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Antony & the Johnsons - Artist Profile

The Warbling Songbird

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Antony and the Johnsons

Antony and the Johnsons

Jason Rothenburg
Core Members: Antony Hegarty
Formed in: 1993, New York City, New York
Key Albums: I Am a Bird Now (2005), The Crying Light (2009), Swanlights (2010)

Antony Hegarty (born 1971) is a singer-songwriter from New York City who's found great acclaim and a pianist and vocalist. Recording under the name Antony & the Johnsons, Hegarty specializes in a brand of grandstanding, showstopping torchsongs, which showcase his unique voice. Singing in a vibrato-rattled warble, Hegarty's gender-confusing voice has often been compared to Nina Simone.

Background

Born in Sussex, Hegarty's family relocated to California when he was 11. Hegarty found refuge in surface-mail copies of Smash Hits that he had shipped in from England. Hegarty had to particular musical heroes, both of whom he would eventually collaborate with: Marc Almond of Soft Cell, and Boy George of Culture Club.

"He was the first person I saw in the world that I thought looked like a reflection of me," Hegarty said, in a 2005 interview. "I remember getting that first Culture Club record and just staring at the cover, and going 'wow, that's me!' I think that was when I really decided that I was going to be a singer, because it just seemed reasonable that that would be what someone like me would do."

Beginnings

Hegarty moved to New York in 1990 to attend the experimental Theatre Wing of NYU. Initially performing as part of avant-garde theater shows, he soon would take his voice to the "drag bars" of the city, "trying to play songs so sad they'd make the trannies cry."

After David Tibet of experimental English institution Current 93 heard demo recordings of Hegarty, he offered to release them on his own Durtro label. In 1998, Hegarty would release the eponymous debut album for Antony & the Johnsons. It was, at the time, a strictly underground release.

In 2001, Hegarty's music was discovered by music promoter/svengali type Hal Willner. At that stage, Willner was working on Lou Reed's musical translation of the works of Edgar Allen Poe, The Raven. Willner suggested that Hegarty might be a good choice as one of the album's many guest vocalists, and brought him in for an audition.

"I was told that if he didn't like what I did in the studio, he might just walk into the back-room, and I'd be asked to leave on the spot," Hegarty says. "So, y'know, you really wanted him to like you, and it turned out that he really liked what I did, and it came to pass that we became, actually, really good friends, and he's been a tremendous ambassador for me."

Breakout

In January of 2005, Hegarty would release his second album, I Am a Bird Now. Featuring guest appearances by Reed, Rufus Wainwright, Devendra Banhart, and Hegarty's childhood hero Boy George, the record was a concept album about transgender transformation.

In September of 2005, I Am a Bird Now was awarded the Mercury Music Prize for the best British album of that year, beating out more favored nominees like M.I.A., Coldplay, Maxïmo Park, and Bloc Party. Following its win, the album rocketed up the UK albums chart from #135 to #16 in the space of a week.

In the years following its release, Hegarty's voice turned up on more and more records; the singer working with Wainwright, CocoRosie, Björk, Hercules and Love Affair, Joan as Policewoman, and composer Nico Muhly.

Developments

Muhly worked intimately with Hegarty on the recording of the third Antony & the Johnsons album, 2009's The Crying Light. Wedding Hegarty's stark, piano-driven songs to Muhly's rich orchestrations, the record was the songwriters attempt to author a song-cycle about the Earth as "a dying planet."

"These songs," Hegarty explained, "are my attempt to dismantle the wall that separates me from my perception of the world, some of which attribute to ideas of land from my childhood, from hierarchical theologies that would have me believe that, as a human-being, I somehow have a separate destiny, that this world is just a work-station, as opposed to the place that gave birth to me."

2010 brought the fourth Antony and the Johnsons LP, Swanlights, an album also rich in images of nature, and filled with numerous love-songs. The record came with artwork that lavishly reproduced Hegarty's own visual art creations made over the period of working on The Crying Light and Swanlights.

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