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Interview: Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons

"It created the illusion I was out doing duets like my life depended on it."

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Antony and the Johnsons

Antony and the Johnsons

Don Felix Cervantes

Antony and the Johnsons is the work of Antony Hegarty, a 37-year-old, English-born, New York-based pianist and songsmith. Hegarty is renowned for his fluttering, warbling voice, which is reminiscent, at times, of Nina Simone. The second Antony and the Johnsons album, 2005's I Am a Bird Now, brought Hegarty to international attention; its song-cycle of transgender transformation unexpectedly winning Britain's Mercury Prize. He followed it with 2009's The Crying Light, a stark-naked series of songs chronicling the Earth as a dying planet.

Interview: 11 December 2008

As a listener, The Crying Light feels a long time coming. Does it feel that way to you?
"It took a couple of years to make. It took a while. I put a lot of work into it. I set myself a task of recording 30 songs, so it was quite a lot of work to do. And, then, later on, I decided how to arrange them, how to group them. Those 30 songs are the number that represent this body-of-work. It represents the songs I've written over the last seven years."

What characteristics define this body-of-work?
"There's a few themes that join the group together: exploring my relationship with the elemental world and the natural world; exploring the theme of parent and child, and, by extension, reaching out to the earth and the environment as a kind of a nurturing, creative parent entity; and, my heartbreak and confusion around the issue of shifting ecology. These songs 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."

Were these songs written with these subjects in mind? Or are these just things in them that you're recognizing in hindsight?
"It's definitely the latter. I only started really to notice these things when I started doing press two months ago. I had to think about it, and try to articulate these ideas. If I wasn't doing press, I wouldn't be picking them apart like this. My process is much, much more intuitive, imaginary, and much, much less a think-tank. Ultimately, at the end of the day, it matters very little what I think. People will forge their own relationship to the work, regardless of what songs mean to me. The question is whether what I'm doing is effective or useful in someone else's mind."

Has four years worth of constant interviews actually changed the way you think about your own music?
"Not really. Not in my own private mind. It's the same relationship I've always had. It's just that, in situations like this, you have to try and approximate the themes and ideas and beliefs of your record, but you don't always know how to. It's kind of a guessing game."

With the release of The Crying Light imminent, are you nervous about unveiling it unto the world?
"Not nervous, no. I'm glad that it's finished; I worked on it for a long time 'til I felt good about it. I'm glad to see it go; it's like watching a kid go off to college. It's time for it to go off on its own now. My work is finished. And I worked on it quite hard."

Do you immediately turn your attentions to the next 'child,' and start writing a whole new batch of songs?
"You do. You suddenly realise that your horizon is clear, and you can start thinking about other things. I still have all this touring to do, sure, but in another sense it feels like you've got nothing ahead of you. I've just wrapped up this rather insular, internal process of recording, and that gives you a nice feeling of completion."

Were you surprised with all that your second album (I Am a Bird Now) became?
"I was really surprised. It was shocking, for it to do so well. I hadn't expected that. It was a real boost. That Mercury Music Prize win was completely out of the realm of imagination."

Was it strange to be winning the award for best British album of the year? Do you actually feel English?
"Well, you're not determined to be English on the basis of your feelings [laughs]. You're determined to be English on the basis of your passport. And I have a passport, so I'm English. A lot of my extended family still live in England, and I have a lot of fond memories of England, and in some ways it feels like a kind of home to me. When you move around a lot as a kid, you get this feeling that you belong anywhere."

When did you move to New York?
"I arrived in New York in 1990. It was so completely different back then. That's the one defining quality of the city: it's always changing. It's a city built on two things: immigration and capitalism. It doesn't have any particular regard for the past, what's transpired on its streets, it just knocks itself down, every 20 or 30 years, and rebuilds itself. It makes for a brutal thing at times, but it's also very refreshing. Endless possibilities are always there."

Have you had an inordinate number of offers to do guest vocals for people of recent?
"Well, no, they're mostly just my friends, and these projects of theirs that've cropped up over the last five or six years. Some of them I even recorded before [I Am a Bird Now] was released, like (with) Hercules and Love Affair. I guess these things just piled up over the years, and all seemed to come out in the last year or two. It created the illusion that I was out there, doing duets like my life depended on it. The only one I've done really recently was the Björk (album, Volta), and that was really, really rewarding."

Did you ever have a disco period in your youth?
"I like certain disco. I like a lot of pre-disco, when it was more like electro and soul rubbing up against each other, before it became the full-blown disco movement."

What about Arthur Russell, who seems like a huge influence on that Hercules album?
"I didn't know who Arthur Russell was when I sang on it. Now I say that and people think that I'm crazy. I know Andy [Butler] looked at me in an odd fashion when I told him that. At the time I didn't think anything of it, but, listening to it now, I can see why it would remind people of Arthur Russell. Whom I very much know about now, of course."

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