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.”