Antony & The Johnsons
Originally published in Plan B magazine, December 2008. http://www.planbmag.com/shop
In gradually dawning light, I’m in the front few rows for the Halloween performance from Antony And The Johnsons. Nestled in among the London Symphony Orchestra, members of the Johnsons lead new arrangements of songs stretching back as far as the first album. ‘The Rapture’ and ‘I Fell In Love With A Dead Boy’ are freshly stately in this environment; the Barbican is ghostly-new, fingers of sound penetrating through heavy curtains. ‘For Today I Am A Boy’, from 2005’s I Am A Bird Now, the album which managed to shock the music industry by winning the usually predictable Mercury Music Prize, is confident to the point of abandonment, the centrepiece ad-libs bubbling out irrepressibly, as strings sob joyfully all around.
Antony, robed and Junoesque, is measured and gentle, his movements deliberate gestures. With an entire orchestra to flow through and compete with, his voice sounds more daring and beautiful than ever as it presents the otherworldly tableaux of songs from new album, The Crying Light. This is far from the intimate, confessional performances of the I Am A Bird Now tour, nor is it a return to Antony’s former incarnation in performance art and genderqueer cabaret. This is something else; and it’s something else.
The glow lasts. A couple of days later, I arrive at Antony’s hotel, where I am met by his glorious travelling companion Joey, one of the NYC Beauties that Antony and Charles Atlas (1) immortalised in the ‘Turning’ video art project, and justly cast as a goddess in the video for Hercules and Love Affair’s ‘Blind’. I feel I’m still radiating what the performance has given me, that characteristic openness to idea and feeling that it inspires. Antony picks through his breakfast, and we gradually wake up together.
Antony’s work since I Am A Bird Now in collaboration with other artists is some of his strongest work, vocally, particularly the aching, hopeful ‘Blind’ and his collaborations with Björk on Volta. ‘The Dull Flame Of Desire’ demonstrates stunning range, and despite the repetition of the poem (the lyric was taken from a poem by the great Russian Romantic poet Fyodor Tyutchev), each pass he makes at the refrain makes the whole song feel larger, to the point of bursting.
“It’s such a challenge singing with Bjork because she’s so expansive. That’s where that bursting feeling comes from, I think. I have literally never seen someone so full-on in the studio. She’s totally committed every moment that she’s there. She pushed me out of self-consciousness.”
Hercules and Love Affair’s take on queer-positive disco seems to have really taken off.
“I’m so happy about that. It’s great that Hercules And Love Affair are emphasising that side of it. Apparently they’re doing really well, in Italy in particular. Andy [Butler, DJ mastermind of Hercules And Love Affair] and I recorded ‘Blind’ before we did the rest of the songs. It was a real experiment. We were messing around, he had this lyric he wanted me to work with – I think he wanted me to be his Alison Moyet [laughter]. I liked the challenge of trying to sing to a beat, trying to literally move people with the vocal. It’s a very different goal. I hadn’t ever done that before.”
‘Blind’ is a moving lyric in the figurative sense too. The story is alien and familiar at the same time – the landscape seems unknown, but the hopes of the main character provoke so much feeling. Is that Andy’s lyric in its entirety?
“Absolutely. There are other lyrics on that record that I wrote, ‘Time Will’, and ‘Brace Me Up’, but they’re far thornier; ‘Blind’ has an innocence that’s really important and as you say, it’s empathetic. I focussed on that, on telling that story, on remaining true to it.”
The new performances seem to draw on some of these new experiences too. The symphonic arrangements are very idiosyncratic – are they [producer and composer] Nico Muhly (2)?
“Nico and I arranged all the songs for the LSO. Most of the older songs are the ones Nico did by himself, but the newer songs we did are also on the album. I’m not classically trained, I can’t read music – I’m self-taught. So we have very different skills sets, me and Nico. I have simple ideas about melody and countermelody, voice and tone, and we go from there. He has this panoramic sense of the possible, like, working with a symphony – I would never have known how to approach that.
“The older songs, those that he arranged that we’re performing on this tour, are fantastic, but they’re interpretations. My intention was to record the newer songs definitively, as opposed to interpret them – I wanted to be the sculptor. Performing them now with the symphonies is tremendously exciting.”
At the Halloween show, the LSO was such a gigantic noise generator, and you were playing with it like a kitten.
