Writing a tract on New York photographer Peter Hujar in the Guardian recently, Antony Hegarty, Sussex-born balladeer and vocal acrobat wrote “He took pictures of outsiders from an insider’s perspective. The experience of extreme alienation and private soulfulness is what Hujar seems to have shared with his subjects, and elevated in his portraits of them”. Hegarty professes he is more of a “landscape painter” when it comes to song writing, but his description of Hujar seems a perfect hand-me-down description for himself. 2005’s Mercury Prize-winning collection I Am A Bird Now was praised as much for its social significance as the precious music contained within it. Here, critics and cultural commentators argued, was a bellwether to prove that society had embraced gender non-conformity, had learned to love the outsider.
“Oh I don’t believe in all that!” Hegarty humbly chuckles down a fuzzy phone line from New York City. “I don’t know that one person can be the impetus for this sort of social change. I think it’s a case of being more a representative of underlying movements and desires; for instance with Barack Obama in the elections. Really, that sort of shift is a manifestation of a truth that’s already in existence.”
At this point I’ve been conversing with Antony for half an hour, and the very mention of the American president elect is jarring. The slow, thoughtful, and expressive voice answering my questions has been concerned only with ecology and spirituality, with invisible energy and declining energy sources, with the equilibrioception of art. That he concerns himself with such temporalities as U.S. politics is as unexpected as, well, a black President. For someone who finds most of their inspiration through nature and navel-gazing, do world events like that exert an influence on his art?
“I think the whole point is to present the intersection of what you’d say is navel-gazing and the realities of the world today, and politics is part of that issue. I think the record represents the clash of those two realities, the coming to terms with the world around us, asking questions about who I am in the context of the world.”
I ask, cheekily, if he’s come up with any answers yet.
“I’ve just found more questions! Without that process of reflection, though, there’s no creation of art – it’s a positive force.”
The Crying Light, the newest album from Hegarty’s musical vehicle Antony and the Johnsons, is the most acutely personal work he has written. Where I Am A Bird Now opened with the poignant penny-in-a-fountain wish ‘Hope there’s someone who’ll take care of me’, Antony says that he wanted to create an album without the burden of expressing other people’s stories and emotions, creating a mirror for his listeners’ insecurities, and be an ambassador for himself only. Some of …Bird’s best moments came from his guest collaborators – Boy George, Rufus Wainwright, and Lou Reed, and given his lofty position in the musical world’s consciousness, and the friends he has made since striking success, this latest album could have been star-strewn with duets; Instead The Crying Light is pure, unspoilt Antony, surrounded by a lush orchestral backing he deems to be the “forest at the centre of the album”.
On the album’s centrepiece song Another World, Hegarty’s intangible voice anxiously frets ‘I need another place/Will there be bees?/ I need another world/This one’s nearly gone/I’m gonna miss the birds singing all their songs’. He insists, though, it is not a sad album, not concerned with drama, but a documentary of his becoming at one with the world he is part of.
“I am made of the water of the world. I was brought up, in religious terms, to believe humans are privileged with souls, unlike trees, unlike animals. None of this makes sense when you realize we’re all made of the same elements, we’re all of the same spirit.”
If you feel a part of our environment then these must be worrying times to live in?
“There’s no subject nearly more important than environmental awareness in our time. I find it very difficult to focus on anything else when our world is being destroyed. How we’re viewed, I suppose, by our children, will be dependent on how we act now.”
Antony Hegarty is a more productive man than most. Having spent the interim between albums guesting on the richly acclaimed albums of Hercules and Love Affair (“I loved working on the Hercules project. It was only a day or two here and there, but I learned a lot from it”) and Bjork (“She is a force of nature”), amongst others. However, when I mention his vast array of projects he asks anxiously “Do you think I’ve been over-exposed?” and closes his shutters.
With his time Antony also began creating art, which he is much more eager to discuss. “I began creating it a couple of years ago to be free from the music at the time, I just began drawing quite involuntary. It served to draw me back into the creative process without this weight of expectation, none of it is meant to be commercial in any way.” From the Max Ernst-like cut-and-paste of Violetta to the freeform wisps of Small Hair, his aim is to “create a sort of imbalance in what is the settled nature of an image, and try and restore that balance with additions of my own. It’s the notion of process that I’m chasing really. I always draw really exactingly straight lines, but when drawing, I force myself to be very aware of what my instincts are, then subvert them.”
I point out many of his works are self-portraits, despite his statement that he was predominantly concerned with landscapes. “Really they’re more about character, and about energy. When I work with landscapes, what I try and do is draw the entity from the land and represent it more clearly – is it dark or is it light, is there joy?”
Do you use the same type of process when creating music?
“No, it’s quite a different process. It’s more about discovering what the character and energy of the room and the people in the room are. I find that and focus on it. Performing live, I think, is about identifying that unique energy and interacting with it.”
As I struggle to make his voice audible over the buzzsaws rending apart rocks at an adjacent building site Hegarty directs me towards an article on the environment that he’s been reading, and apologizes if he has been “rather… vague”. For someone so relatively famous the only stars he seems concerned with are those celestial beings he sang about on Hercules and Love Affair’s Blind. He is a unique star not because of the gender issues attached to him by his commentators, but because of his detachedness from the sublunar land around him, from the bluster that blows around his position in culture and society, from feeding irascible journalists like this one soundbites concerning his sexuality, dispensing promotional nuggets to add to his market value. As with his much-admired Icelandic counterpart Bjork, his head is in the clouds and his lips are to the earth, and he can be dismissed or praised equally, depending on personal taste – what is important is that he forces you to make that choice. Vacuousness is not a charge that can be levied on him- he exudes that very natural energy of which he speaks.
As he comes to the end of one of his involved explanations of personal spirituality I glance over my next prepared question on a notepad – “You said in an interview previously that you’ve ‘never been the main course before, it’s strange getting used to it’. How’ve you been coping with the shift to centre-stage, has it impacted on your personality at all?”, and scribble it out. I don’t need to ask.
Words by Daniel Gray