Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Antony and the Johnsons

One of my favourite memories of working at CBC Radio's Brave New Waves was when Antony Hegarty came in for an interview, during his first club tour ever in 2005. I had met him once before in New York City the year before, when his debut album was re-released by Secretly Canadian, and he was playing their label showcase at CMJ, at a bar with live mermaids. So I knew that he was a kind, gentle and self-effacing man, who was much more goofy and humble than the magical powers of his singing voice would suggest.

When he came into the CBC studio, he brought his cellist Julia Kent with him and played a couple of songs on a grand piano (including "The Lake," which inexplicably does not appear on one of his own releases). I've been around musicians my entire adult life, in formal and informal settings, but hearing him sing from the other side of a glass was a literally breathtaking experience, and one that I still feel privileged to have witnessed. Writers trip over themselves trying to come up with adjectives to describe his presence, so I'm not even going to try. One listen and you'll know soon enough yourself.

And yet as much as I love the man, my love for his music hasn't often extended past a few certain songs ("Cripple and the Starfish," "Hope There's Someone," "Fistful of Love" among others). When it all comes together, it's spellbinding; often it doesn't, and if it wasn't for his vocal presence it would be awkward and amateurish. Sometimes that's true of his stage show as well; seeing him at a Montreal club after that radio performance was a slight letdown (reviewed here).

The new album The Crying Light is no different. As he points out in this interview, there are no climaxes or dramatic builds here; it's more "pastoral" (his word). For all its flaws, I did enjoy the diversity of 2005's I Am A Bird Now, which had room for soul songs amidst the plaintive piano ballads. When set to a groove, like on "Shake That Devil" from last fall's Another World EP, Antony's voice soars like his hero Nina Simone's. Some of those urges were satisfied by his appearances on 2008's debut album by critically acclaimed neo-disco act Hercules and Love Affair, where he sang and co-wrote five of the ten tracks.

To the best of my knowledge, this interview is the only Canadian one Antony is doing for this album. It was delayed several times over the Christmas holiday, and I wasn't convinced it was actually going to happen. Not being blown away by the new album, that was fine with me. But once we had a date and started chatting on a lazy Sunday morning--about everything other than music, it seems--it quickly became one of my favourite interviews of recent years. Not just because of the man's charm, or his occasional loopiness (see the part about butoh visualization techniques), but because he's a thoughtful, serious and articulate guy on a breadth of subjects.

Thanks to Exclaim for assigning this; my article for them appears in the new issue here. (Also recommended: Sofi Papamarko's A.C. Newman chat.)

Antony Hegarty
January 4, 2009
Locale: phone conversation on a Sunday morning

A lot of your songs are about escape, and often there’s an element of transformation as well. Listening to your work with Hercules and Love Affair, it strikes me that disco itself is often inherently about escape and transformation—sometimes a different kind of escape than the kind that you talk about in your songs. How do you see the aesthetic of classic disco in what you do in both Hercules and your solo stuff?

Escape and transformation mean two different things to me. Transformation is a means of escape. (long pause, stutters) I would like to think the songs work on a process of transforming something, as opposed to just getting away from something. On “Another World” I wanted to be very direct about the feelings I was having. It wasn’t about getting away, it was about acknowledging something and going through a process. That means something different to me than escape. And—sorry, what was the other question?

I was asking about escape in disco lyrics.

Actually, that prompts another tangent. There are a lot of songs on this album that are more pastoral than the last one. Last time a lot of songs had a climax or a catharsis. A lot of these songs are more like landscapes.

They don’t build to a climax.

It’s not the focus. Some of them are more observational. It has an emotional stillness to it. That’s a result of me being at a different stage of my life. But to relate to your question about disco escapism, what I liked about the Hercules songs were 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. That’s what made them interesting to me, at least [Andy Butler's] lyrics. The ones I wrote for the album were a bit more hardcore. The ones that he wrote were about being emotionally present and awake. That, in my mind, was reflective of his generation: a sweetheartedness, and open-heartedness that the generation after me came to the table with.

What’s the age difference between you two?

He’s in his 20s and I’m in my late 30s. There were a bunch of musicians coming up in New York around 2000, people like Devendra Banhart and Coco Rosie, who were willing to make themselves more vulnerable in their work than my generation had been, with a few exceptions. 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. Of course that’s a great thing. I’ve got to focus on integrating those things. How can we be present and acknowledge the reality of our lives today, and have a sense of wholeness? 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.

