Friday, September 21, 2007
Mark Antony (& The Johnsons)
Bjork is playing New York's Madison Square Garden this coming Monday, so to mark the occasion I'm posting this interview with one of her new album's guests, Antony. I LOVE Antony, and although I haven't seen him for a while now - last time was at a little birthday shindig for LD Beghtol in the East Village that Stephin Merritt was DJing, as I recall - I'm really loving his frequent guest appearances on other artists' albums.
That's enough of that - now to the interview. I may post the other interviews as well down the line...
Swing Out, Sister
By Lawrence Ferber
“I think I present a fairly vulnerable depiction of what I would consider my true state of gender,” says Antony, openly queer frontsman of stunning chamber pop troupe Antony and The Johnsons. “Which is quite ambiguous.” Antony’s second full-length LP, I Am A Bird Now (Secretly Canadian), negotiates and explores the many shades of gender and celebrates the liberation of those who feel they are something “other.” On “For Today I Am a Boy,” he sings “One day I’ll grow up and be a beautiful woman/ one day I’ll grow up and be a beautiful girl/ But for today I am a child/ for today I am a boy.” And on the beauteous, “Bird Gehrl,” the singer yearns for wings because “the bird gehrls can fly.”
“For me, the title I Am A Bird Now suggests something between an achievement, a longing for and a freedom from a kind of imprisonment,” Antony adds. “It speaks also about the picture on the cover, of Candy Darling in the hospital right before she dies. But the title draws from many sources. Personal, sort of like a bouquet of ideas.”
Dishing up more of his trademark, immensely moving piano and strings-blessed torch songs, this time Antony adds splashes of influences and genres like Otis Redding soul, jazz, and in the case of “I Hope There’s Someone,” a profoundly haunting, Philip Glass-esque piano/choral swell. Some impressive guests add to the bouquet: Rufus Wainwright contributes lead vocals on “What Can I Do?” “Rufus did such a job of it, brought so much elegance and form to it,” Antony reports. “Rufus and I are friends and I did some vocals on Want Two’s ‘Old Whore’s Diet,’ We’re both guesting on each other’s records, which is nice. One time we did a show together and sang that song "Baby Mine" from "Dumbo." It was like I died and went to heaven. He’s got such a lovely sense of harmony.”
Velvet Underground legend Lou Reed, who brought Antony along on his 2003 international tour, appears on “Fistful of Love.” And sister in spirit Boy George duets on “You Are My Sister.” “George was the first reflection of myself I saw in the world,” Antony admits. “When I was 12 years old and I saw an image of him it was the first time I had seen or heard of a person who reflected my own sense of myself and really, I think, helped determine I would become a singer.”
I first heard of Antony in 2000, when he performed a song called "Cripple and the Starfish" at NYC's Wigstock festival. His singing entailed a shuddering, beautiful warble, unlike anything I'd heard (although when pressed, Tiny Tim meets Brian Ferry was my pithy summation). Up there on stage he looked so frail, so delicate, one thin layer of skin from being completely exposed to the world and its harsh elements. Was this a persona, or a real person? Some time later I met Antony at a West Village café. He struck me as a completely genuine person and, when I asked whether the Antony I saw onstage was an alter-ego or the real 24/7 deal, he plainly told me: "I don't really think of it as a persona - I'm just a performer."
Hailing from the South of England (Chichester), Antony spent much of a colorful, sometimes difficult childhood moving from place to place (including Amsterdam, Minnesota, and California). Son of an engineer and photographer, he started performing early: a lip-sync to Kate Bush’s ‘Wuthering Heights’ when he was seven years old. At 12 he told his mother he was gay. “Let’s just say I was never in the closet,” he notes. “I was the kind of child where it was never possible for me to be in the closet. The issue for me as a child was being a sissy, of having feminine and creative interests.”
As a young teenager, Antony found his first role models - glammy queer performers like Boy George, Klaus Nomi and Marc Almond (“Marc really verbalized something which I would later really internalize, which is this idea of ‘don’t put anything into it unless you feel it.”). But it was thanks to a performance by Nomi’s former partner, Joey Arias, in the film Mondo New York, that Antony experienced a life-changing epiphany (or, as he characterizes it, “the last straw”).
“Arias lip-synched ‘Hard Day’s Night’ as Billie Holiday and I was so overwhelmed I knew that was the city I had to live in,” he recalls. So Antony picked up and settled down in NYC. He actually performed with Arias years later, at a Klaus Nomi tribute.