“[Laughter] It’s like being on a really big river. A flood. Such energy being generated, and I’m being carried through it. I’m more used to having to be the river.”
The crying light/A sanctuary that can hold me/Allow me to come awake/Allow the child in me to rise and gaze upon the world with open, shining eyes/I am safe here, dancing my brokenness/I know my joy/I step into myself and become a shadow/Remember when I was my grandmother, when I was a fish/I remember who I will become/The crying light comes from the crystals in the dark hearts of mountains. – ‘The Crying Light’
The embodiment of nature is a perpetual theme of new album, The Crying Light. In these songs, the barrier between the self and the world is dismantled. Limbs become water, leaves become eyes, sunlight becomes crystalline emotion. ‘Everglade’ describes a moment of connection with the natural world that resonates throughout the physical and spiritual being of the storyteller. It’s a bodily journey that’s in a different dimension entirely to the gender-transformative narratives more familiar to Johnson listeners.
“They’re actually entwined, those two ideas – being born into the transgender community, my experience of being in my body has been quite alienated. I felt I was stuck inside this thing. I have been searching my whole life for a place where I belonged, and ‘Everglade’ is about my realisation that I do belong. I am at home. I am a part of the sunlight and the water and the trees. My body stopped crying for home, I stopped feeling alienated. I stopped having such cruel thoughts in my head, that I was alone and would always be alone.
“A few years ago I was lying in a canoe at a friend’s house in upstate New York, flat out on the water, and looking up at the trees above me, and suddenly was struck by imagining that each of the leaves was an eye. ‘Everglade’ is addressing that alienation, seeking to re-connect with that perpetually watching world.
“I know it sounds crazy, but for a while I was so afraid of rocks. In Catholic cosmography, human beings have souls and everything else is a question mark at best. We have a unique spirit content, and everything else is consumable. That in itself has a huge effect on what we think of as sacred – that the soul, which we have and nothing else has, is inconsumable. But for other civilisations and cultures, that’s not the case. Aboriginal Australians believe that their dead become rocks – that there are families of rocks, that rocks are family. Their ancestors are these sacred containers, the rocks.
“I visited the North Pole, and I was standing on a slate hill in Svalbard, and I really felt a tremendous sense of energy from the hill. I think perhaps it was because it’s such a remote place, so far from civilisation, there were no distractions. But I felt the life inside the mountain. I felt it so strongly, and it was a real turning point for me, the idea that I could imagine that within the stone there was such a joy and spirit and freedom – energy dancing inside of it, even in something as still as a stone. And I wrote ’Dust And Water’ about that experience.”
The stillness of rocks can be misleading. My name means ‘rock’, too. I come from a little seaside town called Hastings, which is basically a medieval fishing village between two giant hills to the west and east. The East Hill has a nature reserve on top of it, up over vast cliffs. There’s a private, rocky beach that you have to climb to reach. I would go there all the time, even in the middle of the night, freezing cold, I’d go there and sit on the rocks, and watch the sun come up and reveal all the different kinds of stone – flint and slate and sandstone, all these seams of stone gradually crumbling and falling down. The cliff face is different every day. And where those stones and the sea meet and correspond, I feel absolutely at home. That’s where everything that I know somehow begins.
God, I’m sorry.
“No, Don’t be. I’m always crying when I sing Dust And Water. That’s the idea – that when water meets dust, life begins. It’s about me being afraid of being stuck in the stone, that the stones are lifeless, but then – oh no, even the moon – the ice is coming, the water is coming. Nothing is stuck forever, everything is changing, always. Thank you for doing this with me. I’m right there with you.”
There’s such a sense of urgency to this record. Where does it come from?
“I wanted to make a marker in time, marking the incredible loss we’re all feeling as we deplete the world, the only world we know, the only world we will ever know. Heaven is not elsewhere; this is all we have. We’re at such a critical point with it, not only in the physical sense but also on a threshold of feeling. This has preoccupied me throughout my adult life, and it has reached critical mass in terms of my wanting to take it as a clear theme for this group of work, at this particular point in time. I set myself a task to be really clear about it, to write and talk unmediatedly, to set down a marker in time to show directly how I’m feeling, and that’s what Another World is.”
The version of ‘Another World’ used on both the album and EP is far from a bald statement. It conveys both presence and distance, a commitment to the world and a sense of its demise. In the recitation of what will be missed, there grows a vision of paradise, both present and lost. What is unequivocal is its grief; the vocal gradually submits to tears, wavering at the edge of sustainable tone. There’s a palpable sense of farewell that feels almost suicidal, and this new album spends much of its time talking to the dying and the dead.