Listening to “Another World,” I heard it as a lament for the current world that the narrator is mourning. In a song like “Hope There’s Someone”—there’s hope in the title, a hope that someone will be there at the end of their time on earth. Whereas “Another World” is a bit fatalistic; the narrator has already resigned him or herself to the concept of death—maybe of the planet, maybe of themselves. They could be looking for another natural world or the next stage in their own life.

I was a bit worried about that, that it would seem fatalistic. And I did get that feedback when I was first playing it. I ended up finding that it’s a feeling, it’s not a fact. Sometimes it’s important to move through your feelings to find out what’s on the other side. With that song, I was very consciously trying to write a song that placed me emotionally in this burgeoning reality of a collapsing environment. I wanted to sit with the emotional reality of that, instead of becoming overwhelmed and going into denial, which is what I do in my pedestrian life. In a weird way, I emerged with the voice of a girl from the future singing this song. I hope it’s not construed as reporting a reality, as I felt like it’s an emotional condition.

I also think about grieving. The reality is that there’s a lot lost already to grieve, in relationship to the environment and the world that created us and gave birth to us. It has suffered tremendously at our hand. The thing about grief is that you can’t start to grieve until you’re in a place of safety. If you’re still in control mode or denial, you can’t grieve. Grieving is part of the healing process. I also just wanted to go down on record that we were feeling this way in 2008. That felt really important to me. It’s something that has really become part of the collective consciousness—definitely the collective unconscious, anyway. All of us are in a state of confusion about our relationship to our environment.

The past year was such a huge year in history, not only for what happened, but for the beginnings of events that are about to happen, both positive and negative. Psychologically, there has been a lot of bridging between previous denial and an acceptance of reality, and trying to survive emotionally—both in the immediate terms of what’s coming economically, and longer terms environmentally. It’s been a year where people are examining the purpose of what we do. I’m really curious to see in the next 12 months, but also the next few years, how much that trickles down and how much re-examination we actually do about the damage we do to each other and the world.

In America, we’re still so protected from the frontier of that shift, of people that are affected environmentally. There are, obviously, millions of people who are being affected environmentally. And certainly a lot of other species. Another question is, what’s my relationship with the consciousness of other species? I was raised a Catholic, and raised to believe that we have a separation between ourselves and the animals, the mountains, the trees. Now, after studying Butoh when I was younger, I’m more open to singing a song from a lot of different perspectives. There are plenty of animals from whose perspective you could sing “Another World.” That’s just today’s reality. That’s interesting to me as a creative jumping-off point.

There’s a book called The World Without Us. Have you read that or heard of it?

Yeah, it’s been really popular. People take a lot of consolation from that book, but I think it’s a pipe dream. People love to think that nature will survive, but the fact of the matter is that by the time we’re finished here, there’s not going to much else living besides us. For sure, all the mammals will be gone. The ecosystems in the ocean will have collapsed. You pretty much have to start from scratch. It’s not like some virus will come along and kill all the humans and leave all the three-trillion-times-more-tender and vulnerable creatures to live their lives.

And to be fair, that is the premise of the book—an entirely hypothetical scenario where humans disappear for no apparent reason.

It’s a fantasy to make us feel better. In reality, the opposite is true. The rest of the earth will be gone, and we’ll be stuck here. That’s the kind of loneliness I’m talking about. In a way, that book helps people feel absolved of responsibility or guilt or having a real impact on the environment. When really, we should be referencing the opposite scene: how can we come to terms with the impact we have on the environment, and how can we digest it? It calls for a shift in all our archetypes. That book speaks to the old system of looking at God, where God was all-powerful and we were powerless. God and nature would always be present. It was the absolute.

Nature was resilient and renewable.

Yeah, and we were just minions. In reality, unconsciously or not, we’ve taken on the role of God in our influence on the environment and our influence on the destinies of every other creature on this earth.

Which we have for a long time, stemming in part from what you described as the Catholic philosophy or assumption that we have domain over the natural world.

It’s a rotten, patriarchal set-up that has led us to the point. Also, this idea that this earth is just a holding place where we can prove our goodness before heading off to heaven. Heaven is the destiny. The earth, at best, is some kind of feminine, slightly wicked presence that we’ve been trying to expunge from our spiritual views for 2000 years. The earth was always considered the feminine, and there’s no room for the feminine. I mean, look at the fucking Pope on Christmas Day, with what he was saying! It’s the same fucking shit that’s been going on—it’s a fucking joke, that this Nazi Youth Pope is belching out this idea that gay and transgender people are as much of a threat to the future of humanity as the decimation of the rainforest. What more of a disturbance could he possibly to do both the rainforest and humanity? Oh, it’s just rancid.

