisciplinary creative process over the past three years.
Even with his shoulders hunched, Antony’s physical presence is formidable. “I went and performed at the TED Conferences last year, and I was confronted by these scientists who said that my music was too depressing,” he says. “And then they said that 50 percent of the world’s species are already done for. It’s not a talking point, and there’s no point in having feelings about it. We need to start grieving, at the very least.” A few weeks before the celebrated scientist Stephen Hawking predicts the need to colonize Mars within the next hundred years, Antony’s exasperation is clear: “People can more easily imagine the collapse of the world than they can imagine stepping away from capitalism or patriarchy.”
Which is not to posit Antony as a Greenpeace activist. But he is unable to separate the quandaries he faces as a transgender person living in the 21st-century United States with these looming global crises. “I see them as parallel issues, as a tiny reflection of a greater problem,” he notes. “Even as a transgender person, I’m excruciatingly aware of my privilege as a white male, and the subjugation of women is critical to understanding the subjugation and destruction of the ecology.”
When Antony left San José, California, at 19 to head for the dream and nightlife of New York City, he devoted himself to the city’s early-’90s cabaret culture—even as AIDS continued to ravage the gay community, its own artistic history being erased with each passing death. He found work gardening and as a cleaning lady in an S&M parlor. He draped himself in the nocturnal: “I was hell-bent on submerging myself in late-night culture and creating work. The model was Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet, of things that happened late at night, beautiful glistening things that happened at that hour.” He did experimental theater at P.S. 122 but soon began to focus on music and used his singular singing voice so as to truly reach his listeners. “The idea was always to sing something to get all these drunk people to cry at 3 in the morning, be it at the Pyramid or the Limelight,” he recalls. “If anything, I got better at creating that sense of intimacy in my recordings.”
His first album brought his music to the attention of Lou Reed and freak-folk upstart Devendra Banhart, who both championed and recontextualized his work beyond the confines of New York’s queer art scene. But it was when I Am a Bird Now garnered the Mercury Prize in England in 2005 that he achieved success and acclaim in Europe, though success still eludes him back home. “America is less willing to consider a gay or transgender having a platform outside of gender identity,” he says. “But we are barely acknowledging that the weather is changing, either.”
During Swanlights, Antony will be backed by a 60-piece orchestra as he performs selections from his back catalog. The arrangements were crafted by the likes of Johnsons guitarist/violinist Rob Moose, Rufus Wainwright arranger Maxim Moston, and frequent Antony collaborator Nico Muhly. The performance will also serve as a homecoming for one of New York City’s superlative musical forces. Antony took the name of his group from that of African American transgender street activist Marsha P. Johnson—who herself took her surname from the restaurant on 42nd Street where she used to turn tricks—and seeing the group’s name on the Radio City marquee gives him a certain amount of pride. “Seeing our name at Radio City, I don’t see me, I only see ‘Johnsons.’ I see Marsha P. Johnson: street transvestite, prostitute, revolutionary; I see Stonewall riots. For me, it’s so meaningful to bring Marsha’s heritage to somewhere like Radio City to present it. The future dream is this.” He considers the weight of this moment for both his muse and for himself. “I am as American as it gets.”
Antony & the Johnsons’ perform Swanlights on Thursday at Radio City Music Hall.