"Antony's funny," his publicist says. This seems unlikely, given that we're talking about Antony Hegarty, the singer-songwriter whose beautiful new album, The Crying Light , a lament for our abused planet, has moved countless critics to extol his bleakness. One reveres Hegarty's "mournful vibrato."
Another, his "Mahlerian mournfulness." A rare naysayer at London's The Guardian newspaper fears he's over Hegarty's "mournful Nina Simone-inspired voice," the contralto that helped this Rubenesque balladeer and his chamber ensemble, the Johnsons, beat out Coldplay and MIA for England's coveted Mercury Prize in 2005.
A former cabaret performance artist once given to stalking about New York City with fuck off written on his forehead,
Hegarty, who is now 37 and identifies as transgender, didn't seem destined for mainstream success. But influential fans like mentor Lou Reed, sold-out performances at Carnegie Hall, the dance group Hercules and Love Affair (which Hegarty founded with DJ Andy Butler), and collaborations with Björk, Rufus Wainwright, and others have positioned him to break big with Antony and the Johnsons' latest album, The Crying Light .
When I finally speak to Hegarty on the phone after a week of delays, anticipation, and assurances that this lachrymose legend is somehow a laugh riot, I'm nervous. Though I have a huge spot in my heart for sad music and sad people, I struggle with unteasable people: the earnest, the fragile, Angelina Jolie. And Hegarty's media persona seems slightly less teasable than Pietà .
Our chat begins badly. My first question has all the gravitas of an E! exclusive: "You must be excited! What with all the positive reviews?" Hegarty responds politely, but his voice betrays dismay: "Yeah, I'm feeling pretty good." I note stiffly that he reportedly wrote The Crying Light to break down his sense of separateness from the physical world. "Yes," he rallies, "I've been trying to forge inroads toward a greater sense of connectedness with the planetâ€¦and overcome the loneliness I've accrued." He speaks eloquently, if not yet hilariously, about the way the Catholic church he attended as a kid in Chichester, England, dismissed the earthly plane, insisting that plants and animals had no souls, that the human spirit both originated and would return elsewhere. "Paradise," he says, "was an abstract notion restricted to the afterlife. But I think this place has a paradise aspect. Nature has so much tender, creative, kaleidoscopic energy going on."
Attempting to forge a greater sense of connectedness, I tell him that when I stopped attending mass at age 14 in Canada, my parents made me shovel the snow instead.
"I'd much rather shovel snow -- it's a more grounding experience," he says, then deadpans, "Although I did love the drag aspects of church: all the men in gowns, all the jewels, all the glittering cups."
After this un-Pietà-like crack, I officially love Hegarty and our conversation breaks wide open, budding with tangents: late-period Picasso, Hegarty's recent discovery of how brussels sprouts grow ("on tall, spiky stems!"), the time a homeless woman laughed at him for wearing clogs in a Manhattan blizzard, his pubescent struggles to acquire import LPs after his family transplanted itself to a San Jose, Calif., suburbâ€¦.
"Subculture was harder to find then," he says, "but that's what made it subculture. With the Internet, the playing field's been leveled. There's equal access to Beyoncé and Rozz Williams [Christian Death's tragic frontman, who killed himself in 1998]." While Hegarty and I commune as erstwhile morbid '80s kids, the phone line dies; when we reconnect, he says, "Where were we? Oh yes, graveyards!"
He tends to speak in psalm-like sentences, lyrical and strangely fluid. He calls Torment and Toreros , a 1983 album by Marc Almond's solo project, Marc and the Mambas, "my first evidence of radical vulnerability as an invincible punk gesture -- Marc wore his heart so heavily on his sleeve, with teeth gleaming."
"Are you always this articulate?" I ask. "Would it kill you to throw in an 'um' now and then?" He laughs, confessing, "I hesitate if I haven't had the right combination of teas and coffees. I'm catatonic then."
Nearly out of time, I pepper him with final questions: Will he make a good old person? Is it true he started off as a lousy singer? "My second-grade teacher once told me, 'If only your [singing] prowess matched your enthusiasm,'È‚f;" he says. "I didn't know what 'prowess' was. She also told me that my handwriting was erratic, but I liked that. 'Erratic' sounded arty."
I'm not surprised, I say. As a graphology nerd, I know how easily the identity conflicts of a transgender kid could manifest as unpredictable handwriting. Hegarty seems to find this out-of-nowhere analysis eerie, even fated. "I've never mentioned handwriting before in an interview," he says. "Ever." With this new, admittedly slim, bond between us, I feel comfortable enough to ask one last dopey, Barbara Walters question: "What's your favorite flower?"
"The peony," he says. "It's just so voluptuously beautiful and luscious and not persnickety and -- "
"What flower would you call persnickety?" I goad him. "Something tight-assed like a marigold?"
He laughs, unmistakably merry. "Roses can be persnickety," he says. Then, true to his own nature, he turns reflective: "But that's more about what we've done to them, of course. It's hardly their fault."