ANTONY HEGARTY. PHOTO COURTESY OF DON FELIX CERVANTES/SECRETLY CANADIAN.
The presence of Antony Hegarty, the creative force behind Antony and the Johnsons, is something otherwordly. How else to explain his remarkable and self-possessed grace, fluid and complex relationship with gender, and of course, that voice? Gentle and low, his speaking voice nearly fools the listener—that heart-aching warble that couldn't possibly come from the present polite, soft-spoken individual... With the release of October's Swanlights EP—which is, in many ways, a companion piece to 2009's The Crying Light—the duality of Hegarty is front and center. The Crying Light features hauntingly dark songs like "Another World," with Hegarty lamenting, "I need another place/Where there be peace/I need another world/This one's nearly gone." By comparison, Swanlight starts decidedly more celebratorily, with Hegarty confessing against a soft piano, "Everything is new."
"The last album took musical inspiration from how I felt when I looked out onto the world. It was more rigorous emotionally. So to start this album, I just wanted to clean that off," Hegarty says. He still sings with introspective candor, but it's as if, with Swanlights, Hegarty has become invigorated. The album's single, "Thank You for Your Love," is upliftingly accessible, with a rare percussion and brass section. "Ghost" also starts with a tinkling melody and swelling strings, and features Hegarty delicately coaxing a ghost to "Dance toward a light so gay." But next to these affirming songs, the orchestral arrangements of Hegarty (and a team of collaborators, most notably Nico Muhly) can then oscillate to the wan and melancholy, with slow piano and his Nina Simone-like voice.
The environment and loss of global resources has concerned Hegarty for some time now, so much so that it has influenced him as an artist. "There is a confluence of perspectives that meet in this album," he says. "My previous records were sort of going in one direction, while this one feels like a collision—between joy, and a sense of hopelessness. Something very personal and joyful meeting some impending fear, like the environment or stripping biodiversity. A sense of the catastrophic. Like two rivers going into a fountain."
That wrestling duality seems to define Hegarty, embodied by his transgendered identification. He appears to be an outsider looking, well... out. Mainstream outlets embrace his alienness as strange and wonderful, and he is invited to appear regularly on talk shows and movie soundtracks—or at least more regularly than his musical peers, like Björk and Coco Rosie (both friends of his). He was even tapped to play the Alice Tully Hall at the Lincoln Center this past weekend, with a full orchestra behind him, eagerly embellishing his often sparse arrangements. Attended in equal parts by young hipsters, queer activists and older season-ticket-holders, the show culminated, like Swanlights, in a mixing of opposites: the environmentalist Manhattanite; the soft-spoken activist; wonder and fear; male and female. By being in two places at once, like his rich, wavering voice, both Antony and the Johnsons and Swanlights become an emotional, personal call for global, collective change. For Hegarty himself, everything may not be exactly new, but it is filled with a vital awe.
SWANLIGHTS IS OUT NOW ON SECRETLY CANADIAN.