“Yes, to an extent. For me what’s more interesting though is how those people and worlds are still alive, the way that all things are alive, the presence of all things. Everything is available, all the time.
“‘Her Eyes Are Underneath The Ground’, which is a lyric that could easily be interpreted as being about death, is a song that at first I thought was about my mother. Later, I realised it’s a song written by my mother about her mother, through me. I believe we’ve got our local sense of self, the personal life of each of us, but I also imagine I carry all the lives that came before, the line of life that goes back to the beginning of time, that you can tap into or give voice to, or find inspiration from.”
An understanding of the self, and the enlarged set of representational possibilities it brings, are borne out visibly within the within the new symphony show. As Antony sings, small and graceful choreographies of feeling carried out through figurative gestures, powerful and characteristic, though rarely drawn from the singular source of personality.
“When I’m on stage, I’m always seeking the imagery that will carry me through, and oftentimes that’s not a particularly personal imagery. As I perform more it’s rare that I’ll be indulging personal details of my life a as a source. I use more abstract sources like a flock of flamingos flying through my body, or a ghost stepping into me from five generations ago, coursing through my arms.”
“It’s an idea that comes from studying butoh, the dance form that was developed by Kazuo Ohno(3), to whom this album is dedicated. Dance was more than a form to him, it was a spirit form. He would cast a circle of light around himself, and in that safety, some very precious part of his spirit would emerge. This part of him was feminine, childlike, filled with wonderment, as though everything was discovered for the first time. He made his masterwork as a dancer between the ages of 79 and 95, so obviously it wasn’t about acrobatic prowess. It was about this movement of essence from one state to another, that you witness when you watched him, that is tremendously moving. I studied with one of his students. Maureen Fleming, a wonderful dancer from New York. A lot of my process is very informed by his work; I’ve tried to apply the lessons he taught around finding movement to finding a voice.”
Is it important to you to equate that essence with the feminine?
“Well, I think the album definitely addresses themes of mother and father in terms of masculine and feminine forces. The song ‘Aeon’ is a song about the father, but it’s also about the brokenness of men in general. I believe men have to undergo a transformation in order for the way we’re living now to shift. They’re operating at a disadvantage, hormonally. It’s a different kettle of fish, testosterone [laughter].”
Speaking to trans men who’re taking hormones, I hear a lot about the effects of testosterone. They find it can be a really big change to have testosterone in their bodies.
“There’s no one who can teach us more about being a man or a woman than transgender people. They’ll tell you what it’s like to take those hormones. If you talk to trans men, that transformation they go through, you hear how radically it affects their person, their whole spiritual and psychic makeup, and their emotional and behavioural makeup too. I’m not saying that’s the entire directive force in a person’s manifestation, but it makes a huge difference. In terms of the way society’s set up, I feel that we’re coming to the end of this crazy male-dominant, patriarchal era of thousands of years. That has to shift if things are going to go forward. Does that sound crazy to you?”
No. It doesn’t sound crazy, but I don’t think it’s just men who are in need of change. I think gender is showing itself to be unstable, and I look to trans people as being pioneers of gender. These are people who embody unavoidable questions about where gender actually sits. Where is it really alive? Does it sit in other people’s perceptions? Does it sit in your physical body, which is changing all the time? Does it sit in chromosomal identity? Is it about the hormones in your body? Is it about who you have sex with? These issues are very present for trans people – and they’re issues that are actually there for all of us, but we don’t think about them because patriarchy sets out systems that we think with instead.
“Right, but for me, it’s been a process of unlearning gender. I feel I’ve been raised in a world that’s male-neutral, where god is male, or devoid of the feminine, if not male; that’s very clear in Catholicism. The power systems are male. Capitalism is based on values that are associated with very masculine archetypes, in our own system. The male patrols the perimeter, is territorial, is competing and hoarding resources for his own family. All those things come from a desire to survive and protect one’s own, but there is a different time now. There are seven billion of us, and all the other life forms are disappearing. Now what we need is the wisdom of the inner circle, of the feminine. Not that the feminine is always gentle; Johanna [Constantine](3), who’s my lifelong creative partner, portrays femininity as quite Kali-esque.
