The Secret Life of Plants:
Antony Hegarty in Bloom
by Tony Phillips
Leigh Bowery. Nina Simone. Klaus Nomi. Mabel Mercer. Brian Ferry. Ella Fitzgerald. It’s impossible to read anything about The Johnsons’ plaintive frontman Antony without engaging in this poker game of superlatives first. My personal favorite is a hybrid one writer concocts between Evel Knievel and Maria Callas. I’m guilty of it myself. I’ll call him a “gently trembling lily” in just a second. Right now, we’re having a laugh over what he considers an oldie, but goodie: Lotte Lenya. “That was one of the first and I always loved it,” Antony muses, “Craig Hensala from the Downtown Arts Festival said I sounded like Lotte Lenya. It was pretty cool, but he was referencing the Brechtian quality that the early shows had. I don’t see that in much evidence in my shows now expect maybe in the banter.” So what is it about this Brit-born, California-reared singer that vrooms writers towards the purple at such a hurtling pace? It may be because Antony strips everything away before he even steps out onto the stage. And taking the microphone to create his stark ballads isn’t singing so much as polar drifting down the gender binary’s razor edge. It’s hard to get a bead on his age, gender, even his race if you close your eyes while he’s singing. “I might be fooling myself,” Antony says, “but I always thought it was kind of punk for me to be this vulnerable.”
Vulnerable? Don’t let the mopping fool you. Antony is a rock star. And if he’s not going to cop to it, just ask a Johnson. There’s Johanna Constantine, whom Antony calls “a dangerous miracle,” piling on antlers, blood and fresh flowers for the stage. The two met when Antony was seventeen at university in California and Johanna followed him home on the bus like a puppy. “I was a make-up-wearing mute and she was this creature with green hair,” Antony remembers, “we became friends and aesthetic partners almost immediately.” But puppy is too easy a peg for the kind of vulnerability Antony exhibits. It’s more stoic than that. He’s like a plant, a gently trembling lily that has taught itself to sing. Another frequent collaborator, renowned video artist Charles Atlas, projected that very image when the two recently combined forces for a sold-out string of dates in April at the St. Ann’s Warehouse in DUMBO. The evening was entitled Turning and was one of the more successful performance piece that were part of the 2004 Whitney Biennial.
“Charlie’s one of my best friends,” Antony explains their last collaboration, “we’ve been hanging out since we met in nightclubs in the early 90s. We’re having fun. We’re laughing. We’re pretty much keeping to our sides of the fence. I had the initial seed idea for the project, but it was based on a prototype that he set up in a short film he made with Johanna so it’s really a collaboration conceptually. Then I’m doing the music and he’s doing the film.” What that translated to during the performance was Antony and his band on one side of the stage performing both old and new music and this giant microwave rotisserie on the other side of the stage holding thirteen different “beauties” for each of the thirteen songs Antony and the Johnsons performed that evening. Atlas shot the “beauties” and projected them live and monumental on a backdrop simply doing what the evening promised: turning. Models ranged from Giselle to fluorescent-skinned “Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black” singer Kembra Pfahler to downtown trannies like Honey Dijon and Harry. Antony took the stage in a long black wig and placed his handbag down at the bottom of the mike stand — What was in that handbag? — for an evening that so expertly conflated biological females with their transgender counterparts that it was impossible to miss his point about beauty.
His organically scaling backup band takes their name from legendary African American pier tranny activist Marsha P. Johnson and can swell and collapse to accommodate any number of people. The Johnsons probably have more in common with a baroque chamber orchestra than The Spiders from Mars. The band’s 2000 debut Antony and the Johnsons and 2001 single “I Fell in Love with a Dead Boy” are all swirling strings and orchestral woodwinds. It’s not unusual to see cellos, violins or even Tokyo-born hermaphrodite and mathematics doctorate Julia Yasuda onstage with Antony, but the new material is a bit more stripped down than that. Piano and voice have reasserted themselves and it’s reflected in the lyrics. Old lyric: “It’s true I always wanted love to be filled with pain and bruises.” New lyric: “I am a bird girl and the bird girls go to heaven.” Though Turning contained both “Cripple and the Starfish” from which the first lyric was culled and “I Am a Bird Now” which contains the second lyric, you tend to believe the latter.
