On the eve of a North American tour, Antony and the Johnsons won the Mercury Music Prize last night in London for their album, I'm a Bird Now. Fronted by British-born, New York-raised torch singer Antony Hegarty, the group was the surprise winner of the fourteenth annual award -- which honors the best British or Irish album of the year -- beating out multi-platinum rockers Coldplay and British buzz bands Bloc Party and Kaiser Chiefs, the odds-makers' favorites.
"They must have made a mistake," a surprised Hegarty said upon receiving the $36,000 award from British TV host Jools Holland at Grosvenor House Hotel. "I love so many of the acts tonight, and I think it's a bit bonkers to give the prize to one person . . . It's kind of like a crazy contest between an orange and a spaceship and a potted plant and a spoon -- which one do you like better?"
Released in the U.S. in February, the emotional ten-song cycle features guest musicians such as Devendra Banhart, Rufus Wainwright, Lou Reed and Boy George, who, like Hegarty, are staples of the downtown New York music scene. George and Hegarty swap vocals on the haunting ballad "You Are My Sister," which will be released as part of a new EP of the same name on September 20th.
"For me, it was a little emotionally overwhelming, because George was someone I'd admired for so long," Hegarty recently told Rolling Stone of his duet partner. "He had such an influence on the direction I would take in my life -- as a singer, and when I was a kid. So to be sitting there twenty years later, staring at him while he's playing the piano . . . He sang so soulfully that day, it was just totally overwhelming. After he left, I was just flattened for a day or so."
The You Are My Sister EP also features a video of the song, directed by downtown video artist Charles Atlas. The clip is a coterie of female faces, portrait-style, intercut with the two singers. Its concept is simple but reflects what Hegarty terms the "archetypes" that he believes every person contains inside. "I've been thinking recently that everyone contains a family inside of them -- like a mother, a father, a boy, a girl and an infant," he explains. "And, in a way, the record serves as a dialogue between some of those archetypes inside a person."
The EP's previously unreleased songs -- "Forest of Love," "Poorest Ear" and "Paddy's Gone" -- were composed during the sessions for I'm a Bird Now and maintain a similarly brooding sound and common themes. "'Forest of Love' is maybe a response to 'You Are My Sister,'" Hegarty said. "It's the voice of a girl speaking to her brother, and she's trying to help him. I recorded a lot of songs for the record, but I didn't use a lot of them because I wanted to create an arc with the songs, a storyline."
I'm a Bird Now maintains a taut intensity through its poignant exploration of gender and age. But the album's emotional resonance truly stems from Hegarty's otherworldly voice, a rich vibrato which recalls singers from Nina Simone to Brian Ferry and registers solitude, fragility and transcendence all at once.
"I really feel like my voice is just a response to the world, both musical and psychic," said Hegarty. "I think when you're singing, you're like a little ship on the water, and you're waiting for the wind to propel you. Singing is the same way for me. You're hoping for some magical thing -- you're not even quite sure where it comes from, but it fills you up and propels you forward."