Antony The Johnsons first ruffled the mainstream’s feathers when I Am A Bird Now bagged the Mercury in 2005. With a fourth album out next week, Antony Hegarty meets JIM CARROLLto discuss his colourful work in progress
THE TEMPTATION to take your cue from the first line on the new album is impossible to ignore. Everything is New is the first thing you’ll hear on Swanlights, the fourth album from Antony The Johnsons. Over a soft, dramatic shuffle of piano, Antony Hegarty begins to swoon, croon and sigh – and it soon seems as though we’ve entered new territory.
If the albums that preceded this were moody, broody and deeply personal episodes about Hegarty’s life and experience, coated in monochrome shades, Swanlightsis a much brighter, more colourful affair. The sounds are blissful and content and Hegarty himself appears to be at peace.
Even the artwork on the album sleeve, taken from Hegarty’s first art book, which has been published alongside Swanlights, contains a few splashes of colour, unlike the stark, striking images that adorned previous sleeves. But Hegarty dashes such speculation about new moods right out of hand.
Swanlightswasn’t construed as an introduction to a previously unseen all-singing, all-dancing side of the New York avant-garde scene’s most successful figure. Instead, Swanlights, the art book and previous album The Crying Lightall come from the same highly productive time period.
“I embarked on this album and the last album The Crying Lightand doing the drawings for the book around about the same time in 2007,” Hegarty explains. “I finished The Crying Lightfirst, and that had very specific parameters around it and I put that out. Then I came home and turned my attention to Swanlightsand the book.
“I don’t think I was in a different mindset for Swanlights. But I certainly was when I was talking to you last time, because the scope of that album was different.”
Hegarty is referring to an interview with this writer about his last album, The Crying Light. That album saw Hegarty writing about and exploring his relationship with the natural world. For Hegarty – born in England and raised in the US by parents with Donegal roots – The Crying Lightwas his first chance to express and articulate his views about how humans interact with ecology.
The relationship he saw between humans and the natural world was one he felt was at odds with how he was raised.
“I was brought up as a Catholic, and you’re led to believe that you have a soul which separates you from the rest of the world,” he said, during that interview. “You have a destiny that will lead you to heaven or purgatory after you slog through your life and die. It reinforces this notion that human beings are different from the rest of the natural world.”
Hegarty says The Crying Lightwas the first time he attempted to deal with his belief that “our destiny is totally bound up with the destiny of the planet” in interviews. He knows he may well have been accused of “moralising” by some.
“I’m really aware that I could be seen as lecturing. I do such a good job in my work of keeping the focus on myself and then I do an interview and start pontificating about everything. I get so ashamed of myself sometimes. But I’m trying to develop as an artist and, if me outlining what I think about a process is useful to someone out there, then I’m very glad.”
One of Hegarty’s great heroes was Japanese butoh dance (“the dance of utter darkness”) instigator Kazuo Ohno, who featured on the artwork for the last two albums. In a piece he wrote about Ohno after the artist died last year, Hegarty talked about how the beauty and fragility of Ohno’s work frequently reduced audiences to tears.
How Hegarty’s own work impacts on an audience, though, is not something he spends too much time fussing about. “I’m less focused on the emotions of the listener, to be honest, and more on my own investment in the work. I’m hoping that by osmosis or by relating to the authenticity of the expression, it will be evocative for the person listening to the music or looking at the artwork to get what I’m projecting. But I’ve long since abandoned any hopes of directing people’s response to my work.”
Hegarty feels that a listener’s reaction to music can never be predicted.
“It’s such a personal thing, how we receive music and art in our lives,” he says. “I think about the music I listen to and there’s a lot of music in other languages which I don’t even understand.
“I’ve been listening to this amazing Turkish singer called Selda for the last four months. She’s a Turkish revolutionary singer from the 1960s and 1970s and she’s like the Edith Piaf of Turkey. The music just kills me, I’m blown away by her. It’s so fulfilling, heart-rending, emotional and restorative. But I’m certainly receiving the music through the lens of my own experience and my limited comprehension of what the material is about.”
A case in point is Flétta, a stunning duet with Björk on the new album. Hegarty describes it playfully as “gibberish”, a mix of Björk’s Icelandic and his version of what he was hearing. “We recorded Fléttaat the same time as we recorded the songs for her album Volta at studio sessions in Iceland and Jamaica,” he explains. “I put together a piano track and she improvised over the rhythms. What she sang wasn’t intended to be the finished vocal by any stretch, we were just experimenting.
“But after she went away, I got the idea to do some vocals in parallel to hers by following phonetically what she had sung and surprisingly, even though it could have been gibberish, it just settled into itself and that became the vocal. It was super-intuitive and fragile and sweet, but it worked as this little time capsule.”
Hegarty is happiest when he’s working in such an intuitive manner. “I don’t delude myself into thinking I’m anything but a pop-folk artist working on music from a popular music tradition. I’m totally happy with that.”
All the same, he has tried his hand at the classical game. For instance, he did a fine take of Nessun Dorma with the Roma Sinfonietta Orchestra. “I was asked to do that for a coffee company in Italy and it sounded fascinating so I did it because it seemed fun and benign, but that was an one-off. I don’t know the first thing about opera.”
Then, there are the projects involving symphony orchestras. “Yes, I did a lot of touring last year with orchestras all over Europe and worked with Nico Muhly to create settings for a lot of my songs in a symphony format. We have been developing a whole concept with the St Luke’s Symphony, which we’re going to do in New York at the end of October.
“But I don’t have an education in that area and I can’t read music and I don’t have a grounding in the history of classical music, so I’m not trying to pass myself off as something I’m not.”
Yet there are times when he does overcome this reticence about breaking new ground. Hegarty has been working on drawings and collages for the last four years. “I had no intention of publishing them or showing them to the public. But then, a year ago, I was asked to participate in a visual arts show in Brussels and that lead to an exhibition in London and then Paris.
“I started looking at this broader array of things I was producing and realised it was a body of work that I’d spent a lot of time on and invested a lot of emotion in. It was also expressive and communicative in ways that my music wasn’t and I began to wonder if I would have the gumption to do a book.”
That book has now been published and it’s obvious from how Hegarty talks about it that he’s hugely proud of this work. Yet, he still worries about it could be perceived. “I don’t have the credentials in that world that I do now with music so it makes me feel quite vulnerable. It’s quite audacious of me to take advantage of this opportunity but, at the same time, it’s harmless.”
That modesty also still applies to his music. “The success of my music has given me so many opportunities to do things I never imagined I would get to do. I also have an audience that is interested in finding out who I am and what I’m doing. This is my fourth album and I feel quite lucky that I’m still plodding along and that there is still a lot of interest in what I do.”
- Swanlightsthe album is released on Rough Trade on October 8th. Swanlightsthe book is published by Abrams Image