Music Interviews

Antony And The Johnsons: “I’m always gathering information and finding relationships. That seems to be the way I function” – Interview

Amid the plush, pink-hued furnishings of a hotel lounge not too far from Buckingham Palace, Antony Hegarty is struggling to make himself heard over the mild boom of polite chatter and the tinkling of ice. To anyone who’s seen him demonstrate the full capacity of his remarkable, unearthly singing voice in the vastness of a concert hall, as the frontman of nebulous musical coalition Antony And The Johnsons, this may come as a surprise.

At 6’4″, with a shock of (synthetic) black hair framing his pale features, his imposing physical presence is somewhat at odds with the hushed unfussiness of his manner, and the measured, thoughtful tone of his speaking voice. Five years on from the storm-in-a-teacup over his winning of the Mercury Prize for spectral second album I Am A Bird Now, his music is steadily shifting from the smokey torch-song inflections of his earlier records towards something more open and pastoral. His most recent two albums, The Crying Light and the current release, Swanlights, see him moving into more spacious, timeless territory, often with the assistance of precociously-gifted orchestrator Nico Muhly (who has worked with Philip Glass, Grizzly Bear and Björk).

To accompany the release of Swanlights, Antony has also produced a 144-page book (also entitled Swanlights), a startling, bleak and beautiful collection of his visual art. It encompasses figurative line drawing, photography, scratchy hand-written text and rough-hewn photo-collage, sometimes dealing with sex, gender and sexuality, more often than not angrily lamenting our much-abused planet, and the animals and people who get trampled by progress. Despite its occasional harshness, the book, like its parent album, is never less than ravishing, the beauty and horror wrapped up in one another, inextricably.

Why a book at this stage in his career, after all the music? The first of a long series of pauses: he is being careful to say what he means, to be understood exactly. “I took advantage of the fact that I have some platform of music, and that publishers would be interested to release some of my visual work. I was reticent to do that at first, but I was encouraged by friends who saw the body of work and just said ‘You should release it, since you’ve been doing this exploration over the last few years, you should pursue it’. So I did a couple of gallery shows, one in Brussels, one in Paris, one in London. Then it was just a matter of getting up the nerve, really.”

With the chattering of the chattering classes beginning to overwhelm, Antony invites us up to his room, which he suggests will be quieter. Once we’re settled again, we pick up the conversation. Which came first – the visual art, or the music? “It’s always been parallel,” he says. “I was doing music and drawing since I was a kid, so though I don’t consider myself an accomplished visual artist by any stretch of the imagination, the work had incredible weight to its content, so I thought it was valid to put it forward, it was valuable to me, and that was really my criteria.” Is one respite from the other, or do they function as a combined medium? “They occupy quite different seats in my creative process,” he explains. “Making visual work is quite solitary, and it’s much more introspective, and in a funny way much more personal: I don’t really consider a relationship with other people when I’m making drawings or collages, I’m just following a flight of fancy, whereas when I’m singing, especially live, it’s a constant negotiation with other people and a negotiation with the space as its being beheld by other people and by yourself.

“So it’s a very different engagement,” he says. “After I’d finished I Am A Bird Now, I really retreated for a bit into the visual stuff, and I think the book is a way for me to re-engage with the creative process on a very personal level: there was no weight of expectation, from the work, so I found it kind of was private in a way and nourishing to me in that regard.”

Is that aspect of it being private or personal the reason why the visual work seems much rougher and less polished than the music? “Maybe, but that’s also just what visually interested me, I think. When I was younger I tried to make something that had really perfect lines and I used to be sort of preoccupied by that. I’m interested in the process of making certain types of drawing trying to find a kind of abandon, and in that way it’s similar to the feeling of pursuing music, especially in a live context; I’m always seeking to forget myself, not purposely making a gesture, to let go of my self-consciousness. That’s the same in some ways as drawing a line. There are other pieces in the book that are more conceptual. They have more of an ‘instruction’.”