It’s very interesting you bring up these analogies, because I was just about to ask you about how there are environmental themes on this record and much of your previous work dealt with gender issues. What linkages do you see between the two? You were just talking about the connection between the patriarchy and the feminine earth. Is this a shift in your writing, or is it all interconnected?

Well, (sighs), I do have my own little theories. I think there’s a huge link between an emotionally, intuitively shut-down society—what I would define as the characteristics of a patriarchal society, or one with patriarchal values—and that creates the pathway that makes this outcome possible. When we’re shut down from our relationship with our mother, or the mother and child inside us, to our vulnerability—it’s from that place of vulnerability or feminine intuition that we perceive our interconnectedness with the environment…

Our empathy.

Yes. It’s all those things. With the economic model we have now, that’s not one of its values. It’s not built on compassion. What would compassionate capitalism look like? No one ever said capitalism was ethical. You read those articles about people working in Auschwitz or something, or even in more subtle ways, when people work at a huge corporation or something. They can go to work and function in ways that are so cruel, because they function as cogs in a structure that has a different value system. They participate in that, but when they go home they have a different set of values in their heart. But what we’re perpetuating is something quite virulent. Our approach to the earth at this point is virulent. We’re just consuming it and killing it. Even those of us with the best intentions, like me—I’m still flying around in planes. And I’m still struggling with it. It’s still abstract to me. But the reality is not abstract. It’s physical, a physical impact.

I was recalling Naomi Klein’s introduction to her book No Logo, where she wrote about how she spent much of the ’90s focusing on personal identity politics at university, personal and social issues, at a time when major economic decisions were being made that effected living and working conditions in every corner of the globe, not to mention environmental impacts.

That stuff drives me crazy. It’s just dawning on me, what we were talking about at the beginning about bringing an inner life to the table and finding its relation to the world around us. All these people fussing and fighting about gay marriage on the night of the election—it’s just another pathetic set-up by the right-wing. They’ve pulled that card for the last three campaigns. It’s always, “Here comes gay marriage, here comes abortion.” It’s always an election-year issue, and this crap gets put on the ballots to discourage people from voting liberal. All the gay people are in an uproar about their little piece of the pie and, I mean, 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.

So it’s not picking our battles, it’s about integrating these struggles?

Well, look, I don’t know what I’m talking about. I’m just an idiot. You can hear me struggle to put words together. In the mid-90s it was a problem, that all these academics were in their thinktanks. I remember taking a class in feminist ecology at NYU in 1991, and at most campuses I’m sure we felt that we were just so far from view. It’s only in the last five years that we really started taking it to heart, and it’s because it’s undeniable now. Everyone’s perception of the weather is that it’s changed. I think it’s interesting what you said about that lady [Naomi Klein]. I wonder about that.

And another thing about gender issues and gay identity: I think people gave away a lot of their power, especially the gay community, when they settled for a definition of what gay identity entailed. It’s become such a battle over relationships. People’s perception of what being gay could mean has really been eroded by the identity that they’ve been marked as.

Is there a static gay identity? It seems to me like there’s less of one than there is a static heterosexual identity, which still revolves around the nuclear family.

With a heterosexual, you can at least participate in a variety of different cultures. But if you’re gay, you’re sold this merchandise, this music that you have to listen to, through the cultural promoters, the magazines and whatnot. You’re sold this serious of behaviours that you’re supposed to engage in. The point is, what else does it mean to be gay? I think of sexual orientation as a secondary characteristic of a gay—or for me, transgender—identity. Sexual orientation is just another behaviour.

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. Or an ecology or a different sense of the environment, as a result of growing in a culture where you feel so alienated and so separate, you do get a different perspective of your relationship with the world. Those are tools that could be applied to having a more bird’s-eye view. Maybe gay people could be ecologists!

Maybe there’s a more spiritual basis for their difference than their orientation. It’s a bit reductive. People got short-changed when they were told that being a faggot means you’re a cocksucker.

In certain Native American spirituality, there’s the notion of being two-spirited, and it’s perceived as being a gift and not a negative thing at all, it’s a value of perception and empathy. Two-spirited people were often healers.

I am friends with some two-spirits in Vancouver, and they have a much more soulful idea of what their identity is about. It’s amazing and really empowering.

I’m curious about the song “Epilepsy is Dancing.” Disease as a metaphor appears in other songs of yours, and I’m wondering what it is about being diseased—or being perceived as being diseased—that you think creates empathy and understanding.

