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A Quietus Interview

Not Intimidated: Antony Hegarty Interviewed
Joseph Burnett , July 26th, 2012 08:50

Ahead of his mouth watering Meltdown festival, Antony talks to Joseph Burnett about collaboration and being thrust into every kitchen in the UK...

2012 is shaping up to be a massive year for Antony Hegarty, who first shot to prominence through the success of his second album (with his band, The Johnsons), I Am A Bird Now, which won the Mercury Prize. In August, he will be curating London’s prestigious Meltdown Festival on the South Bank, bringing together artists such as Diamanda Galas, Lou Reed and William Basinski. He’s also about to release a live album, Cut The World, and has worked recently with Marina Abramovic on her much-lauded Robert Wilson production The Life And Death Of Marina Abramovic.

After several years of touring with an orchestra, and with four Antony & The Johnsons albums behind him (not to mention collaborations with Hercules And Love Affair and Cocorosie), Hegarty shows no sign of slowing down, and The Quietus was delighted to have the chance to sit down with him at London’s Bloomsbury Hotel to discuss Meltdown, his upcoming album and his views on modern society.

You are curating the Meltdown Festival this year. How did that come about, and were you daunted by the prospect?

Antony Hegarty: It’s simply that they called me and I was interested. I was excited by the idea. It’s quite an honour, I’ve always admired Meltdown, as a festival, and the concept of an artist curating the festival. It’s the chance to put something strong forward, so I thought, “I’d love to do it."

How did you go about selecting the artists you’ve chosen to appear? Did you get everyone you wanted?

AH: I wrote the list very quickly, impulsively, of the people whose work was the most resonant to me, the people I thought were most beautiful, and together they formed a sort of unified front, in some way. It ended up being a lot of female singers, a lot of people who concentrated strongly on the voice, with tremendous emotional expression. They’re people who have forged very distinctive paths through music and in their lives. I got almost everyone, I’d say about 80% of the people I asked said yes, and there are only a couple of examples of people I asked who couldn’t do it. A lot of them are people I know, a lot of my friends and community, and then a few exceptions to that as well.

Are they artists you have previously worked with, or essentially ones you have admired over the years?

AH: I think a third of them are people I’ve worked with in the past, another third are people I know, and the final third are people I’ve admired.

The artists appearing make for a quite eclectic ensemble - was that a deliberate choice, or more a reflection of your musical tastes? Basinski, Galas...

AH: Do you it find it to be eclectic? It’s certainly a reflection of my musical taste. But I don’t see it as eclectic. I mean, I first met Billy Basinski when he gave me a flier to a concert of Diamanda Galas that he was hosting at his house! Many of the people in the show are just a stone’s throw away from each other. Diamanda and Billy are both very much underground New York artists. I’ve admired Diamanda since I was a kid and I’ve known Billy for almost twenty years...

Have you always been drawn to singers with distinctive voices?

AH: Yeah, I was so influenced by expressive singers, that was what I was drawn to as a child. What drew me to music was this possibility of a form in which you could express yourself more vividly and expansively than in pedestrian life, especially in a form where emotion was validated or even heralded within the realm of music, whereas in pedestrian life and in patriarchal society in general, emotion tends to be disregarded or looked down upon, subjugated as a system of perceiving. So, emotion was always important to me, as a kid, and I’ve fought for the right to express my emotions.That’s probably why I went into music, because when you sing, you’re taking up more space that has been allotted to you in the pedestrian world, but I think it’s the most natural thing in the world to sing. Every animal cries out. I think of it as a birthright: everyone has the right to feel and to cry out.

That brings me to Marc Almond, who will be appearing at Meltdown, and is a very expressive singer...

AH: Well, you’re probably too young to remember Marc in his first incarnation! When he came out in 1982, when I was a pre-teen, his work was very aggressive. I consider him to be one of a sort of group of young, in-your-face, effeminate artists who used effeminacy as a form of punk, in the same way that Rozz Williams did in Christian Death. I remember going to see Rozz Williams singing, and he’d be in front of this writhing mass of hardcore pitbull punks smashing into each other, and he’d be this 5’5” queen painted so heavily and wielding so much authority. And spitting at the audience!

With Marc, when he first emerged with Soft Cell, he was told, “If you go on Top of the Pops you can’t wear all those bracelets, you’ve got to wash off that eyeline”, which they wouldn’t have said to Duran Duran! But they said it to Marc, because they perceived him as more effeminate and somehow too much. So he would wear three times the bracelets and put on more eyeliner, and he’d hiss and shake his wrists at the camera. And it was very hardcore. Hardcore in the way Leigh Bowery was hardcore, it was more of a kind of declaration of war, and that was always something that appealed to me.

And yet, at the same time, even from within that defensive mode of self-expression, at the core of what Marc was doing was forcing a space in culture, forcing open a space in which he could express his emotions. He sang with flagrant abandon and such emotion, and he would say to the press, “I don’t care if I hit the notes, it’s the feeling that matters”, which is something I later heard echoed by Nina Simone. It’s one of the central tenets of singing, and here it was coming from this kid, 20 or 21. He was a warrior, and very inspiring to me as a kid, because life for me at that age was a war, and Marc represented a frontier and a response from a perspective that I could recognise as my own.

