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||Once you've seen Antony perform his searing, personal, completely modern take on the torch song, you'll understand why he's attracting admirers like Lou Reed.
Photographed by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders.
Over the past few years, Antony and his band The Johnsons have been making converts out of audiences at small New York venues like The Zipper and The Knitting Factory with songs about isolation, anxiety, and blurred sexual identity. This summer, Antony will accompany Lou Reed as a guest vocalist on his European and American tours. Then, in the fall, Antony will release his new album, I Am a Bird Now.
Lou invites Antony over to his studio to compare notes about life and art.
LOU: You've got a really phenomenal, multi-octave voice. When you were a kid, did you say to yourself, "Hey, I've got a great range and vibrato"?
ANTONY: No, but I was in the choir in school. I went to a magnet school for the performing arts in San Jose „ the armpit of Silicon Valley. I was fortunate. It was probably the only high school in the area where I wouldn't have been duct-taped to a tree and spat on. Oh, I was also the lead singer and songwriter for a death rock band.
LOU: Really? Did you scream and have hair down to your shoulders?
ANTONY: There was a little bit of screaming going on, yes, and I did have long hair. I was quite androgynous.
LOU: So why did you come to New York when you could have stayed in California?
ANTONY: I saw the documentary Mondo New York about the underground cabaret scene during the ྌs. I loved those performers „ Joey Arias, Dean Johnson, Phoebe Legere. They were so elegant and punk. Joey singing "A Hard Day's Night" dressed as Billie Holiday inspired me. So I went off to N.Y.U. in 1990. I was nineteen.
LOU: What did you major in?
ANTONY: Experimental theater. My degree is about as useful as a degree in knitting. Basically, I moved to New York to go to the Pyramid Club. I came to the city looking for signs of life that appealed to me. I wound up spending a lot of time on the piers.
LOU: I have friends who complain about how the piers were cleaned up. But they don't know what's still going on there at night. Some of the docks don't have lights „ there's plenty of activity out there. It's just patrolled.
ANTONY: But the old wooden piers were so beautiful. In the summer, they were like rocks covered with seals. There would be three hundred oiled, naked fags lying out in the sun. It was an outrageous cultural moment.
LOU: When I was in college, I got to know the poet Delmore Schwartz. Without him things could have taken a very ugly turn.
ANTONY: Wasn't he a big influence on your early poetry?
LOU: Absolutely. He was a big influence on my life. I had this incredibly talented writer sitting next to me at the bar every day.
ANTONY: Was that where you took all of your classes?
LOU: Yes. [laughs] It was like something out of a novel. I did actually meet him at a bar every morning. He was so funny and smart it was staggering. He wrote a short story called "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities." It's only five pages long, written in the simplest language you can imagine, yet it's brilliant „ incredibly emotional. I found it very inspirational. He always carried around a letter from T.S. Eliot extolling its virtues.
ANTONY: What happened to him?
LOU: He died in the Hotel Dixie in Times Square „ some kind of heart attack probably brought on by amphetamines, liquor, and God knows what else. He hit a home run right off the bat, and it was hard for him to stay up there. Baboom, there it is. How do you live up to that? How do you make it happen again? After I wrote the song "Heroin," people said, "Now what can you do?" I was only twenty and I thought, "I'm finished already? I shot my wad, that's it?"
ANTONY: You know, a lot of people tell me that my songs are too self-indulgent, too full of sorrow and grief.
LOU: It amazes me that you're accused of self-indulgence simply for putting some feeling into your work.
ANTONY: People are terrified of emotion. Most of the art in New York right now is pop and superficial, with a thin layer of cynicism and irony. When I started performing, AIDS was ravaging the gay community, but no one wanted to address it.
LOU: Yeah, no one has ever really written more than one song about AIDS.
ANTONY: Even though AIDS brought about a cultural apocalypse in New York. I think of the piers as the Native American burial grounds for homosexuals. The people who survived were like war veterans „ they were shell-shocked for years. I arrived in New York after the bomb dropped, but I was still preoccupied with this feeling of the cloud that had swept over the land. Some of my favorite artists died, many of them before I even knew of their work.