Having seizures is typically associated with being possessed or witchcraft. It can be seen as an ecstatic experience that makes you an untouchable; historically, people are frightened of that. For me, it presents a total loss of control; you’re definitely engaged, although not in a way that you’ve consciously chosen. You’re participating in life in a very different way. The song is a simple narrative about a person that loses that control and then reflects on it later, about the choreography of it.

Butoh provides the visual backdrop to both the EP and the new album. I’ve been reading about it lately, on a surface level, but how would you describe it to a layman?

There are two different things. There is butoh as a form that a ton of different dancers are exploring new vocabularies for. But for me, it was about Kazuo Ohno and a very particular type of dance that set him apart from the pack. The album is dedicated to him, because he is my art hero and art parent, in a way. He’s one of the co-founders of butoh.

It emerged from traditional Japanese forms of noh and kabuki, and then informed by expressionism and apocalyptic imagery after the nuclear holocaust in Japan, and Jean Genet’s writings and a lot of experimental, new ideas that were coming out of dance and performance in the early ’60s.

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 also visualizes an aspect of the natural world. It’s almost meditational. It seeks to embody the atomic movement of a stone or a mountain, or the feeling of growing inside a tree. That’s one plane of it. It’s also metaphysical in dealing with time and space, the idea that you can reach across time in a different way, and perform propelled by the spirit of your great-great-grandmother, or dancing with the ghosts in the walls around you. With Kazuo Ono, there is a lot of exploration of a divine child and his mother. A lot of butoh focuses on issues of life and death.

What’s interesting about Kazuo Ohno is that he converted to Catholicism in his ’50s. You hear a lot about artists who convert to Eastern theologies, but you rarely hear about eastern people converting to Western theologies.

Especially Catholicism!

He did a lot of explorations of dancing from Jean Genet’s Our Lady of the Flowers. This is total speculation on my part, but he was probably drawn to the more ecstatic elements of Catholicism. Eastern religions tend to be stoic and impersonal; the idea is for the self to erase in a way. Catholics are still into mountaintop ecstasies and the crying and the blood sacrifices. There is a devotionalism that Catholics draw on, whereas Eastern religions are more about dissolving into oneness.

What elements in your own writing or work do you think tie in directly to the concepts of butoh?

Especially on stage for me, I’m always applying the vocabulary I studied in butoh, as a singer. Rarely am I mining my personal life for motivation to sing. Usually, I’m engaged in seeking a creative impulse, or a set of imagery that can propel me through the song or the moment, to unveil the present for me in a different way.

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 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.

Do you think other singers could learn from dance and visualization, as opposed to mining their own emotional terrain in performance? The latter can be very crippling, I would imagine, night after night. Very draining.

(laughs). A lot of my songs come from somewhere very personal. What I just described is more of a tool in performance, to expand on the songs. It’s affected all areas of my life: my writing, my approach to lyrics, and the way I move through imagery. I think a lot of that comes through studying butoh.

I studied with this teacher named Maureen Fleming, who was amazing. Before that I went to a performing arts school, which was so focused on technique and things that were too abstract to me. Maureen would just plug me right in with a crazy image that really worked for me. Some people are very structural, and they need to know how to pull in this muscle and push out that muscle. If they get the structure of the body right, they can inhabit the form. For me, it’s totally emotional and bound to intuition and creative dreaming, this thing that makes me want to dance into space with my voice, or in relationships in general. It’s a freedom, an abandon.

I get really bound up when I get into structural, physical stuff. When I can take a flight of fancy in my creative mind, that can carry me through anything—including expressions that I would never be able to figure out how to do, if left to my own devices. 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 sound of your music has changed over the years. The first record was comparatively elaborate; even though there are strings all over this record, it still sounds stripped down next to the first one. I’m wondering if that’s a result of your own confidence through those processes you’re describing, finding a lot of those things in your voice as opposed to dressing up the music—and even you yourself physically, in how you present yourself onstage.

When I started performing, it was like singing into a wind machine, when you perform in night clubs at 2 a.m. You have to make a really strong, theatrical statement to get your point across to a bunch of drunk people who want to have sex. If your goal is to make them cry, you have to push. Generally speaking, I had a full-on sense of theatrics.

As it progressed and I got more involved in the music world—as opposed to presenting in these theatrical performance contexts—I realize there’s a lot more room for subtlety, and for intimacy. How to communicate that is different in the recording than it is live. The voicing is different.

It’s been a slow learning curve for me in the studio, to make a recording effective. I’m still a student of that. It’s like combing the most tangled dreadlock every time. I ended up piling everything on, and then spending a lot of time stripping it back down again. In the end, it’s a question of what’s essential.


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