But how could the forecast not be a little brighter? A lot has changed since Antony recorded his last album. Not only has he just wrapped his successful Whitney gig, but he’s also added to his growing film resume with the NewFest run of French director Sebastien Lifshitz’ latest film Wild Side. He also continues a collaboration with Lou Reed that began with his cover of Reed’s classic "Perfect Day" that took him out on the road as a backup singer on Reed’s American and European tours for his last album The Raven. Antony’s six-minute rendition of another Reed classic, “Candy Says,” from that tour is soon to be immortalized on Reed’s upcoming double live Animal Serenade disc. “Lou found me through Hal Willner,” Antony explains of the fortuitous hookup, “Hal gave Lou a CD of mine for him to hear some singers to choose for his Raven album. He liked it so he asked me to come in and try out.” Antony returns the favor on June 26 when he “and a cavalcade of Johnsons including Joan Wasser and Max Moston” join Catpower, Jane Siberry and other special guests for Willner’s Neil Young Project that’s part of Celebrate Brooklyn in Prospect Park. “I continue to get so much from my friendship with him,” Antony continues of Reed, “he’s such a great teacher and a fascinating man. He’s been such a fantastic advocate for me. I just couldn’t really have asked for more, you know? It’s such a cool thing. He’s so bulletproof and he just gives me the best advice. My work is so personal. When I get some pig with a machine gun coming at me and I’m there in a petticoat bearing my soul, I can talk to Lou about it. He bared his Wonder Woman bracelets to fields of bullets after releasing Metal Machine Music. He has so much wisdom.”
Antony is sounding wizened these days as well. “I feel like the zeitgeist is moving a lot more of the vital culture forward right now,” he explains, “things were happening in vacuums, but then they weren’t going any further. There weren’t any greater tides bringing that stuff to the front of culture. So much work was being made in basements and wasn’t going any further. I feel like right now a lot of those vital arts are being drawn forward. Even in a more grass roots way, kids are really thinking and talking to one another and exchanging information at a really rapid fire pace. I feel like electroclash was the dying cry of that cynical culture and now we’re into something that’s really interesting. This is a culturally flourishing time.” That bigger picture idea trickles down to his own work. “The album still deals with a lot of dark psychological subjects,” he says, “but I never really related to the idea of gothic because it was so past my time. I’m not really interested in that so much. At the end of the 90s when I was doing my first album and we were first putting together Johnsons, that baroque aesthetic had more interest for me. It held my attention. Now it doesn’t. I like something rougher and more intimate. I think the album is moving away from a more theatrical quality and towards a more intimate quality. That’s the big change. It’s a dialogue between different archetypes. It’s like a family inside a person talking to each other: the child, mom, dad, sister, brother. It’s revolves around a childhood gender crisis so it’s very personal work.”
And the state of the band? “At this point I’m feeling like it’s a loose garment,” he says of the Johnsons, “I’m trying to wear it that way. There’s a group of people I’ve worked with pretty closely for the past few years that were very instrumental in developing the material for this new album, especially my string trio. Their work is really evident on this new record and it’s really beautiful.” And the change in sound? “There’s always been an open door policy,” he explains, “it just shifts. It’s seasonal. People follow the seasons. Right now I’m interested in working on the new record. The Biennial put pressure, real or imagined, to be in a really presentational mode and right now I feel very transitional. I’m finishing this album, which has been a long couple of years in the making.” And after the summer release of I Am A Bird Now, with its deathbed cover of Warhol superstar Candy Darling? “I’m also on the verge,” Antony promises, “I’m interested in a soul direction. I think for my next record, I’m going to make a soul record. I want more rhythm; I’m hungry for more rhythm. I’m interested in ecstatic singing. I’ve always pushed the sad singing to ecstatic, but I’m interested in ecstatic form and singers who know original vocabulary like that. Otis Redding. There’s a kind of jubilation in his singing that appeals to me and I’m drawn to it. Sometimes I want to push it into a jubilant expression and I see that that comes from rhythm. I find myself experiencing that when I’m playing with certain drummers. It’s physical. It’s primal almost.”