His track record to date suggests he’s quite open to collaborations. Does that attitude come from being part of a culture that is open to new experiences or ideas? “I’ve always been drawn to working in a community, so that’s natural to me,” he says. “I spent a lot of time making work as a director but usually just casting people as themselves, doing what I might imagine they did best. It is kind of presumptuous, but at the same time, I was good at that administrative role, I was good at casting a circle.”
Music collaborations, though, are something else. “It’s different from making music collaborations with this one and that one; I think that’s just people asking, and I’m not super-precious about it, I don’t think it’s particularly unique, I just think it’s a function of opportunity and exuberance.” He gives a self-deprecating laugh. So if one has the opportunity of working with Bjrk, who sings a haunting, Icelandic duet on Swanlights, one doesn’t say no. Another laugh: “I don’t know ANYONE who’s said no to her!”
Talk turns to the new album, in which there seem to be hints of Aaron Copeland, echoes of American Romanticism. “OK, yeah. I think I can have a hint of that American Romantic, sure,” he smiles. “I only know it from things like Walt Whitman, I don’t really know about it from music, because I’m not really that well versed in music history, or writers’ history, or art history. I just have the scraps of things that I like. I think some of the more pastoral classical kinds of music that’s on the record are probably more influenced by Nico Muhly, who did some of the arrangements, as it is by me.”
Muhly, part of the Iceland-based Bedroom Community, is orchestral arranger to a burgeoning assortment of artists. “I worked with him on arrangements for some of the songs,” recalls Antony. “Three of the songs on this record and some of the last record, and also in developing some arrangements for my back catalogue, that we presented live in a couple of tours around Europe. He’s very flexible and very enthusiastic. He’s so fluent in so many musical languages, it’s almost like he’s got 100 languages running through his head at one time! So he’s always got all of these options in his mind that he’s putting forward, often at a kind of manic pace, and for me working with him has been interesting just to find out what our meeting point was.”
Antony sees his own musical talent in a starkly differing light. “I’m basically a folk musician, a nave musician; I don’t have real training, just a basic grasp of melody and folk singing or popular singing, which is to me folk singing, so I’m rooted in some very rudimentary music traditions, western tonal traditions. And then here’s this boy who’s this flurry of avant-classical impulses, and it’s funny to carve out a niche and find the meeting place between us. Sometimes it can feel like a bit of a harnessing, where I tend to move towards something simpler. In some ways he’s been an influence on me in that cacophony style that I would probably never have grasped if I hadn’t met him.” Is he an honorary Johnson? Uproarious laughter; but he makes a nicely poetic recovery. “‘The Johnsons’ is a very loose thing… it’s more like a mist than a group,” he laughs.
“The Johnsons’ is a very loose thing. It’s more like a mist than a group…” – Antony
As he sees it, he’s on a musical journey with Swanlights. “Beyond basic voicing there were two things I was travelling towards,” he explains. “The main thing was really something that sounded cacophonous, it mimicked the sounds of nature, the sound of a forest, with all the animals shouting at once, not necessarily in harmony, and there are moments on the record that are straining towards that. The other influence on this record was some of the John Cale production of the Nico records; of the drones that I love so much on records like Desert Shore, that sense of oceanic drones of the strings and stuff is something that I definitely borrowed, in this record especially, and in parts of the last record.”
All this suggests a conscious move towards enriched and more complex orchestration. “With the last record The Crying Light, I started recording at the same time I recorded Swanlights, as well as starting the book,” he recalls. “The Crying Light finished first, with an eye towards austerity. I really wanted to pare it down to something really still, something really essential; it doesn’t really deviate too much from one idea of the world. Whereas this record is more volatile, it’s lots of different ideas and emotional places. The voicing is more voluptuous, its more full-figured.”
On Swanlights there seem to be a lot more wordless passages, or passages of abandon. “It’s harder to communicate that on a recording than in a live environment,” he says. “In a live situation there’s so much that happens in the space between the musician and the audience, whereas in a recording, you’re trying to distil everything into this flatness. You literally push everything into a flat thing, like freeze drying a piece of food and hoping it plumps back up. With all the treatments, especially with compression, it’s so hard to maintain a sense of space around something. I’ve become more and more concerned as a live performer with that sense of negative space around sound, and the shape. It’s something I learnt in college about negative space, it’s like 101 Visual Art; you observe the space around something. I feel that way about music. I can’t bear loud things that are purposelessly, continuously loud. I always like to see the line around a sound. Although it’s rarely pure absence, it’s usually all these quieter sounds of silence, quietness, breath… Anyway, it’s something I don’t think I’ve got close to, really.”
