A talk with Antony, on the occasion of his Walt Disney Concert Hall show
British-born artist Antony Hegarty creates the kind of songs that paint, with just a few strokes, the profound but confusing nature of the world, to which being an androgynous, spiritually roaming seeker is seemingly the best response.
He and his band of soft-handed musicians released a self-titled album in 2000, but it wasn't until 2005, with the release of "I Am a Bird Now," that Antony stepped out of the New York art scene where he had gathered steam with his performance-art group Blacklips. A delicate yet resilient album with guest spots from Devendra Banhart and Hegarty heroes Lou Reed and Boy George, it won the Mercury Prize and expanded Antony's cultish audience of cabaret sages and faint-hearted beauties.
Since then, he's collaborated with several musicians and artists, including Björk, lending his quavering tenor to her song "Dull Flame of Desire," which appears on "Volta" from 2007. For his old friend Andy Butler in Hercules and Love Affair, he transformed his ghostly voice for the disco floor, which wasn't, it turned out, all that much of a stretch.
For the last couple of months, Antony has abandoned his beloved East Village for orchestral shows in Spain and Italy, entrusting the arrangements of his compositions with Nico Muhly, boy-wonder of the avant music scene. He's also released "Another World," an EP with another of Hegarty's idols on the cover, butoh dancer Kazuo Ohno. This precursor to "The Crying Light," the highly anticipated full-length due in January, only shares the title track with the longer work, but Antony sees the songs as united by themes of discovery.
On the occasion of his show tonight at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Antony spoke by phone a couple of days ago about working with an orchestra and dealing with the pressures of creating new work.
You’ll be working with a 20-piece orchestra Tuesday, and you’ve been performing with various orchestras around the world for the last couple of months. How’s that been going?
It’s been fun. It’s rare to get to to make music with such a large group of people. The orchestras have ranged from 20 to 50. The biggest increase in numbers occur in the string section, not wind or horns. It’s like you can never sweeten the pot enough.
How has it been working with Nico Muhly on the arrangements?
It was a very collaborative process and very satisfying. We would sit with the songs and toss around ideas. He has a very particular style, and he had to stretch to adjust to my heartbeat. Every musician plays to their own heartbeat in a way, whether metaphorically or in reality. The music needed to support me moving through the songs, so it had to have a certain empathy for my process. It was a challenge for Nico. He had to step into my process and try it on for size. I think he did that really well.
Why did you decide to come out with an EP?
I like EPs. I like it as a gesture, the smaller group of songs. I just wanted to introduce some of the themes of this new group of songs and to say hi to everyone.
The title song, "Another World," seems to have a strange sense of hope to it, despite the ominous tone.
I’ve heard people say different things. I never really consciously go after that or not go after that. My goal was to express how I was feeling in as plain a language as I could. It’s a pretty self-explanatory song in a lot of ways. It’s probably the most consciously written song I’ve ever made. It’s a very direct lament for the natural world.
What are some ideas and themes you’re speaking about on "Another World," the EP?
It’s about reassessing the environment, looking at it through different eyes, a less pedestrian set of eyes. It’s really investigating who am I, what am I made of and where do I come from, kind of feeling. And then, Is this my home? For me, it continues to surprise me that I’m born out of this world in a very physical way. I got born here, not from a machine, not from an egg that came somewhere else but from the material, from the dust and the elements and the water of this natural world. I’m the end of a line of life that started with life on Earth. We each are. For me, that’s something I don’t really sit with too often. In fact, I hadn’t really thought about it and then it began to occur to me. Sometimes I just want to look out at the landscape and see. Sometimes I see something that’s really magical, something to treasure or that’s sacred. I’m seeking to evolve in my relationship with the world around me, with my environment. I was raised in very alienated, late 20th-century Western style. We hardly realize, we think we come out of Pop Tart-like cases. We don’t really know where we come from. I was trying to work through those questions. I think the record reflects on that. It’s kind of a grown-up record for me in a way. It very much reflects my concerns now. It’s a very contemporary record for me. Usually, I write songs and then release five to 10 years later after I’ve written them. But this is where I’m at today, what I’m focusing on.
In that way, because it’s closer to what you’re dealing with right now, do you feel more vulnerable about the material?
It’s funny, because I think in some ways, people will find these songs more abstract and less personal than some of the really blatantly sentimental songs on ‘I Am a Bird Now,’ which I love too, but these are different kinds of investigations. For me, it does feel very personal, but in a very different way.
Did Björk approach you about singing guest vocals on "Dull Flame of Desire"?
We met a couple of times, and then for fun, we did some singing together in Iceland. She’s a really adventurous character; she loves to try something. We became friends, and then after my big 2005, 2006 tour, I was kind of wiped out and really depleted. And she took me under her wing and brought me away on holiday. She just said, "Come with me." We went to Jamaica. I rested there for a couple of weeks, there was a studio and it was there that we did some singing. She provided me with shelter at a point when I really needed it. "Dull Flame" was one of the things we worked on. It’s challenging to work with her, because she sets a different kind of bar, so I was just trying to keep up, or at least not fall too far behind her. but it was fine. When you stand next to her and she’s singing, you realize her level of commitment. Her commitment is so total, it really blew my mind. I’ve never seen her not give 100%, even in a run-through or whatever.
How did working on all those other projects affect your work on “The Crying Light” and “Another World”?
Björk has really been a big inspiration, just in watching her process and her freedom. She has tremendous freedom, so it was really inspiring. When I work with other artists, I think of them as my teachers. I’m always interested to see how other people are making their way through this, this big story. So for me, it’s another chance to learn something. I’ve never had a bad experience in that department. I quite like collaborating with people and doing projects with other artists. It’s really rewarding and fun. As a singer, I really like to support people. It’s something I got from going to school and singing in choirs. I like singing with other voices. It makes me feel really happy. I like that space were two voices blend together or when it’s a blend of voices. I’m just as happy to sing at the top of my lungs in a big group of people. Oftentimes, that’s an even happier experience to me. That’s just pleasure to me.
So then, was it tough to go from working with people to being alone and having to create your own work?
Yes, it was difficult to have to take responsibility for the outcome again. It’s not necessarily that fun. It can be rather arduous. It can be hard to keep it light. It’s hard to find the joy in it when you’re doing it by yourself. This last album was a very intense album to make. It took a long, long time and it was quite difficult to realize in a way, so I’m really glad it’s over so I can get on with my life again.
Did you feel a lot of pressure? Your last album got so much attention and won the Mercury Prize.
Yeah, that was a really big deal. I went through different phrases with it. At the end of the day, even if I do feel pressure, I have to turn in something that’s true to me because, the one thing I know is that if it’s not true to me, it’s no use to anyone. So I had to move through that and figure out what’s contemporary for me. I just had to set all that aside and be true to myself and hopefully, people will like it, but who knows? I can’t worry about that too much. I’ve already been given a really great gift. If I only get one swing at the ball, that’s more than most people get. The best thing for me to do is keep focusing on making the best work I can make.
Antony and the Johnsons performs at 8 p.m. tonight at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., Downtown. $30-$58. (323)850-2000.
Photo by Carlos Chavez/Los Angeles Times