Antony & The Johnsons - Biography
From humble beginnings as an underground NYC cabaret act, Antony and the Johnsons became Mercury Music Prize winners and rose into the ranks of the most internationally celebrated indie bands of the early 21st century, playing sold-out shows in historic venues alongside storied philharmonics. While The Johnsons were always a colorful cast of compelling artists in their own right, the focal point of the band was always Antony, an androgynous, cross-dressing diva with a towering, awkward physicality — and a shocking, dramatic tenor and vibrato that inspired comparisons to Nina Simone and Jimmy Scott.
Born in England in 1971, Antony Hegarty came of age listening to frontmen like Culture Club’s Boy George and Soft Cell’s Marc Almond; in these men, a young Antony recognized something of himself, which eased his feelings of being a permanent outsider. Somewhere, it seemed, there was a place where he would feel at home. He even took some fashion sense from a Soft Cell record cover, inspired by a drawing of cigarette-smoking drag queen sans wig. But before Antony would find the promised land, his family moved away from England — first to the Netherlands and then to Santa Cruz, California.
“People thought I was an alien,” he would later say. Deeply self-conscious, he battled anorexia as he also battled occasional harassment on the streets of Santa Cruz. Nonetheless, he chose to stay in the city for college, at least until a kindly theater professor suggested that the enthusiastic young student may find more kindred spirits in New York City. By the time he was 20, Antony had switched coasts — and immediately found himself at home, gravitating to the East Village’s Pyramid club and befriending a group of transvestites and drag queens. He also spent two years studying experimental theater at New York University, a period of study that would inform his future performances.
He started a group called Blacklips — not so much a band as a collection of performance artists that performed pieces with telling titles like 100 Million Years of Loneliness. Antony would sing late nights to sparse crowds at the Pyramid, but found the era to be inspiring despite the devastation wrought by the AIDS epidemic. A mandate from the mayor’s office to clean up the streets and escalating real estate costs took a further toll on the bustling bohemian and underground artistic communities of NYC.
By 1995, Antony had decided that theater wasn’t presenting a viable career path, and he refocused his energies on music, starting a new collective that he called The Johnsons. He chose the name “Johnsons” in honor of Marsha P. Johnson, a leader and activist in the LGBT community who had cofounded the world’s first political organization dedicated to transgender rights (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries). Johnson was discovered dead in the Hudson River shortly after a pride parade in 1992; the official ruling of suicide was disputed by some in the community, particularly after reports surfaced that Johnson had been harassed on the evening of her death. Although his time in New York only briefly overlapped with hers, Antony found her to be a powerful inspiration — and honored her not only with his band name, but also with the devastating track “River of Sorrow,” which would remain a staple in his live shows as he rose to fame.
Mainstream recognition was still a long way off at the time that Antony was writing “River of Sorrow.” In early shows, he performed in drag as “Fiona Blue,” taking cues from the aggressively avant-garde and operatic Diamanda Galas. Antony would later acknowledge that his early performance style was combative and manipulative, more designed to challenge himself and his audience than to communicate the intimate and often painful revelations of his later work. He shifted his style, seeing a link between his tales of loneliness and the canon of American soul music.
Among Antony’s early comrades was Devendra Banhart, still years away from his own crossover success as the de facto leader of the “freak-folk” genre. Banhart’s unapologetic sense of self — and the positive energy that seemed to be permanently in place around his entourage — made an impression on Antony, who credited the young folk singer for redefining his boundaries as an artist. “Suddenly, I wasn’t a cabaret singer,” he would later explain.
In 1997, Antony and the Johnsons won a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship that enabled them to record their eponymous debut album (2000 Durtro), which gave a home to “River of Sorrow,” along with eight other tracks. Durtro was run by British experimental musician David Tibet, a Psychic TV collaborator and founder of Current 93. The single “I Fell in Love with a Dead Boy” (2001 Durtro) soon followed, featuring covers of a Tibet song and a David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti song from the film Blue Velvet (“Mysteries of Love”). In addition to Tibet — who would prove to be a longtime ally and collaborator — Antony was securing a number of other high-profile fans. Thanks to producer Hal Wilner, Lou Reed had gotten his hands on “I Fell in Love with a Dead Boy” — and was immediately impressed.
