"Otherworldly" is the most common of the pedestrian adjectives used to describe the voice of Antony Hegarty. The mild-mannered performer, who records as Antony and the Johnsons, is far too modest to speak of his own vocal prowess. But "other worlds" have been on his mind a lot lately.
On the plaintive piano ballad "Another World" - the title track of an EP released last fall is also featured on the new full-length The Crying Light - Antony longs to flee a landscape marred by environmental devastation. It's a powerful lament, which is to be expected from an artist who has trafficked in grief and healing as a lyrical theme in the past. Until now, Antony's work has been largely personal, focusing on gender and transgender issues. But he's also delved into matters of life, death and disease, which makes his environmental leap entirely logical.
"Our approach to the earth at this point is virulent," says the soft-spoken singer, without hesitation. "I think there's a huge link between an emotionally, intuitively shut-down society - one with what I would define as patriarchal values - and the pathway that makes this outcome possible. It's from a place of vulnerability or feminine intuition that we perceive our interconnectedness with the environment. A rotten, patriarchal set-up has led us to this point."
Railing against the patriarchy seems so downright '90s - but once he's on a roll, Antony has other fish to fry as well. "All these people fussing and fighting about gay marriage on the night of the [U.S.] election - it's just another pathetic set-up by the right wing," says Antony, who identifies as transgendered and launched his career in New York City's performance art and gay communities. "All the gay people are in an uproar about their little piece of the pie, [but] there's a time and a place. Gay rights will be useless if we're all floating on a piece of Styrofoam in 50 years. We have to integrate our personal development and our personal conflicts with a relationship to the world around us - not just to society, but with ecology."
Interconnections have always been the backbone of Antony's artistic path; he took feminist ecology courses at NYU in the early '90s, and witnessed the devastation that AIDS wrought on the New York artistic community. He started out writing theatre pieces before he was "discovered" by Lou Reed, who brought him on tour. His breakthrough album I Am A Bird featured guest spots by Rufus Wainwright and Boy George, and featured a cover photograph of Warhol associate Candy Darling.
All of this information provides illuminating context for Antony's work. The question is whether he wants to be associated with any scene these days, including what he sees as the rigidity of modern gay identity.
"The gay community gave away a lot of their power when they settled for a definition of what gay identity entailed," he says. "I think of sexual orientation as a secondary characteristic of a gay - or for me, transgender - identity. Maybe there's something intuitively more different about a gay person than what they want to have sex with. Maybe there's a consciousness or an awareness that a gay person can bring to the table, as a result of growing in a culture where you feel so alienated and so separate. Maybe there's a more spiritual basis for their difference than their orientation.
"It's a bit reductive," he concludes, with a laugh. "People got short-changed when they were told that being a faggot means you're a cocksucker."
It's hard to imagine a bigger gay culture cliché than disco music, but Antony decided to become a disco diva by joining the group Hercules and Love Affair, on whose 2008 debut album he sang and co-wrote five of the ten tracks. Over pulsing beats and downtempo electronics, Antony was transformed into a modern day take on Yazoo's Alison Moyet; his electrifying vocals elevated the DFA Records group onto the top of many critics' year-end lists.
While it might seem incongruous for Antony the piano balladeer to dive deep into disco, there is one obvious thread: the concept of the dance floor as a transformative, egalitarian place fits into Antony's lyrical milieu, where characters are always in search of some kind of transformation - between sexes, between states of consciousness, between worlds.
Just don't bring up the term "escapism" with Antony. "Escape and transformation mean two different things to me. Transformation is a means of escape," he explains. "What I liked about the Hercules songs was that they weren't about cutting away from reality and having an escapist high. It didn't seem like an avoidance tactic. The lyrical content of those songs is quite emotionally centred.
"When people think of disco as escapism, they're often thinking of dancing as a means to that escape, to let go of your worries and surrender to joy. You don't have to go into a state of denial to experience joy. I think that's a theme for me, which is why I take issue with this notion of escapism."
On the cover of both the Another World EP and The Crying Light are stark photographs of Japanese butoh dancer Kazuo Ono, a man Antony considers his "art hero," and to whom The Crying Light is dedicated. Butoh is a form of dance that emerged from the traditional Japanese forms of noh and kabuki, informed by the writings of Jean Genet, expressionism, and apocalyptic imagery from post-Hiroshima Japan.
When asked to explain it in layman's terms, Antony says, "It's characterized by a sense of transformation, of momentum or a spirit or an energy that reaches beyond the parameters of the human form. Often it visualizes an aspect of the natural world. It seeks to embody the atomic movement of a stone or a mountain, or the feeling of growing inside a tree. It's also metaphysical in dealing with time and space, the idea that you can perform propelled by the spirit of your great-great-grandmother. A lot of butoh focuses on issues of life and death. As a singer, I'm always applying the vocabulary I studied in butoh - especially on stage." It's easier for him to employ butoh methods of visualization than it is to mine his personal life and experiences for inspiration every night. What the audience hears is often magical; what they don't realize is that what Antony sees is even more so.
"Usually, I'm seeking imagery that can propel me through the song or the moment, to unveil the present for me in a different way," he explains. "Maybe as I'm singing a flock of flamingos are bursting out of my heart, and I ride the momentum of those birds as I sing forward. Maybe when the audience exhales it creates a green mist that collects before them, as a momentum, and it dances in a circle that resolves in a huge glowing pool in the middle of the room, and we all look at it and I sing into that place. There are so many different creative flights of fancy that I can take when I'm on stage that motivate and engage me in a creative joy that makes me want to sing. It's a communion with the world around you; it's not just about you anymore. It's a relationship with your creative muse, which is a gift."
The recording studio is another animal, however, and it's not a place that Antony is yet comfortable in. There, it's easy to overthink - which might be why the much-belaboured Crying Light doesn't hold up to the superior yet comparatively cast-off Another World EP. None of his recordings - no matter how stripped down or sympathetically arranged they may be - have yet to match the impact of witnessing him in performance.
"It's been a slow learning curve for me in the studio," he sighs. "I'm still a student of that. It's like combing the most tangled dreadlock every time."