Talk turns to Turning, the show he toured a few years back with underground film maker Charles Atlas: an extraordinarily affecting blend of live music and video, almost an installation piece in itself which recalled Andy Warhol’s screen tests in its moody, sedate contemplation of the diverse beauty of nine women (some of whom weren’t born that way), revolving slowly on a platform beneath a vast, looming video projection of themselves. “That’s my favourite show I ever did; we’re still trying to edit a movie of it,” he says. Charles Atlas is putting it together. “We’re trying to finish it in Denmark; they’re going to help us put it on the television there. Charlie has this habit of making everybody age 10 years before anything gets finished.”
Talking of negative and positive space there was a moment in Turning at London’s Barbican where everything stopped musically, and the silence went on so long… “Yeah, that’s probably in I Fell In Love With A Dead Boy. There’s a lot of silence around that show in general because that was the first show where I didn’t do any talking, because I didn’t want to break the whole spell of the video, because the video was this constantly turning portrait and I didn’t really want to interrupt it. I tried at first to do something frivolous between songs and that ruined it, so my goal in that piece was to really become a piece of glass. Invisible… or transparent, rather than invisible, a transparent figure that people could see through.”
“I’m rooted in some very rudimentary music traditions. And then here’s this boy who’s this flurry of avant-classical impulses…” – Antony on his musical relationship with Nico Muhly
Going from the high cultural cachet of the Barbican to the gay disco of Hercules And Love Affair, is that just a way of saying ‘I want to do something different? I want to have a laugh?’ “We actually did that track (Blind) long before the Barbican show, we did it even before I Am A Bird Now, so before I’d had any success here in Europe. He (Hercules’ lynchpin Andy Butler) was always challenging me. We had some shared interests in early electro: Alison Moyet is a big hero of mine, I loved Yazoo so much. So we just set out to try to copy Yazoo.” So he could’ve reached success first as a disco singer? The prospect of this actually seems to excite Antony momentarily. “I could have if I had wanted to!”
Primary awareness of Antony for some would’ve arrived with the Steve Buscemi prison drama Animal Factory, in which he really made an impression in the 30 seconds or so during which he was on screen. This suggestion makes Antony roll his eyes. But would he want to be involved in film again? “I’ve toyed more with the idea of making a film more than with being a performer in a film: I’ve always wanted to. Charlie Atlas wanted to make a film of one of my plays that he saw, then he decided a few months in that I was too difficult, he called off the project, though we became good friends over the years. It’s just hard making films, it’s really hard work; but I’d like to try to add a bedraggled surrealist film to the canon and say ‘You must release this!’”
Could he perhaps involve Lou Reed or Laurie Anderson? At the mention of his big-time celebrity art-rock compadres, Antony’s eyes narrow a little. “Are you teasing me? I don’t mind if you are, just to be clear…” Um… yes? One of the more tense moments in the afternoon is defused by another hearty chuckle. We move swiftly on to the question of who would influence this hypothetical art film. Would it be in the style of Jack Smith, Paul Morrissey, Andy Warhol?
“I don’t know what the aesthetic of the film would be. It’d probably be neater than Jack Smith’s films, but I wish it could look as good. Did you ever see Normal Love? It’s so delicious, but Paul Morrissey’s movies…” Here he sucks his teeth dismissively, West Indian style. “Whatever… I like the stars, it’s all about the stars in those films… I like Andy Warhol’s movies better than Paul Morrissey’s movies anyway. I like the portraits and stuff. I think in a funny way it’s what I’m drawn to, portraiture, which is what Turning really was.” There’s some of that in the Swanlights book as well. “Stark images, yeah. A lot of it is just stolen from magazines… portraits of nature and different environments and dreaming about the environments and taking a flight of fancy with them.”
We draw the conversation to a close, having run considerably over our prescribed time. With polite apologies for ‘rambling and being pretentious’ Antony bids us farewell. One gets the feeling that for all that has been said, we’ve only scratched the surface of his approach, and the depths of his ambition. If Swanlights marks the beginning of a new chapter in Antony’s story it promises to be full of quiet wonder, and not without surprises. Finally, it can only be beautiful, for every move Antony makes seems wreathed in beauty of some kind. Some people can’t help it.
Antony And The Johnsons’ fourth album Swanlights is out now through Rough Trade. Antony was interviewed by Michael Hubbard and Dan Marner.