That seems to me to be reflected in your own approach to music, even if you don’t immediately come across as a “warrior”...

AH: Well, the music itself was soul-bearing. Torment And Toreros, the Marc And The Mambas record he’s doing [at Meltdown], was the definitive record of my adolescence. It’s ferociously expressive and he just took up space. As a young kid, it was very inspiring to see someone dare to occupy that space. That’s why I got into music. I was never particularly musical, I even have a report card from the second-grade that says, “If only Antony’s prowess matched his enthusiasm in music!” [laughs]

I believe you are only doing one show yourself, the film with Charles Atlas. How have you prepared for that?

AH: Actually, I’ll probably be appearing a few times, in bits and pieces. Everyone’s trying to recruit me to do a number here and there, but I’m very hesitant to do that, because I want to present their pure work and not scoop out a space for me to do a cameo, y’know? In the case of the film, it’s one I’m making with Charlie and my group [the Johnsons], Turning, and we’re very excited to premiere it.

Cut The World is a live album. What made you decide to release a live record at this stage of your career?

AH: It’s been cumulative, because I’ve been performing with symphonies and developing a body of arrangements from my catalogue, and I’ve been touring that for three years now. In a way, the culmination of that was to release the highlights of that. On the last two records I did, The Crying Light and Swanlights, I incorporated a lot of symphonic elements in the studio recording, so I didn’t include as many of those songs on this album, I really wanted to collect recordings of the songs that had the scope to be transformed by the symphonic arrangements and exhibit them on this record.

Was it a challenge to rearrange the tracks in this way?

AH: We did it over time. Initially, I was approached by Nico Muhly and he asked me if he could arrange a few of my songs, way back when he used to come see me perform at Joe’s Pub ten years ago. He really transformed the songs and they took on a new life, so I was able to collect some of those songs and some of the arrangements. One track, 'Cut the World', is a studio recording from the work I’ve been doing with Marina Abramovic and Robert Wilson.

The performance with an orchestra somehow makes some tracks seem sparser and more immediate, with a focus on your voice. Was this your intention?

AH: It could be partly the mix. I wasn’t as involved in mixing Cut The World as I was previous records, because it was a collaboration with the Danish National Orchestra. They were really keen to control the sound of the record. Also, because they’re live recordings, they’re more spacious, in a way, than my studio recordings, and there’s more a sense of the air around the instruments. So probably you can see the outline of each piece more clearly than if it were a studio recording. It’s funny: when you’re doing a recording with a symphony, the tendency is to get into something quite grandiose and to sweep in, as it were. You’re riding a big river of sound, propelled by the momentum of 40 or 60 musicians behind you. It’s a different sensation to playing with an intimate ensemble, which has been my history. So it was always an interesting and delicate negotiation to create enough space within the arrangements to still retain a sense of intimacy, which was so important to the emotional aspect of the work. We had to use the symphonies in a subtle way... Sometimes, like on 'Cripple And The Starfish', it’s still a bombastic arrangement, but a lot of the others are quite subtle, and it wasn’t so much a matter of creating a thicker wall of sound as it was of creating a much wider palette of sound to draw on.

You mention 'Cripple And The Starfish', where the symphonic arrangements convey a lushness that is nearly cinematic. Would you agree, and do you consider your songs and albums to have a narrative element?

AH: That song is particularly narrative, and it’s episodic: it goes through three separate stages. I wrote it 20 years ago. It has a sense of a bomb ticking towards its final, terrible inevitability, so I always direct it that way. Those early songs, like 'I Fell In Love With a Dead Boy' and 'Cripple And The Starfish' move in tiers. They’re chapters. It’s more storytelling, whereas later songs I wrote tend to be more like tableaux, a bit more abstract. They’re more descriptions of a situation.

How do you approach performing live, as opposed to recording in the studio?

AH: I’ve never really harnessed studio recording. I’m a live singer. For me the pleasure of singing was always to be with people and sing. Doing studio recording is always very difficult for me...

As you mentioned, the album features a new song, 'Cut The World' which was composed for The Life And Death Of Marina Abramovic. How did you become involved with that, and was your focus purely on the musical side of the production?

AH: Marina kind of courted me. She came and met me, and befriended me, and before I knew it I’d been hoodwinked into doing the musical tracks! [laughs] Working on The Life And Death Of Marina Abramovic has been one of the most incredible experiences. Robert Wilson is really inspiring, and Marina’s just an incredible person to be around and learn from, as is Willem. He’s an incredibly inspiring actor. I’ve never really seen acting like that before, I’ve never been close to it in a process like that before.

My role was to write and assemble the score for the piece, and by doing that I brought in my friends whose music I love, like Billy Basinski, Matmos, Gaël Rakotondrabe - who’s the pianist from Cocorosie - and some of the instrumentalists on my records. I did a mixture, assembling and inviting these musicians and using their music, and wrote about ten singing songs.

Do you ever find that the popularity of your music can sometimes overshadow your work in other art spheres, especially here in the UK, where I Am A Bird Now was such a success?

