Last October, Antony Hegarty performed with a full orchestra at the Apollo Theater. Like James Brown, Antony knows how to make an entrance — though in his case, it involved wearing what looked like a full-length white wedding dress. Antony is six-feet-two, with a moon-shaped face, soft features and stringy hair that hangs to his shoulders. People are often struck by his size, especially in contrast to his voice, a haunting moan quavering with vibrato that recalls Nina Simone but really has few precedents. He encored with a mordant cover of Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love.” When he performed the song in Sweden, he noted afterward, “Who says I’m not a teenage girl?”
Antony — who became a critical and hipster favorite with his 2005 breakthrough, I Am a Bird Now — resists discussing his sexuality with much specificity. But since he was a child, he’s known that he was transgender. “It was obvious,” he says. “It’s no secret when you’re gender-variant as a kid. It’s clear to you, to your family, to your community, that you’re swimming against the tide.” Today, at a vegetarian diner in New York’s East Village, his only sartorial nod to femininity is a black and white neck scarf, which he’s wearing over a blue cardigan. Several songs on I Am a Bird Now, recorded with his band, the Johnsons, dealt overtly with themes of transformation and escape. The music, mostly quiet piano and strings, sounded as fragile as Antony’s vocals — so sad, at times, it feels like a violation to be listening in.
Somewhat astoundingly, Antony’s new album, The Crying Light, is even more emotionally intense. If I Am a Bird Now was primarily about the singer’s relationship with his own body, The Crying Light is about his relationship with the earth, which he sees as essentially feminine and, not surprisingly, consistently defiled by a male-dominated society. “I think a lot of theologies were obsessed with the idea of separating us from our dependence on the natural world and repositioning our dependence on some abstract sky god,” Antony says. “Nature was something innately feminine and innately evil — the Eve element. It’s the male archetype inside us all, which has gone completely crazy for at least 2,000 years and now has taken our entire ecosystem to the brink of collapse.” The best of the new songs, the devastating “Another World,” encapsulates the album as a whole. Backed by spare piano and ghostly electronic effects, Antony sounds as if he’s singing a suicide note (“I need another world. … Gonna miss you all”), though it becomes clear he’s mourning the death not of himself but of the earth.
Hal Willner, the veteran producer — he’s worked with Lou Reed and has been the musical director of Saturday Night Live since the Eighties — has been one of the staunchest of Antony’s many passionate champions (others include Reed, Laurie Anderson, Rufus Wainwright and Devendra Banhart). Willner, who has worked with Antony on a Leonard Cohen tribute concert and on guest vocals for Reed’s album The Raven, was shopping for records about seven years ago when, he says, “I saw an EP with a cover photo of someone who looked like a big Teletubby” — Antony — “being stepped on by a tranny. And when that voice came on … I mean, I’ve heard high tenors. I’ve heard the only recording of a castrato. But I hadn’t heard anything quite like Antony.”
The 37-year-old singer was born in England, but his family moved to the Bay Area when he was 12. His father was an engineer and his mother was a photographer. He attended Catholic school “for a little while,” he says. Being transgender, he continues, “was a blessing, because I got pushed out of the nest much earlier than a lot of people. At 11 years old, I was like, ‘I’m going to hell!’ But by 12, I was like, ‘Fuuuck you.’ Now I’m not really interested in Catholicism until they say Jesus is a girl.”
Antony had been writing songs inspired by Eighties synth bands like Soft Cell and Depeche Mode when he heard Ray Charles’ cover of the Beatles’ “Yesterday.” “It changed my life,” he says. To hear Ray Charles sing it as a radical gospel song, just tear the shit out of it and send the electricity up your spine, changed my comprehension of what was possible.” Inspired by the documentary Mondo New York, with its footage of the underground Eighties performance-art scene, he eventually headed east. After attending NYU, he spent the next decade working day jobs and performing in unconventional venues — in avant-garde cabaret shows or as a go-go dancer. “Sometimes it would be a play at 2 a.m.,” he says, “or a 2 a.m. cabaret thing. It was usually 2 a.m., though — that was the one consistent theme.”
Antony still lives near his first apartment on 10th Street, and he’s very much a creature of this specific world — one of the last of the true downtown art freaks in a neighborhood once crawling with them. “Part of me felt like I’d gotten here too late,” he says. “A lot of people who had been my aesthetic guides died just before I arrived. It was like a bright night sky with lots of black holes in it. But it was about being present, about ‘This is the time.'”
Antony’s public persona — a shambling, gentle giant, guileless and mildly flirtatious — can mask a shrewd, and occasionally prickly, character. “He’s incredibly obsessive, in a good way,” says Willner. “This is true if you’re talking about music, where he’s agonizing over every note — it took him three years to make this record! — or how he does business. He told me he reads every word of every contract.” During lunch, Antony becomes frosty when talk turns to his childhood: “That was a long time ago. You can write about your childhood if you want to. But we’re doing an article about my album.”
And while discussing the thematic concerns of The Crying Light, one moment he can sound flaky and New Age — saying things like “Nature is the greatest artist of all.” But moments later he hedges, “I know it seems cheesy to say such ridiculous things [about the environment], to talk about the earth as your mother or something.” In truth, he’s relatively hardheaded when it comes to investigating environmental issues. Though he says he doesn’t read much — “I’m kind of like Sarah Palin that way” — he has pored over Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, and in 2006 he traveled to the Arctic Circle to witness the changes firsthand. “I always think there would be a wonderful essay to write about the parallel between the effect of AIDS on the human body and the effect of humanity on the ecosystem,” he says. “It’s collapsing the same systems of immunity.”
When he’s not working, Antony hangs out in the city with friends like the musician Matteah Bairn (a freak-folk singer), going to shows or visiting art galleries. (In keeping with his current environmental concerns, he’s been spending a lot of time of late at Walter De Maria’s New York Earth Room — 250 cubic yards of black soil covering 3,600 square feet of gallery space.) He refuses to discuss his relationship status, though he says he’s never had groupies. He also insists he’s not quite as sad as his music might suggest. “I don’t think of my songs as all sad,” he says. “‘Dust and Water’ is quite peaceful. ‘Kiss My Name’ is joyful. But, yes, I spend a fair amount of time making music, so the songs do reflect my state of mind.”
Beginning in February, Antony will tour the United States and Europe behind The Crying Light. He’s already played for large audiences, first touring with Reed, who told Mojo magazine that Antony “killed” with his cover of the Velvet Underground song “Candy Says.” (Referring to the lyrics “Candy says, ‘I’ve come to hate my body/And all that it requires in this world,'” Reed said, “[Antony] understood those words completely.”) And when I Am a Bird Now won Britain’s prestigious Mercury Prize, it pulled Antony further out of the underground. “I was used to feeling pretty marginal,” he admits. “But as a result of the Mercury Prize, people were able to find more inroads to my experience than I had originally thought. I could go do a concert in Ireland, and all of these soccer hooligans would be singing along to ‘For Today I Am a Boy.'”
Oh, and there’s one other gig he hopes to land. “I want to sing for Obama,” Antony says. “I want to be like Marilyn Monroe singing ‘Happy birthday, Mr. President.’ Not that song, though. We haven’t had a person worth singing for since Robert Kennedy. Even though Obama seems like such a cheeseball — is that bad to say? But whatever, I could still sing a beautiful song.”