Reed called for a meeting. Like most of his peers, Antony was very well acquainted with the iconography surrounding the former Velvet Underground leader, having originally been introduced to his work via a “Caroline Says” cover by Marc Almond, and then coming to see a “frozen beauty” in Reed’s work that would influence his own. The two became fast friends, and Reed began attending some of Antony’s shows around New York — including one in which Antony surprised him with a cover version of The Velvet Underground’s “Candy Says.” Shortly thereafter, Reed invited Antony to lend guest vocals to The Raven (2003 RCA), an album of reconfigured Reed originals and Edgar Allan Poe stories and poems set to music.
Around the same time of the recording of The Raven, Antony and the Johnsons released a split EP with Tibet’s Current 93 followed — Live At St. Olave’s Church (2002 PanDurtro). Antony was then invited out on the road to participate in Reed’s Raven tour; it would prove to be a star-making turn, boosted by his powerful performance of “Candy Says.” Anticipation began running high for his second full-length.
In the meantime, some of his Johnsons were making names for themselves back home. Violinist Maxim Moston collaborated with the electronic ensemble Slow Six and wrote string arrangements for Rufus Wainwright’s Want One (2003 DreamWorks) and Want Two (2004 DreamWorks) albums. Baby Dee released a series of solo albums on Durtro, and Joan Wasser left the Johnsons and formed her own group, Joan As Police Woman.
After the Raven tour, Antony had outgrown Tibet’s small-scale independent label. He found a new home with successful Midwestern label Secretly Canadian, who released the band’s debut album in 2004 as a means of further building the buzz for the follow-up, I Am a Bird Now (2005 Secretly Canadian). As he put the album together, Antony found himself in the unexpected position of having friends in high places. Reed and Wainwright both recorded guest vocals. His old comrade Devendra Banhart — now a rapidly rising star — did the same. Perhaps most astoundingly to Antony, his childhood hero, Boy George, contributed vocals to “You Are My Sister.”
I Am a Bird Now received glowing press from both the mainstream and underground, with comparisons flying around to Nina Simone, Jimmy Scott and Bryan Ferry, among others. Not one to shy from his influences, Antony made a habit of playing Simone’s “Be My Husband” at live shows, and during one of the biggest shows of his life — a sold-out gig at Carnegie Hall in late 2005 — he ceded the spotlight to Scott for a series of songs. By that point, he was nearing the completion of a whirlwind year that shot him out of obscurity. In September, Antony and the Johnsons won the UK’s prestigious Mercury Prize, beating out much better-known entities like Coldplay, Bloc Party and Kaiser Chiefs. A shocked Antony started his acceptance speech by saying he thought there had been a mistake — and the disgruntled Kaisers agreed, asserting that the award should have gone to someone a bit more British. But while the Mercury Prize honors the best album from the UK or Ireland, Antony’s English roots were enough for qualification, even though he’d been living in the United States for most of his life.
With his star on the rise, Antony became an in-demand guest vocalist. Through a mutual friend, he met Bjork, leading to a pair of duets on her widely publicized album Volta (2007 Atlantic). He recorded songs with a number of old friends — including Tibet, Wainwright, Wasser’s new act Joan as Police Woman and British composer Michael Cashmore. A performance art piece called TURNING matched a live performance by Antony and the Johnsons with the highly stylized video projections of Charles Atlas, another friend from Antony’s early days in the East Village. When Reed decided the time had come to revisit his polarizing rock opera Berlin, Antony rejoined him on stage, again taking a star turn on “Candy Says.”
His biggest musical departure was yet to come. Another personal friend, Andy Butler, had started an electronic dance group called Hercules & Love Affair, and wanted Antony to sing on the propulsive disco track “Blind” — which would wind up as one of the best dance tracks of 2008. Antony and Butler collaborated on a number of other tracks for Hercules & Love Affair’s self-titled debut (2008 DFA).
In late 2008, Antony and the Johnsons released the Another World EP (2008 Secretly Canadian), a prelude to the highly anticipated full-length The Crying Light (2009 Secretly Canadian). In conjunction with the EP’s release, the band appeared in a small number of special concerts alongside groups such as the London Symphony Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.