Between 1990 and 1997, Antony took part in “experimental afterhours” theater with a troupe called Black Lips. They appeared in Manhattan East Village nightclubs, staging plays like “The Birth of Anne Frank and the Ascension of March P. Johnson,” and what he terms “transvestite debacles,” the majority of which featured a show-stopping song. Many of those songs ended up on Antony and The Johnson’s first eponymous album and a single, “I Fell In Love With a Dead Boy,” both released on an experimental UK label run by artist David Tibet. Backed by a small orchestra, decked out in gender-bending outfits and a light coating of makeup, Antony’s sublime concert performances helped build an impressive audience and fans like Laurie Anderson, Steve Buscemi, and Lou Reed. Buscemi enlisted Antony to appear and sing in his 2000 film, Animal Factory.
Reed, who guested at one of Antony’s live performances, invited Antony to return the favor and perform with him on his international 2003 tour. “Not enough can be said about the singer Reed has brought on this tour who simply goes by Antony,” reads a Billboard review. Antony’s show stopping rendition of “Candy Says,” a gorgeously melancholy ode to Candy Darling, can be found on Reed’s live Animal CD. The pair continue to perform together occasionally.
Antony admits that I Am a Bird Now heralds a new direction for him musically – its songs were written as songs unto themselves, for an album, rather than to be incorporated into a scripted or semi-scripted theatrical production. “I’m sort of segueing into a different type of a platform,” he says. “As opposed to being a theater tableau that people listen to as a piece, I wanted it to be something that invites the listener close. Also in terms of the delivery of the songs I would say it’s very personal. An internal landscape. The first album is like a world-view in a way, my perception of the world around me. This is more of an internal view.”
The CD’s booklet helps complement the intimate nature and themes. Inside is a striking, stylized Josef Astor photo of a woman named Page, to whose memory the album is dedicated. Antony describes Page as the Candy Darling of his generation, a muse for many in the East Village scene of the 1990s. “She was a performance artist, very avant-garde transsexual,” he notes. “Punk isn’t really the right word. More like a surrealist. Very forward-thinking in a lot of ways, very wild. She was in a lot of my shows over the years at Pyramid and PS 122. I’d usually have her sing one of my songs. She had this really beguiling, bizarre vocal delivery. Always enchanted the audience. And she was very hardcore. She had that Leigh Bowery/ Divine type edge in terms of how far she’d be willing to take things. She was also a good-hearted person underneath all of her outrageousness. She died 2 years ago of a drug overdose, so the album is dedicated to her.”
Something of a collector of “found” items, Antony includes a few choice items in the booklet including a “spooked out” page from a calendar he found in an abandoned prison cell while shooting Animal Factory, and a cryptic letter taken from a medical journal on sex reassignment and hermaphrodism. Written in a child’s scrawl, the letter reads: “Father, I got to b a boy, Mother, I got 2 b a boy.”
“Those letters are from the 60s, I think - it was a boy born with androgynous genitals, features, or a kid, and they were requesting sex reassignment in a certain direction,” Antony explains. “Until recently and even to this day, kids born hermaphroditic were sexually reassigned as infants. Sometimes that would backfire because they would assign the wrong gender. To assign any gender to a hermaphroditic child limits their options. Now there’s a movement toward embracing oneself as an intersexed person as opposed to trying to segue into one box or the other. A more modern way of thinking about that.”
Boy George is one person Antony always saw as a “sister,” so he invited the pop music legend to duet on “You Are My Sister.” “I love his delivery so much,” Antony admits. “It’s so passionate, like a mixture between Jimmy Scott and Marianne Faithful. More world-weary, something very experienced. I love that song because it operates on so many levels. A sister can be so many things. It can be between queens or a person in the family. Someone you want to protect or wish well for. I love that song because it seems to speak to all those things simultaneously. George is singing so beautifully on it I think it’s a revelation to hear him.”
Besides touring his new album this winter/spring, Antony appears in the upcoming French film “Wild Side,” directed by Sebastien Lifshitz. In his scene, Antony sings to a room full of real Parisian, transsexual prostitutes. “The opportunity to sing for all those girls I couldn’t really turn down,” he says. “I’m not an actor so if there’s something real happening in the room I can connect with it. Animal Factory was a similar situation. I was performing for a bunch of real people, in that case it was prisoners. Both times it was like a very heightened live performance but captured on film.”
For someone who creates such passionate music, how does Antony’s love life compare? He bristles when the topic comes up and expediently begs it away. However, he does admit that some fans are quite anxious to share their love – sometimes expressed in unusual forms - with him. “I guess there’s a couple,” he says. “Some are sexy. Some are a little bit… (pause) wild. I did have someone send me some, what she termed ‘cat pizza’ I was terrified at first it was going to find pizza made out of pets. It ended up just being catnip pizza, which my cat actually thoroughly enjoyed.”
See www.antonyandthejohnsons.com for more information.