Marks for Antony

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Antony Hegarty is a gracious winner. He’s also a cunningly quotable winner.

When he and his group, the Johnsons, recently captured the Mercury Music Prize for I Am a Bird Now, given each year for the best album by a British or Irish act, he said, “They must have made a mistake.” He praised competing artists, the Kaiser Chiefs and Coldplay, and cheekily summed up the awards as “a crazy contest between an orange and a spaceship and a potted plant and a spoon: Which one do you like better?”

The remarks were also strategically placed. They defused some controversy over an award given to the UK-born but New York-based artist who hasn’t lived in England since the 1980s. Hegarty, 34, intuitively knows how thin-skinned and prickly the Brits can be.

Weeks later, on the phone from inside the Hollywood Ramada Inn — a hotel he tells Metro Times is “filled with all kinds of pervy people” — he adds that he felt “embarrassed, but honored too” by winning the Mercury Prize. “But it’s not really a fair contest, more of a survey of what’s out there.”

And out there Antony and his Johnsons have been: making spellbinding, heartbreaking, genre-bending music in relative obscurity for years, despite its being made in New York, the world’s greatest media center. Their self-titled first LP was recorded in 1997-98, but not released until 2000. Then an EP, it was a tender but funny hymnal about infatuation and grief called “I Fell in Love With a Dead Boy.” It enraptured critics and fans when it was released a year later. The EP contained the original track and two gorgeous covers: David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti’s “Mysteries of Love,” and a little-known song by Current 93, “Soft Black Stars.”

Hegarty calls Current 93’s David Tibet “one of my earliest champions. He introduced my work on his [Durtro] label. I am so grateful to David.”

Much of the material that appeared on the first Antony and the Johnsons LP was initially tested in Hegarty’s queer cabaret act at the East Village’s Pyramid Club, where he spent his late nights and early mornings as an experimental theater student at NYU. When he assembled the Johnsons, he brought saxophone, harp, bass, drums and strings into the mix, with himself on vocals and piano.

In an interview conducted by famed musician Lou Reed (an early champion of Hegarty’s music) in 2003, Hegarty explained that he was moved to make music after seeing a show by multi-octave vocalist Diamanda Galas, who was once described as singing like “a demon going to war, a lizard queen seeking revenge for the dead.”

Hegarty to Reed: “I literally felt my asshole getting ripped out. Her music went right through me like knives. I thought that maybe I could do something like that, but with a certain tenderness, a feeling that wasn’t as much about rage as it was about grief. Much of my material is born from isolation and my desire to move beyond it. I like to think of my work as a type of soul music, not so much in style, but in essence.”

Earlier this year, Antony and the Johnsons released their award-winning LP, which Hegarty describes as containing “soulful ballads with an existential twist.”

Hegarty’s voice, coming from a porcelain-white and 6-foot, 4-inch man, has been described by Lou Reed as that of a “black transsexual.” Others compare him to Nina Simone or Morrissey. But carefully listen to him sing on “Hope There’s Someone,” “For Today I Am a Boy,” “You Are My Sister” (a duet with Boy George) or “Bird Gerhl” and no other singer comes to mind. Antony’s voice is an original instrument, with no separation between his delicate but heavy-hearted style and the luminous substance of his material. Hegarty, who writes and sings about isolation, stands alone in contemporary music.

On their current tour, Antony and the Johnsons are playing venues that he says “run the gamut,” like churches (Vancouver, Toronto), a palace (San Francisco’s Palace of Fine Arts) and women’s clubs and theaters (San Diego, Minneapolis). Hegarty says his most memorable recent performance was in Sicily, where he performed “late at night in a lemon grove, with kittens running around our feet.”

When told that his Detroit appearance will be in a historic building that had been moved several blocks to avoid demolition, Hegarty says he’s eager to see it, to learn more about its history, to perform there.

“It’s called the Gem?” Hegarty says from his sleazy Hollywood hotel room. “How wonderful. Oh, I love that.”


Monday, Oct. 3 at the Gem Theatre, 333 Madison, Detroit; 313-963-9800.

Walter Wasacz is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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