“But that’s the next phase – to discover how we are part of this world, as opposed to how to dominate it, and eke from it the things we need. It’s almost as though we need to have a paradigm shift to the feminine neutral, to the ways that we are collective, and connected to the world. No more building the fort and fighting off and killing intruders, killing food and hoarding fuel. There’s nowhere to go with that process anymore. We’re at the punch-line of that particular joke.
“Being born transgender, we’re very lucky, to be able to swim against the prevailing current of the culture. No matter how intimately something’s put on you, you have something inside you, that tells you are something else. And you know that, in a way that few people are gifted with. There’s something in you that tells you to fight that imposition. I will always have more in common with another tranny from Bangladesh than I do with my next-door neighbour.
“We are at a point now where that kind of consciousness is about to emerge. I think trans people’s experiences are very important to that; trans people have experienced being socially positioned as the opposite gender, we are acutely aware of how gender works in society, in the family structure and in the prevailing culture. I think there’s a really practical, useful purpose for trans people in society – to bridge the gap that is there, that painful gap that’s been imposed by societal ideas of gender.”
You’ve spoken about Catholicism being an imposition on you, but I don’t think there’s such a gap between the magical thinking of Catholicism – that sense of being perpetually surrounded by angels, demons, saints and martyrs, of the world being driven by a metaphysical struggle – and the kind of feminine-neutral animism you’re talking about. It might not be such a leap; it might be a natural next step.
“So much of Catholicism is lifted from Paganism. I remember the May Day parades as a child; the Maryan imagery was very pagan and obviously, in terms of the calendar, was lifted from the pagan celebrations of Beltane. The pagan panel of deities, a lot of them also were transferred over to martyrs and saints; there are so many parallels. The ritual remains – the name changes, but the soul is alive. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of magical thinking.”
1. Charles Atlas: filmmaker and video artist Charles Atlas has worked in New York since the 70’s, documenting and elaborating the city’s dance and club scenes. He has had long and fruitful relationships with many figures in the dance and performance worlds, including dancer and choreographer Michael Clark, co-creator of the Fall’s I Am Kurious, Oranj, and renowned performer and designer Leigh Bowery.
Atlas has also collaborated with avant-garde musicians, including Diamanda Galas and Fennesz. In 2006 he and Antony Hegarty created and toured ‘Turning’, a set of collaborative portraits of New York women and trans women in live video and sound, including performances by Antony & the Johnsons.
2. Nico Muhly: a prolific young composer and arranger whose work is influenced as much by Reich and Glass as it is by Byrd and Tavener, Nico Muhly has worked with both Bjork and Antony & the Johnsons for several years, first providing live piano and string arrangements, and later collaborating with Hegarty on his own duet for viola and voice, ‘Keep in Touch’, from his 2006 collection, Speaks Volumes. Recently Muhly has contributed symphonic arrangements for the Antony & the Johnsons tour, and co-arranged several songs on The Crying Light. He is currently working on an opera, due to premiere at the New York Metropolitan Opera in 2009.
3. Kazuo Ohno: Ohno’s iconic career as a dancer and performer began in 1949, at the age of 43, when he held his first recital. Rejecting Western forms that dominated dance in Japan at that time, Ohno at first sought an authentic means of expressing the great turmoil he had witnessed while serving in the Japanese army; one of his early recitals described watching jellyfish feed on the bodies of soldiers buried at sea. He worked with Tatsumi Hijikata in developing an entirely new form of dance, ankoku-butoh (the ‘dance of utter darkness’, now known as butoh), which, though formally very controlled, dealt in surreal grotesqueries. Despite this, the techniques of butoh are transformative in intent, allowing the expression of essential aspects of the spirit. At 102 years of age, and having performed well into his nineties, Ohno is still alive; his son, Yoshito, runs his dance studio.
4. Johanna Constantine: a founder member of the notorious Blacklips Performance Cult, a high-gothic avant-garde troupe of self-described ‘downtown artists, gender mutants, and drug addicted hybrids’, performance artist and dancer Johanna Constantine has been a collaborator of Antony Hegarty’s since their time studying at Santa Cruz. From there, the pair moved to New York to study in NYU’s prestigious Creative Theater program, and to immerse themselves in the city’s genderqueer performance scene. When Hegarty went on to form Antony and the Johnsons, Constantine became a Johnson. Constantine’s style is transgressive and intimate simultaneously; her performance often involves using blood and bodily fluids, either real or fake, as adornment.