He seems especially concerned with his position in nature and the world in both music and art. “Yeah, I think that’s just what I’ve come to: I think that’s probably a normal question that artists tend to ask themselves: who am I, what am I, where am I? And that’s what it comes down to for me, where am I and what’s my responsibility to this place, and this life? Do I have a responsibility to this place beyond this life? And it opens up all sorts of questions and creative fields to explore. I got a lot of that from studying butoh (Japanese theatrical discipline) in my early 20s. Stepping out of a pedestrian sense of time or possession, imagining yourself or your conscious reach could delve into the dreams of a stone or the past, or the future, or other animals. And it opens up all sorts of questions and all sorts of creative fields to explore. When you look at an image, for instance, you could dream about the past and the future of the space that’s represented in that picture as well as just the moment that’s been captured… all of those fields could inform that gesture, as an artist or a performer.”

“If I’d gone to college, I’d probably have ended up taking, you know, the same sorts of art classes… and feminism classes…” – Antony

Does it also inform the transcending gender? Thematically he’s – perhaps inevitably – concerned with transgender, queer and feminist issues. He ponders. “I think it’s funny to think of transcending gender, because I don’t know where you would go. Beyond the genders? I definitely have circled that world, the world of male and female… living between or in the midst of those.”

Of course, Antony wasn’t always a figure of New York’s underground music scene. The reason he was eligible for the Mercury Prize is that he was born in Chichester. Would his art have emerged there as it did in New York? Would he have reached the same place eventually? “I don’t really know, I’ve no idea. If I’d gone to college, I’d probably have ended up taking, you know, the same sorts of art classes… and feminism classes. I probably would have done something similar, but I’d probably have been, you know, more ‘Londonish’. There’s a lot that’s bad about it America, but the main thing that’s good about it, it’s got that sense of frontier, and I think that for the artist, it can be nice to feel that freedom, whereas sometimes in European cultures, which are much older, you end up feeling more beholden to the customs, beliefs systems and traditions of your culture.”

How so? “As an artist, you can’t really shake free of it, you’re always entrenched in it, whereas in America, especially as an immigrant, you really don’t belong anywhere, so you end up just developing these almost nave, or could be considered nave, almost insular dream systems. The very specific culture of NYC and certain artists like Jack Smith and that whole sort of pantheon of queer underground performance that informed a lot of my choices in my late teens and early 20s probably wouldn’t have had the same impact on me, had I come of age in the UK. But I tend to be like a collage style artist, like a cumulative artist. So I’m always gathering information and finding relationships. That seems to be the way I function, whether it’s in the way I read the news, or the way I make drawings, or the way I make songs. It’s always just about finding relationships; it could as easily be a cut-out in a magazine as it could be things that I really care about that I’ve accumulated around me.”

The supposition is that London, then, would’ve moulded him differently to New York. “I couldn’t say what the exact material would be if I’d stayed in London,” he considers. “Hopefully I wouldn’t be an Anglophile, hopefully I wouldn’t be like some English artists. I like that fact that I’m an immigrant… it’s given me a bit of perspective on every culture I’ve been a part of, so I enjoy that status now as an outsider everywhere, and NYC is an interesting place because it’s an immigrant city, and it was founded on a principle, unlike London, which has become an immigrant city, but there’s a certain population of London that wishes it never had. London is more like all of the colonised people came home to roost, whereas New York was founded on the idea that new people would arrive and imbue it with interest. NYC is full of people that all come from old cultures, and they just meet in this weird neutral zone that almost has no respect even for its own history. That’s Manhattan; it knocks itself down and rebuilds itself every 10 years.”

Does he see himself in an American tradition of music and art? “I do feel I belong to New York, that’s my home in a certain regard, although I don’t think I belong to any country. I’m an American citizen, I’m an English citizen, and in terms of a tradition of work, I think it depends on the medium. In a lot of ways I’m very much a child of English music, but that was later informed by later American influences, that I probably would have picked up on whether I was in England or in America, because in a lot of English musicians are very informed by American music. I think the English are very great imitators, we have the sense of entitlement, that we don’t even question our ability to do it; we have the entitlement to co-opt American music and make it our own, really learn the voice, and that’s why we’re so good at it; it’s all down to our sense of entitlement.”

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.

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More on Antony And The Johnsons
Antony And The Johnsons – Turning
Antony And The Johnsons @ Royal Opera House, London
Antony And The Johnsons – Cut The World
Antony And The Johnsons – Swanlights
Antony And The Johnsons: “I’m always gathering information and finding relationships. That seems to be the way I function” – Interview