Interview: Antony Hegarty - Light Fantastic

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FOR the past few years Antony Hegarty, the ethereal torch singer of Antony and the Johnsons, has been obsessed with what he calls unconscious lines: "A line that you can't see, a line that you don't even know exists."

Hegarty has followed these lines creatively as much as possible, literally tracing them on paper, filling sketchbooks. Some of the results were recently displayed at Isis Gallery, a small second-floor space in London, where Hegarty opened his first solo show of visual art.

"The Creek", which ran throughout February, has 13 pieces, mostly large photo reproductions of his collages and drawings. The titular work uses a found image of a creek over which Hegarty has drawn black, red and green dashes, inspired, he says, by the imagined history of the pastoral scene, the inner life of the trees and rocks.

Like his new album, The Crying Light, his artwork is about the natural world and his relationship to it. "I'm always thinking about that, always trying to get my bearings," he says. Though he has been drawing for most of his life, he has little artistic training. "I just have my world-weariness to present as my credentials," he says, then takes stock of this tortured-artist statement and laughs. "I'm not actually tortured at all."

That straddling stance will be familiar to fans of Hegarty, 38, a cult figure who is now reaching beyond that. In 2005 he won the Nationwide Mercury Prize for his breakthrough second album, I Am a Bird Now, which deals, often heartbreakingly, with his transgender identity. His tremulous vocals have drawn comparisons to Nina Simone, whose style he freely admits to cribbing.

He is not, after all, as esoteric as he seems. "His songs are inclusive and inviting," says Ben Swanson, a founder of Secretly Canadian, the label that has released or reissued most of Antony and the Johnsons' albums. "He's such a huge personality, but as people have more time to be exposed to him, it's accessible to anyone."

Last year Hegarty, who is known professionally as just Antony, also appeared on a dance-pop record by Hercules and Love Affair, a group formed by his friend Andy Butler; it spawned a disco hit, Blind. In live shows he often does Whitney Houston and Beyonc covers such as All the Man That I Need and Crazy in Love. But he does them, as he does most things, with high sincerity.

"The first time I sang Crazy in Love, I was crying my eyes out," he says. "Everyone else was like 'Woo-hoo-hoo!' in the audience, and I was crying on stage, singing my guts out."

A case could be made that Hegarty himself is following some uncharted lines as an artist and performer: neither femme nor butch, with an imposing physique that belies his quiet speech and sometimes limpid demeanor. But that construct would be an oversimplification, like the assumption that, given his schlumpy, unraveled-goth outfits and black hair, he is a mope. Nothing of the sort.

"He's a total goofball," Swanson says, prone to bestowing nonsensical nicknames and leaving silly voice messages.

Neither is Hegarty above material lust. "What a cute green bag – I'm jelly!" he said, meaning jealous, after he noticed a reporter's purse over tea in New York. (His purse is purple.) In London, recommending a hotel abroad, he fondly recalls a bellhop he'd met: "His hands are like sides of lamb, you know what I mean, big and soft and perfect."

Hegarty came of age artistically in New York's downtown drag scene in the 1990s, performing avant-garde shows at the Pyramid Club and Joe's Pub. He studied Butoh (a performance art), which gave him licence to think about those unconscious lines.

"A lot of the dancers in Butoh, at least the teachers I had, hinted that you could dream about lots of things creatively," he says. "It didn't just have to be your own personal story – you could reach beyond your own body, you could reach to any point or any source and take a ride. You could imagine the moment a flock of flamingoes burst into the sky, and the dream of the eggs or the mothers."

"As a transgender person," he adds, "I'm allowed to dream a little bit out of the box."

His fans are utterly devout. "If you ever see his merch table at any of his concerts, it's kind of insane," Swanson says. "They won't just buy one shirt, they'll buy all of them. They'll buy all the pieces of vinyl on the table. They're pretty rabid."

Hegarty has also had some stellar champions and collaborators: Lou Reed, Rufus Wainwright, Devendra Banhart, Bjrk. On The Crying Light he works with the young composer Nico Muhly. The orchestrations are lush and spare, like his art.

Among his earliest supporters was John Marchant, the owner of Isis Gallery. Around 1997, when Marchant was living in New York, he saw Hegarty perform at the Kitchen. Afterwards, Marchant says, "I accosted him and demanded his phone number."

Their friendship led Marchant to pass along a demo to David Tibet, an artist and musician whom he also represents. In 1998 Tibet released the self-titled debut of Antony and the Johnsons (the group's line-up rotates). The exhibition at Marchant's gallery has sold well, he says, with an average price of 3,000 for a first edition.

Not that Hegarty is in it for the money; in Europe his albums are chart toppers and he can play halls twice as large as in his home country. Around 2001 he quit having day jobs, like being a "cleaning lady" – his term – at a Midtown S&M parlour, though for most of his time in New York he has acted like a struggling artist; until 2006 he lived in a single-room-occupancy hotel. (Now he has a larger apartment and studio space near the West Village.)

Recorded in Europe, upstate New York, Texas and on the road, The Crying Light, the first album Hegarty could afford to do at his own pace, took two and a half years to make. "Putting this record together was really fastidious, like mixing one song for two weeks," he says.

Though it deals with environmentalism, he says, the message is hopeful: "I'm trying to make a little map for one person of moving towards something that's positive."

He describes both the exhibition and the album as intensely personal, even more so than the introspective, unsettling I Am a Bird Now. And he admits some trepidation at showing his art, which he considers a dialogue with himself.

"But then I decided, it's a body of work, you have a right," he says. "Sure, you're being opportunist, in that people are only interested because you've done well as a singer. But there's no harm in taking another risk."

Perhaps for similar reasons, he hopes to make his own dance album, la Hercules and Love Affair. "My music is totally morose, no one wants to dance to that," he says. Alone at home, he belts out Beyonc, not mournfully as onstage but at the top of his lungs. "It's a fun way to sing," he says. "It's a hoot."

&#149 Antony and the Johnsons perform at the Playhouse, Edinburgh, on 4 June.