LOU: Where did you find your first artistic venue in New York?
ANTONY: I did late-night performances with this troupe of bedraggled after-hours types at the Pyramid Club. The aesthetic was blood bags and gore, lots of outrageousness and beauty. I worked with these trannies and drag queens „ each was a beautiful individual who had an incredibly strong sense of herself. I loved arranging them „ giving them songs to sing, characters to play.
LOU: The movement I was involved in when I started out was made up of the same kinds of people.
ANTONY: Besides being the resident den mother, I would punctuate each show with a torch song. Eventually I wanted to focus on my own work instead of managing other peoples' careers. I was too young to be a mother to so many people who were ten or twenty years my senior.
LOU: Almost no one can do that. Andy was able to do it, but the mortality rate over at Warhol University was pretty high. A lot of students didn't make it across that river. So you started performing on your own?
ANTONY: I was in a performance group. We were staging surrealist plays about hermaphrodites searching for their parents at the end of the world. I realized there was a limited market for that kind of production, so I decided to record an album. Before that, I had been recording keyboard arrangements on a four-track tape recorder and singing along over them when I performed.
LOU: I had a six-track recorder, believe it or not.
ANTONY: Everyone wants those old machines now. They have a beautiful, warm sound. Old bits of tape have a nice bit of hiss as well.
LOU: I hate tape hiss, I really do. Nor do I like skipping or popping sounds on records. There is room for progress. Did you already know all the musicians in The Johnsons when you got together?
ANTONY: I did know my drummer, Todd, from my previous band, the Blacklips. I put an ad for string players in the Voice, but nobody in the current group answered it. I met all the rest through other musicians. The ensemble slowly came into its current incarnation „ two violins, a cello, and a bass. The string trio is second to none, and they look as good as they sound.
LOU: Yeah, it's like a modeling agency. There isn't a snaggletooth nerd among them.
ANTONY: I'm the biggest snaggletooth in the band, even though I'm the lead singer. I'm the anomaly in front of all these beautiful creatures.
LOU: You are very beautiful onstage. You have moments.
ANTONY: I used to want to be an androgynous archetype. I presented myself as a drag character, Fiona Blue. But now performing has become more intimate for me. Back then, I wanted to see just how far I could push a drunk nightclub audience. It was a challenge „ I would go onstage at 2 a.m. and try to transform the room in three minutes „ see if I could make the whole drunk crowd cry their heads off.
LOU: How did you know you could do that?
ANTONY: I had a more aggressive, military approach in those days. I was inspired by Diamanda Galas's cutthroat approach to emotional communication. When I went to one of her shows, I literally felt my asshole getting ripped out. Her music went right through me like knives. I thought that maybe I could do something like that, but with a certain tenderness, a feeling that wasn't as much about rage as it was about grief.
LOU: It takes enormous talent to communicate emotion like that.
ANTONY: I wouldn't cry but I would hold the tears inside myself. I really tried to manipulate the crowd. Since then, I've tried to work more from my internal reality. Much of my material is borne from isolation and my desire to move beyond it. I like to think of my work as a type of soul music „ not so much in style, but in essence.
LOU: Certain soul music just kills me to this day.
ANTONY: I can't stop listening to Otis Redding at the moment. I'm totally obsessed with him.
LOU: The first time I put on Ray Charles' "What I Say" I started crying the minute it began. What a freeing experience. Thank God for music that shows you that there are other forms of life out there besides white-bread suburbia.
ANTONY: I feel the same way. I heard Ray Charles's cover of "Yesterday" toward the end of high school, and it changed my life.
LOU: Certain music can knock your socks off if it's consistently emotional, every last bit of it. You deal in emotions, as do I. I admire that about you. It's hard to do and very hard to do song after song. When we tour, I think we're going to have a very emotional show.