Trans singer Antony Hegarty talks up gloom in his essays and on his band’s latest CD
LAWRENCE FERBER | Contributing Writer firstname.lastname@example.org
Antony Hegarty wants you to gut him with sticks.
In “Wild Life,” the essay that closes his art book, Swanlights (a companion to his new album of the same name), the transgender-identified musician with Antony and the Johnsons reveals a deep connection to the earth, nature and environment and detachment from the industrialized, Judeo-Christian society at large. That includes a description of the way he wishes to go.
“I don’t want your future,” the U.K.-born, NYC-based Hegarty writes. “I hope when I die, that I never return to your world. I will go where the trees go, where the wind goes… I will leave you all to enjoy the world that you are creating for your children. I want then to be a dead body at the bottom of the lake. Gut me with sticks and stuff my body with lavender crystals.”
Brave, vulnerable and profound, Swanlights features collages, illustrations, poetry and manipulated found items, while the album boasts 11 tracks of beauteously moving, haunting vocals and arrangements, including a duet with Bjork, “Flétta.”
Hegarty discussed the book/album, just how eccentric Bjork is and the process of writing about your own death.
Dallas Voice: Where does the word “swanlights” come from? Hegarty: I kind of made it up. To me it’s a suggestion of a reflection of a spirit on the surface of water at night. Almost like the reflection of a ghost on a lake. The spirit or energy jumping out of a body, you know? I know it’s kind of high-falutin’.
You released an EP in late August, Thank You For Your Love. What are the biggest differences between the EP and Swanlights? The EP is like a little sorbet or something. It’s not that thematically connected to the album, except I did this one cover of [John Lennon’s] “Imagine.” Really the album wrestles a lot with a sense of hopelessness but also carrying a sense of joy as well.
How does Swanlights differ most from your previous efforts like 2005’s I Am a Bird Now? What sort of evolution does it represent? I feel like the work is the most volatile and expressive to date. I’ve always sort of threaded my own stories through creative imaginative narratives. When you’re making work it’s always a combination of personal and imaginative things and just dreams. The album is actually the most broad, sonically. Usually I edit things down within an inch of their life, tightly composed, and this one is more open, a little bit rougher, organic. A collage of ideas. It was almost put together like a collage and the visual part of the work and album are of equal weight to me.
Swanlights’ lyrics talk about surreal, ethereal things like the “salt mother” and ghosts. There’s a spirit glow to everything. I’ve been spending so much time researching indigenous cultures, especially for instance the “two spirit” tradition in Native American culture, which affords a privileged seat for the transgender members of their community — a creative, shamanistic seat. I was really inspired by that. Generally speaking, the last few years I’ve separated myself completely from Judeo-Christian models of thinking, although I do still use some of that imagery in the songs. But I’m more interested in spiritual, theological systems and those emerge more from indigenous cultures. The Native Americans are so beautiful. I love this Cherokee thing called The Seven Generation Principle. You don’t employ any technology or development that you can’t promise will positively affect seven generations of people. Can you imagine such a principle governing our developmental affairs in this world today? It’s such a good healthy tenet for creating a sustainable world and it’s something we’ve gotten so far away from.
How sincere are you in the essay about not wanting to be part of our world and just be found dead in the lake? It’s totally sincere. I think the essay is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever put forward and it makes me feel quite vulnerable. There’s something witchy about that essay that made me uncomfortable because it expresses a kind of hopelessness, but I think a lot of people in their hearts of hearts are feeling a bit hopeless right now. So it was in service to that I decided to go forward and express myself quite vividly. It’s not an endpoint. It’s another point in surrender to figure out what I can in fact impact and what is the source of my life and of my joy. This constantly changing thing, which is the experience of living.
There are a number of photos of dead animals in the book. What’s the story behind that? Yes, definitely images of animals that have been slain. There’s a whole series in the book called “Cut Away the Bad” which is about taking a picture of a circumstance or situation and the energy is out of balance or some crisis is unfolding and try to repair it visually, first by removing corrupted elements. There are pictures of animals that have been hunted or killed and the first thing I did was pick out the parts of the hunter and try and restore the integrity of the animal, give it space to die with some dignity. I know it seems almost futile, but it’s a catalyst for a feeling someone can influence things on a spirit level. Also I’ve been preoccupied with the idea we’re in the midst of a massive extinction event in the world today and some of the animals, especially the big mammals, are really disappearing. Sort of a good time to be aware of all these other species and be dreaming for them.
You’ve been very outspoken about being transgender in mainstream interviews around the world. Have you detected any sort of shift in your career or life as a result? I don’t know. I haven’t been measuring the response and I don’t think I ever didn’t use that way to describe myself. I feel a responsibility to be honest about it mostly for the sake of other transgender people. Also, especially in regards to this body of work I like the idea of a kind of feral, empathic connection with the world around you. It’s the nature of the transgender person just on account of their increased sensitivity to their environment.
How did the Bjork duet come about? We did [her song “Dull Flame of Desire”] at the same time we did the recording for her album Volta. I wrote it for her and we were doing a lot of vocal improvisation and she came up with her response to the piano track. It was very organic and I asked her if I could do this for my record and she was into it. It wasn’t even planned. It was just something we did.
Is Bjork as eccentric as she’s been parodied to be? She’s definitely a dreamer. I don’t really think of her as an eccentric, but then I may not be the best person to talk to about it. I like people who are interested in exploring themselves and their creative world. For me that feels normal.
‘Swan’ songs: Antony & the Johnsons get (mostly) happy on latest album
Listening to Antony Hegarty can be an enlightening experience. The usual go-to with him is his unique voice, one not to be ignored: That haunting quality is like nothing else in music now. He works a trembling vibrato to no end against a texture of apropos songs that are dreamy and ethereal. Sometimes, there’s just too much of that. But Hegarty and his band straddle the line this time with Swanlights.
A & the J sway between despairing songs of death and uppish tunes celebrating love. That dichotomy is expressed completely, but boringly, in the opener “Everything is New.” Dancing lightly on the piano, it’s more of the expectedly moody tone, but the piano and strings get aggressive offering hope. The lyrics are simply a repeated title track with warbly moaning and ultimately nothing new, but it may be a harbinger of songs to come.
When the band ventures into familiar territory, it’s always beautiful, but their weepy slow songs are never ballads — they are dirges. Sometimes, no matter how mopey, emo, goth you may be, funerals aren’t always a musical go-to. But the band pulls it off sublimely in “The Great White Ocean” where Hegarty sings of death and asks his family to join him. He boldly whines in lyrics like Swim with me my mother / When I dive into the ocean of death / I will cry if I am not with my family. Total buzzkill.
The bleakness returns after several tracks with “The Spirit is Gone.” Hegarty wails us into despair, yet we can’t tell if he’s singing about a person who’s passed or a relationship. His dreariness is confounding, yet he can still make it undeniably fascinating.
Where the album succeeds is in the happier moments. Not for mere sake of tone, but because they thrive here more than expected. The opening piano of “Ghost” is optimistic and they are shedding anchors of pain and misery. Perhaps here is the “new” part hinted by track one. “I’m In Love” is pop music that all radio bands could strive for. Delicate lyrics and distinct layers of instruments offer a true gem.
They go back to the mellow with the much hyped duet with Bjork on Fletta. Maybe because of her, it’s easy to pardon their usual frigid disposition. She takes the lead vocally where Hegarty seems to follow like a hungry kitten with only a piano that begins lightly as if it is skimming on water and then shifts up to punctuate the song. Now this is a ballad.
— Rich Lopez
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 29, 2010