Wildly Abstract And Constantly Oblique: An Interview With Antony Hegarty

Written by Michael Cranston

I wanted my interview to be different. A Google search will return about a dozen interviews with Antony Hegarty of Antony And The Johnsons from this year alone; all peppered with facts and stories of his latest album The Crying Light. After reading a few, one can easily uncover meanings behind his songs and his sources of inspiration. I, however, wanted to go deeper.

“Now Antony,” I muse, roughly halfway through our conversation, “tell me how your romantic relationships have affected your songwriting.” There is a pause; then he simultaneously scoffs and laughs at my quasi-investigative journalism. “Well, I do a great cover of a Beyoncé song [“Crazy In Love”], I don’t know if you’ve heard it.” We both laugh. “That’s as confessional as you’re going to get out of me.”

So be it. I will not get to know Antony Hegarty over our 45 minute talk. He will speak eloquently and delicately, answering each question with a genuine desire to be thorough and interesting. But he will also be wildly abstract and constantly oblique. When he speaks of possibly being reincarnated as a tree, I will agree affably and say “I understand” when in reality, I do not.

“I don’t want to not make a gesture because I’m afraid that people will criticize me,” he says when I ask if he takes himself too seriously. After all, no other artist’s musicianship and presentation are quite as melodramatic. Even in conversation, his choice of words is always extreme: “tragic”, “beautiful”, “shocking”, “death”, “love”. But melodrama is where Antony thrives. “When you put forth something you care about, or feel sincere about, there is a risk involved. People can say all sorts of things about you, but there’s potential for a really rewarding dialogue with the world. And it’s in that spirit, I do the work that I do.”

The Crying Light is similarly theatrical to its predecessor, the Mercury Prize winning I Am A Bird Now, but feels less personally cathartic. On Bird, “every song had a big climax or transformation; the whole album is about transformation. And [The Crying Light] is a different landscape, it’s more contemplative. It’s just a reflection of where I’ve been in my creative process.” This is dead on. The anxiety of personal growth and gender identity is poignantly extreme on Bird. But the worldly and ecological concerns on Crying Light are calm, mature and significantly less intense (perhaps, less moving?).

“Yes, I was very aware I wasn’t putting forth the same sort of emotional catharsis [on Crying Light].I Am A Bird Now was written in the nineties… when I was much younger, but wasn’t put forward until 2005, so I had a lot of time to process them.” Fair enough, the inward focus of Bird is eschewed in favor of a broader outlook. “These songs also felt time-sensitive, in some of the things that were being addressed. The things I was exploring felt very much a part of our moment, and I just put it out there. My goal as an artist is to participate in a dialogue and the evolution forward.”

Album opener, “Her Eyes Are Underneath the Ground” was co-written with Antony’s brother over Christmas last year. He had trouble explaining the song’s meaning; as there are so many attached to it. “At first, I thought it was a song about… well, I think a lot of kids do this, when they’re worried their parents are going to die, the moment you realize that no one will last forever and you cry about it.” So, is it a song about familial mortality? Not necessarily. “Then I thought, maybe it’s my mother singing about her mother, because I’ve been really interested in this idea that I’m the endpoint of a line of life that stretches back to the beginning of creation.” He goes on to explain that he hopes to sing the spirit of all the people along his ancestry. At this point I truly have no idea what he’s talking about. According to Antony, “Her Eyes” encompasses one of the album’s central themes: “I’m a child of the earth, and the earth is my mother, or a mother-figure. So in a way, [the song is about] the theme of mourning and grieving of the way we’ve affected out ecology of our home and planet, and it’s a way of a child grieving for a mother.” After the interview is completed, I return to “Her Eyes”, hoping to extract meaning with this new insight. Soon, I realize it doesn’t matter what it’s about -- Antony’s elusive explanation is almost perfectly fitting for such a starkly beautiful song.

Antony And The Johnsons - "Her Eyes Are Underneath The Ground"

“It’s a narrative about a person who has seizures,” he explains when I ask what could have possibly inspired “Epilepsy Is Dancing.” The video interprets this narrative extremely literally. “I haven’t written many narrative songs, but this is a sort of story about that person. And she had this kind of wild experience where everything gets shiny and dancing -- a vision almost -- and when she comes to, she’s frightened and has a sense of brokenness as well. The song is about how she was engulfed in chaos but then stepping back from it, she starts to see the pattern, starts to see the choreography of it, which is why I set the song to a waltz.” Expectedly, the label wasn’t thrilled about this song as the album’s lead single, considering its uncomforting title and eccentric (and potentially offensive) music video. “I felt really strongly about it, and when I feel a little embarrassed by something, that’s probably a good sign. It’s how I felt with "For Today I Am a Boy". People said, 'You can’t say that,' and I thought, 'why not?' I’ve never gotten anywhere trying to please someone.”

Antony And The Johnsons - "Epilepsy Is Dancing"

My favorite song on The Crying Light, bar none, is “Aeon”. I’m hoping it’s Antony’s too. It’s not. “My favorite song is “Everglade”, just because it feels like the most recent song I wrote, and it really describes how I feel today. It’s a song about me peering out and looking at the leaves, and the leaves have eyes in them, and they are looking back at me. Everything is more alive than ever and yet, I’m sitting with a very beautiful world, but I’m still aware of a brokenness in me. And it’s about sitting with these two things at the same time -- brokenness and a beautiful world.”

The cover of The Crying Light features Kazuo Ohno, a famous Japanese dancer. I ask about the artwork’s significance. “My answer isn’t simple,” he admits. He tells a story (in extremely disconnected syntax that would be a nightmare to transcribe) of his love of Ohno’s art claiming he “traverses the space between light and darkness and life and death in a really poetic way.” By putting an “avant-garde dancer on the cover, I wanted to express his singing, express his movement, and express the human spirit. There is something so primary about [dancing], it’s so deep in our bones.” He describes dancing as “crying out with your body,” the convergence of the “feeling of being alive” with “creativity.” He even wanted to do a music video for the ten songs on the album, each featuring a unique dance routine.

We talk briefly about gender identity, but he (understandably) doesn’t have much more to say. Yes, he’s transgender and yes it has influenced his work. “I don’t claim to represent the interests or voice of all transgender people -- a massively diverse group of people from a tan of socioeconomic groups.” He touches on the global solidarity of the transgender experience as an outsider, “I’ve often said I have more in common with a transgender person in Iraq than an American soldier, and that’s just because our experiences are so specific.”

My interview with Antony ends amicably as we bid one another adieu. More than any other artist, it seems Antony wants his music to speak for itself. He isn’t keen on divulging meaning on every aspect of his work or personal life. “At the end of the day, this is just blah blah blah because someone wants to talk to me.” Touché Antony.

Wildly Abstract And Constantly Oblique: An Interview With Antony Hegarty