AH: It’s certainly true. I Am A Bird Now was sort of thrust into every kitchen in the UK one morning, and it certainly wouldn’t have happened that way if it hadn’t been for the Mercury Prize. There was so much visibility to that initial project, and it was so helpful. Even more than just in the UK, it was helpful across Europe in validating me as an artist that people continue to engage on some level. But certainly not through the media channels that initially supported me before the Mercury Prize.

I often find with LGBT artists, that portrayals in the press, even from sympathetic journalists, tend to always be centred on notions of “conflict”...

AH: Supposedly sympathetic journalists. Even gay ones. Sometimes gay journalists are the worst. It depends on which country you’re in, and how far along they are in the dialogue about whether a gay or transgender person should be offered a dignified platform in culture, so often the article betrays that underlying conflict, which is one between the critic and himself. Even if the writer believes in the thoughts [of LGBT artists], they can be betraying their own underlying homophobia or self-loathing. I’ve certainly experienced that with gay writers who somehow couldn’t wrap their heads around the idea that someone like me could be given a platform. You’d be so surprised.

And on the other hand you get people who have already moved through that and are just interested to find out what I have to say, or to have a dialogue with me as an artist. It’s amazing to see how it varies from country to country. Did you read the Guardian article?

Yes, I did. I actually read it before I saw your response, and it felt like the author was probing to try and get a sense of conflict, as I said, asking about bullying, the relationship you had with your parents and so on...

AH: It’s the same nauseating questions that they’ve been asking me for ten years and it reveals more about the writer than it does about me. It’s the incredulity that someone like me could have passed through the pearly gates and actually have some sort of a seat in culture, and they’re grappling with it.

Unfortunately, at a first reading, someone might think it’s a reflection on me, but if it you look at twice you realise that it’s a reflection on the writer. You can sense it from the third sentence that there’s a nasty residue to his tone that asphyxiates me and coats it. It’s just a few turns of phrase, a cynicism and sarcasm with which he approaches the material, even though he might support and believe in the material, deep down, if he was asked, and often times they do, but they’re not willing to take the risk. They’re not willing to take the fall. Because in their old systems of operation, someone like me should not be supported. It’s an internal thing for them, usually straight men, but sometimes gay guys as well. It’s just a culture’s shame investigating itself.

That makes me thinks that there’s a lot of internalised homophobia in how society approaches “queer culture”, in that it has to be seen as separate.

AH: It’s just the fact that we’re still dialoguing about the issue. It divides and undermines my ability to participate in the greater culture. If I can only be framed as a gay artist, then my work is contained, it’s quarantined, and 90% of the time it’s dismissed by people outside that interest group. But that’s never really been the scope of my work, especially in the last five years, where most of my work has been about the environment. And issues of gender, but not necessarily in the way of I Am A Bird Now, which was obviously very personal, an exploration of the internal role of gender. In the last five or six years, I’ve more been interested in archetypes of gender as they relate to much bigger panoramas. As I say, it goes from country to country: in Scandinavia they don’t even ask you about that stuff, they just want to know what I’m thinking as an artist. Every country has its threshold.

Have your views on gender in art, and in general, evolved over the years?

AH: I don’t know if I’ve ever had views on gender in art, particularly. I’ve always leaned, as you can see in my Meltdown line-up, especially towards women artists, with some exceptions. Increasingly in my thinking, unless a male artist has been willing to examine or deconstruct their seat of privilege, as a man, in society, then I’m not really interested in what they have to say. It’s like if I was a black artists before the civil rights movement, I probably wouldn’t have had any interest in the work of slavers, unless they’d made an effort to reach out to the rest of the world and discuss their identity. Because there’s too much going on, the world needs too much help. I’m not one for business as usual. And a lot of the music scene is just a wanking, self-congratulatory boys’ club, it’s just so fucking boring and not useful. It’s such a waste of our time. More than that, it’s catastrophic in a way. It’s another reflection of how astray we are, as a civilisation.

It’s very interesting to see you include 'Future Feminism' on the album. It’s a fascinating monologue, but what prompted you to include it? Do you perhaps see it as something of a manifesto or ideology?

AH: You know, we thought, “Oh that’s so off, you can’t do that, it’s too much”, but then I always like a challenge like that, when it seems like too much or it’s too embarrassing. That can indicate a threshold to cross. Sometimes in concerts I’m too winded to carry on singing, so I prattle on for a while, and we just edited it down from my prattlings. Increasingly, I’ve wanted to provide a lens through which to perceive the songs, something to frame them more provocatively within some of my ideas about the world and the way I see the world. It makes things more dynamic, and I’ve also been afforded this platform, so I wanted to take as much advantage of it as I could and try to participate as vividly as I could and do the best I can. And the things I say might seem naive or clumsy, but they’re the points of view of an artist, not necessarily an intellectual and yet artists - and the rest of the world- have the right to participate, and to give voice to what they see and what they think has gone wrong. You often hear that artists shouldn’t talk about things, because they’re not the experts, but in fact it’s our world and we should all be talking about it. We shouldn’t be intimidated.