<i>Incomparable crooner Antony Hegarty was born in Sussex, England, in 1971. After moving to California as a teenager he relocated to New York in 1990 and became immersed in the underground downtown art scene, forming the performance group Blacklips. His band Antony and the Johnsons, released its self titled debut in 2000, going on to win the Mercury Music Award with second album I Am a Bird Now (which featured guest spots from Hegarty’s heroes Lou Reed and Boy George). Since then, as well as releasing a third album, The Crying Light, in 2009, Hegarty has collaborated with a steady stream of internationally renowned musicians, including Nico Muhly, William Basinski, Björk and Hercules and Love Affair. A passionate environmentalist and student of Butoh (an expressionistic form of dance, invented in postwar Japan by Kazuo Ohno), he is also a visual artist, and to accompany his band’s latest album, Swanlights, he has created an art book that illustrates the record’s themes and philosophy. He’s currently working with Robert Wilson and Marina Abramovic on the theatrical piece The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, set to premiere in 2011. Here Hegarty talks to NOWNESS about climate change, the power of the feminine, and the potential of human imagination.
There are so many different moods to Swanlights… Critics have been saying that it’s more joyful––would you agree?
A lot of people have tried to find it as an emotional progression in my own life. Everyone always tries to do that, but actually it’s a choice I made in the work. I feel like it’s got emotional extremities in all directions. The only way I can really frame the record in terms of my life is that it’s a collision of joy and a sense of hopelessness. And that’s just true to my character. I definitely feel like the book really helps to structure and contextualize the record, because there’s so much more information, especially about the sense of my relationship to the landscape and the world that I’m a part of, to the world that gave birth to me.
And how do you see that world, at the moment?
We’re used to being children of this place, especially in the west––we think of the earth as providing us with a bounty of goods and services, and we’re just like babies being fed the natural resources of the world. Fifty years ago, if you asked our great grandparents whether [climate change was possible], they would have laughed at you, but if you did a poll today, most people would say there’s a change in the weather. This is in dramatic contrast to all the ideas that we’ve had for centuries, that nature was impermeable and would always provide for us. The record is dealing with this really on a more personal level. It’s a question: what’s my relationship to this place? To me, this couldn’t be more fundamental.
You’ve explained the album’s name as describing light on water at night, a moment when bodies become spirits. Is this influenced by your love of Butoh?
I think almost all the vocabulary that I employ is stuff that I’ve derived from my studying of Butoh in my early 20s. Through the language of Butoh I was able to experiment with the idea that I could get out of my pedestrian experience––through my imagination. Butoh teaches that you can reach into the past and the future to find energy that can empower you to make a crazy gesture. It doesn’t have to be personal, but somehow it managed to meet me in a very personal place. It was through that process in a way that I could develop a more empathetic relationship with the natural world around me. I was raised as a Catholic, where you’re really taught that you have a separate spiritual constitution from the rest of nature; that a spiritual world awaits you in death, in some paradise elsewhere.
Has working with Marina Abramovic enabled you discover new things about performance?
It’s funny because Marina and I come from different lives, but we definitely share a performance experience, a sense that performance can really be a magical thing––that you can lose yourself. It’s a boon of being an artist, the performance. She does it through endurance, where I’m more casting and pushing out, trying to shed a sense of self censorship that would prevent me from getting somewhere magical.