Photo by Don Felix CervantesTen minutes after I meet him at his
Chelsea apartment, Antony dashes into dense New York City traffic to recover my
errant cell phone from a departing cab. I fear he might get hit and die. A half-hour
later, over a cup of tea, he leans over the table and asks conspiratorially if
I am a fag. (“I love to ask that question,” he explains with a queeny giggle.)
Within an hour, he criticizes a piece I wrote about his friend Devendra Banhart.
Banhart is earnest in intention and pure of heart, Antony explains, and any doubts
cast upon him are tantamount to character assassination. Within the first 20 seconds
of Antony’s new album with his ever-morphing band, the Johnsons, he shares his
deepest fears and dreams (“Hope there’s someone who’ll take care of me when I
die . . . hope there’s someone that’ll set my heart free”). This is the sensation
he creates in person: You don’t just meet Antony, you are instantly immersed
in his life.
I first heard an advance copy of I Am a Bird Now when it began to circulate in late 2004. I knew immediately it would be a candidate for many album-of-the-year lists in 2005 — at least for those who judge music using that curious channel running between the ear and the heart. Lasting only 35 minutes, it’s quite short. And it might seem a marginal choice because of the subject matter. (It’s a collection of songs about transgendered love and transsexual angst.) But those songs, those songs, THOSE SONGS! Like many buzzed-about artists, Antony first grabs your attention via image and association. In person and in photographs, the singer is a striking figure, a chubby, 6-foot-plus cross-dresser. The cover of I Am a Bird Now extends this visual, featuring an iconic deathbed portrait of the transvestite and Warhol superstar Candy Darling. The album’s credits reveal guest appearances by a who’s who of androgynous singers drawn from four decades of pop — the Velvet Underground’s Lou Reed, ’80s icon Boy George, ’90s troubadour Rufus Wainwright, and Banhart, guru of today’s “freak-folk” scene. By presenting a united front, they seem to announce Antony as the next great voice in this lineage of gender-bent pop. Unlike most records with such buzz, however, this one delivers on all its promise. The music is rich but unobtrusive, built from simple stuff — mostly piano and a backing band, augmented by woodwinds, brass and strings. Bold arrangements raise this album above the ordinary, but what makes it worth hearing is Antony’s voice — a high, wobbly vibrato with which he takes perilous risks in pitch, and thrilling rides into heretofore-unknown harmonies. The fusion of sounds is far removed from anything I’ve ever heard, which is not to say it will alienate fans of more traditional music. The album embraces beauty in a way that will likely get it lumped with freak-folk, but it also has a soulfulness and emotional depth that should appeal to fans of Nina Simone. Finally, though, it constitutes a class of its own. Listen to how the leadoff track, “Hope There’s Someone,” gently segues from a standard torch song into a vertiginous vocal assault, as surging piano is layered with a dense weave of Antony’s multitracked voice. It’s R&B that flowers gracefully into the stuff of audio hallucinations. Most of the songs don’t go quite that far — this record seems a conscious effort to charm listeners for whom the term “audio hallucination” is not a recommendation — but the song is a good thumbnail sketch of what this music is capable of: ripping out your still-beating heart to capture your affection.
Born in England and raised in California,
Antony Hegarty, now in his mid-30s, landed in Manhattan in the early ’90s,
as a student at New York University. There he embarked on a mostly self-directed
study of what he plainly calls “transsexualism, and androgyny in the arts” — the
gilded, Dionysian reveries of Jack Smith’s early-’60s underground films; John
Waters’ scat-eating, drag-wearing gross-outs from the ’70s; and, from the ’80s,
Klaus Nomi’s operatic pop tunes, Boy George’s campy drag routine, and the exploits
of grown-up club kid–cum–fashion icon Leigh Bowery. It was a rough time for these
culture heroes. AIDS had taken Nomi in ’83, Smith in ’89 and Bowery in ’94. Waters
was just beginning his transition to Hollywood. And it was several years before
Boy George would write Taboo, the musical that threw a spotlight on Bowery’s
career. In a pre-Internet era, most of these artists were still fringy, forgotten
In 1998, though, after several years of performing in after-hours nightclubs to a mostly gay clientele, Antony recorded his first, self-titled album. It was released in 2000 on Durtro, a small British art label run by experimental musician David Tibet (Current 93, Nurse With Wound). It received only a few scattered notices, but it also drew a small but fervent cult of fans, most crucially among fellow artists like Banhart, Wainwright, et al. Reed, in particular, became a powerful advocate, featuring Antony as a backup singer on two albums and a world tour. Antony credits Reed’s patronage for keeping him on the right path, and drawing others into his world: “Lou would be like, ‘Sorry, but we’re going to listen to this queen, I don’t care what you say.’ Suddenly a lot of people would give it the time of day that would never consider me.” I myself had reservations about Antony’s earlier work. Like his role models, he can get caught up in what seems like a biological imperative in homo culture — to make art that is theatrical, ornate, campy and wrapped in artifice. Think of the films of Waters and Smith in which characters vomit and scream, skipping genially from pose to pose, rather than emoting. For these artists, sincere feeling is the equivalent of the “fourth wall”; they approach it at their peril. By contrast, I Am a Bird Now is notable for its conscious turn toward the personal. “I wanted this record to be much more intimate,” Antony admits. “I wanted the songs to be close to the ear, to feel like something you could be drawn into in a personal way, in a small space, in a home space.” Certainly, some will dislike this intimacy. Antony irritably describes a recent review that oozed with suspicion: “It’s almost like [the reviewer] thought I was trying to trick him into having a feeling. Look, the reason my music is like this is that I wrote every one of these single songs crying my head off. The recipe for emotions is to do something emotionally.” In the end, you will hear records that are smarter, sharper and catchier than I Am a Bird Now, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find one that’s more poignant. I’m reminded of my first encounter with miserablists like Elliott Smith and Cat Power. But unlike them, Antony isn’t brittle, coy or unrelentingly sad — on the contrary, his music is marked by a certain warmth, the valiant possibility of optimism. He pulls you in rather than pushing you away.
Antony and the Johnsons appear Wednesday, March 2, at Barnsdall Art Park, with
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