Music Preview: Antony & the Johnsons
When Big Apple-based Antony sings, "I'm very happy so please hit me" on his song "Cripple and the Starfish," it's clear he's not your average singer-songwriter. With a shimmering multi-octave voice and a physical presence that sidesteps age and gender, Antony is hardly conventional. He's been compared to soul giant Nina Simone, but Antony's provocative lyrics, haunting arrangements and androgynous appearance combine in a surreal creation all his own. Unabashedly emotional, the surname-shy Antony stands out in a musical landscape filled with acts that play it safe.
A tall, broadly built individual with deeply soulful eyes, Antony recalls cross-dressing Warhol superstar Candy Darling, whose image adorns the cover of his soon- to-be-released sophomore album, I Am a Bird Now. "One day I'll grow up, I'll be a beautiful girl/ but for today, I am a child," Antony sings on "For Today I Am a Boy," from the new disc, which features guest appearances by Rufus Wainwright, Lou Reed and Boy George. Loaded with haunting, piano-driven tunes ranging from the rapturous to the profoundly sorrowful, the record is one reason to catch Antony at Higher Ground Sunday with his own band, The Johnsons.
Judging from the mournful tone of his music, you'd expect Antony to be somewhat heavy-hearted. But speaking to Seven Days from his home in New York City, he comes across as sweet and somewhat self-effacing. Easygoing, even.
Born in England but raised in Califor-nia, Antony grew up assuming he'd have some sort of career in the arts. "It was just about figuring out which one," he says. "I remember I had this book about choosing your profession. I was always torn between artist, tailor and candle-maker. Let's hope I made the right choice."
Antony's musical style is largely intuitive, developed without the benefit of formal training. "I think the more you study music the more it turns into math," he says. "The more it feels like math, the more sick I feel. I need it to retain some mystery."
Despite an awareness that he was different -- early role-models included Boy George as well as transvestite icon and John Waters film star Divine -- Antony was hardly shy. "I was a hambone," he says with a laugh. "I was kind of creative. I did a lot of drawing… and, umm, screaming." Attending a school for the performing arts in San Jose gave Antony his first taste of the stage. "I wouldn't say I was born for it, but it's something that I've done a lot of, maybe more than most people," he explains. "So I have a rapport with it."
The singer headed to the Big Apple in 1990 after seeing the documentary Mondo New York -- a film showcasing the city's '80s underground cabaret scene. "I did go to college here," he says. "But really I came because I knew there were the kind of people I wanted to be around. It was everything I wanted to be near. It was punk, but also so exquisite… New York is fragile in a really bulletproof way."
The city's ever-shifting cultural landscape was inspiring to Antony. "The people that make up the collective consciousness of the city are constantly changing," he says. "And then there are a few people that stay here. I think I'm one of the people that are probably destined to stay. I can make a list of some of my friends that have seen a longer story in New York, a lot of them much longer than me, and every story is different. There are just so many worlds here, running in parallel."
Antony first made a name for himself performing at the Pyramid Club with the avant-cabaret group Blacklips. Modeling his look on Isabella Rosellini's in David Lynch's Blue Velvet, he employed a "troupe of bedraggled after-hours types" that included transvestites and drag queens. Needless to say, the show celebrated extremes. After Blacklips broke up in '95, Antony formed The Johnsons, a band featuring upright bass and a string section in addition to his vocals and piano. The group released its self-titled debut album in 2000 on Durtro, an imprint of industrial-music pioneer David Tibet.
Loaded with gently masochistic torch songs, the record eventually caught Lou Reed's ear. "He approached me to do some vocals for his album The Raven," Antony says humbly. "He likes my work, and we've become good friends."
Reed and partner Laurie Anderson subsequently employed Antony as a backup singer on world tours, putting him in front of audiences he might not have otherwise reached. Reed contributes a spoken-word intro on the tempestuous "The Lake," I Am a Bird's first single.
Although Antony's songs are filled with images of tragedy and desperation, grace is always present. "I think a theme that comes up for me a lot when I'm writing songs is transformation," he says. "I want to move in a positive direction… I'm seeking something. It's not so much a picture of where I am as much as looking for a transformation through the song. It's all in the process for me."
Though the spectacle of Antony -- androgynous, impassioned torch singer -- might seem a little over-the-top, it's not meant as camp. "I take it very seriously," he says about his theatricality. "It's a lot of what I'm drawn to intuitively… The things that are most beneficial and most helpful to me I move towards." In this regard, Antony is less a stylized provocateur than an artist seeking positive self-awareness.
Regardless of the flamboyant trappings -- witness the haloed and powdered Antony that graces the cover of his debut -- Antony's art is about being open with his audiences. "I just get into my thing on stage," he says. "I recently read someone's definition of what folk music is now, and he just called it personal. I really love singing, so for me it's just a pleasure to have the opportunity to perform every day and have people listen."
Live reviews of Antony & the Johnsons concerts often use words such as "transcendent" and "cathartic," with writers describing feelings of communal involvement. "It's rejuvenating," Antony says. "If one is resistant to the idea of doing that, then it can be difficult, but if you're flowing in the same direction, it can be really fun."
This desire for shared expression informs Antony's worldview, which is surprisingly optimistic. "I do think it is an exciting time in America creatively," he says. "There is something going on that stands as a beautiful counterpoint to what's going on politically in the country."