Antony Hegarty on his new album, curating Meltdown and his notion that we still have time to save ourselves as a species
“I was a caterwauling child that loved music and was tolerated; and found by sheer persistence I developed a voice. Probably by imitating other beautiful voices, until I slowly developed a tone that people responded to. I think at college, when people started saying that they were having an emotional reaction to what I was doing, that came as a surprise. That was when I started to realise, maybe there's something here I could move forward with.”
Thus Antony Hegarty describes the remarkable, heart-rending instrument which came to global acclaim with the second Antony and the Johnsons album, 2005's I Am A Bird Now, which cantered away with that year’s Mercury Music Prize. The Skinny catches up with him on the eve of his fifth LP, Cut The World, ostensibly to discuss that album and his forthcoming curation of this year’s Meltdown event in London, and finds an artist whose intriguing, at times awe-inspiring music cannot be separated from his persona.
The album is a collection of symphonic ‘reinterpretations’ of his back catalogue (the title track is the only original song on there), recorded live in Copenhagen last September. “It was a culmination of what I've been doing for the past couple of years in my live shows around the world," he says of his motivation for the project. "I’ve been slowly accumulating these alternative arrangements of my songs and performing with symphonies around the world. It got to a point where I felt I wanted to record the work which had undergone the biggest transformation. I have been approaching songs from the past two albums with symphonic arrangements. And so they sounded similar to the studio recording when played live, but some stuff from the earlier albums had really been transformed by this approach, so I decided to record them and document them.”
As it turns out, there is a little more to the album than documentation for the sake of posterity. The second track, Future Feminism, is a wry, often humorously-delivered Hegarty monologue, where he addresses a live audience on the concept of moving away from “virulent, patriarchal” notions of society towards something more feminine. But what exactly is ‘Future Feminism’? “My notion of feminism is probably almost like a creative idea more than a practical definition," he says. "I'm almost appropriating the word and from my point of view, as someone who is tremendously concerned about our environment and the ecology of our planet. I'm dreaming of a shift towards a more feminine collective consciousness and when I say that I mean things that people might argue are stereotypes but are borne almost of the biological reality of our different natures. Oestrogen-based systems are naturally more geared towards craving a safe space for children to be raised in so it's less aggressive and based on a circle for the family to prosper. This is a concept which can be extended into the community, into society, into the whole species.”
While he is aware that all this sounds like a flight of fancy, the fact is that Hegarty's whole body of work is now geared towards representing this view, and he elaborates more on his perception of the planet we live in. “I wanted to provide some context for the music I was performing – a lens through which to interpret some of the songs. So it was in that spirit that I included parts of one of the speeches that I gave in Copenhagen. I hadn’t planned to originally but I just decided to throw caution to the wind and try it out.
“I know it's semantic in a way because it ultimately means that I believe in reality, that's where my faith lies. In the tangible world and the mysteriousness of this elemental. And I value it, I've put all my eggs in that basket, whereas a lot of people are parading around in this delusion that they're living in wait for some fantastical world that a bunch of old men invented and wrote down in a book 2000 years ago. They're even being manipulated by the corporate world. There's this insidious collaboration between fundamentalism and capitalism. Our theological differences are being used to distract the masses as if that was a real issue. People vote on the basis of these fake moral or fundamental differences and their idea of what constitutes their 'own' religion... like in America for instance, people are against gay marriage or abortion so they'll vote Republican, when really what they're doing is voting for Texaco. The religious right are constantly being manipulated by monied interests.”
But Hegarty refuses to take sole custody of the concepts he espouses, rather, including an array of artists with whom he has worked, or would like to work with, as having just as much stake in the philosophy. “I was really coming from the point of view of trying to define what I was seeing amongst the artists around me. A lot of the female artists that I felt were really pushing the frontier. That's why we coined the phrase. They weren't necessarily affiliated to an organised strand of feminism; they were just looking at the world in a panoramic way. People, like my friend [avant-garde theatre artist] Kembra Pfahler, [CocoRosie's] Bianca and Sierra Casady, [performance artist] Marina Abramovic, people who are visionary in their way of describing the lay of the land, and whom, as artists, who have carved out these really unique solitary trajectories for themselves within our culture. Our idea, to name it, as a group, was in the hope there might be something empowering about it.”
And so Hegarty has coaxed an array of these artists into showcasing their vision at the forthcoming Meltdown in London's South Bank. Others to appear include Hegarty's childhood hero, Marc Almond along with Cocteau Twins' Elizabeth Fraser, as well as long term collaborators Lou Reed and Joan As Policewoman, and John Grant from Hercules and Love Affair, to whom Hegarty has lent his voice with thrilling effect.
All these former collaborators across a wide diaspora of artistic and cultural endeavour all agreeing to perform, suggests compelling evidence that Hegarty is a rewarding person to work with. Of course he is much more self-effacing about this notion, preferring to dwell instead on the opportunities that will be presented to him."I just got really lucky in that so many of the people I love are available to do it. It's a really special line-up in my mind and I can't wait to be there. I'm really looking forward to seeing Selda Bagcan, the Turkish revolutionary singer. She's one of my absolute favourite performers, an incredibly emotional singer and I have been waiting to see her for years. It seems like a miracle I could find Liz Fraser and bring her in. I really want to see everything so I'll be bouncing between theatres as there are quite frequently two shows at a time.
Hegarty is also fully aware that his opportunity to express himself in such a personal fashion comes as a consequence of his artistic 'success' and the reach that this affords him. His motivation now is, as he admits; "How I can use it in a way that's most meaningful to me and how I can share the things I care about. I've certainly done it very clumsily and falteringly but I want to participate and this is my attempt to do that. I'm aware that it's quite rare to have access to the media or in being a cultural programmer in this instance. Collectively, there's a power to that beyond each individual. Each of us has our own point of view but there is strength in numbers and an alchemy from being in the group. I really see it as the opportunity to create an alternative perspective. A feminine perspective – one which is empowering. Of course that includes male perspectives but a lot of the most powerful singers in this group are women and you won't see many festivals like that.
"I know it seems outrageously idealistic but it seems like a really good time for us to dream in that way. There's not much optimism as to how the world might look in 50 years or 100. It's a really interesting time for artists to point out that we are still capable of radical change in our ranks. Shifting the paradigm, pointing out that virulent capitalism is not more permanent than nature itself, that we still have it within our capability to change the trajectory of our species. Paradise is this insane place that gave birth to me, where I realised I was a sentient being, gazing out into a world of colour and light. I don't want it to end. I really love this place and I think a lot of people feel the same. I have used the opportunities presented to me in the past couple of years to talk from the heart about what I care about, and in doing so; maybe I can encourage other people to do the same thing."