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An Intimate Portal: Antony Hegarty Interviewed
Cian Traynor , November 4th, 2014 14:44

Ahead of Turning, a new DVD and live album, Antony Hegarty talks to Cian Traynor about feminine identity, pursuing a more electronic direction and remembering Lou Reed's love

Every career has highlights that merit careful preservation. For Antony And The Johnsons, one came along in November 2006 when the band took a performance piece called Turning to Rome, London, Paris, Madrid and Braga. Each night, 13 models would take turns standing on a rotating plinth while, song by song, video artist Charles Atlas lit up the stage with a projection of their portrait. Now, after years of developing the project, Turning is finally receiving a general release as a film and live album.

Musically, Turning captures Antony And The Johnsons at an interesting juncture. They're harnessing the momentum behind breakthrough album I Am A Bird Now, pulling off a critically acclaimed run of shows and being embraced by a newfound audience. The accompanying live album (taken from the tour's London date at the Barbican) sees the band gliding through their best-known songs with prowess.

As a film, Turning resists the mould of a straightforward fly-on-the-wall music documentary. Though fragments of the tour experience are pieced together – moments backstage, in transit and at rehearsal – the film fleshes out the substance behind Turning through a series of one-on-one interviews. Each of the 13 women who participated in the performance share their backstory with singer Antony Hegarty, allowing us to see where their paths intertwine. The result is a moving exploration of feminine identity, self-discovery, isolation and acceptance.

In one scene, transgender model Connie Fleming describes the pain and confusion she felt growing up, fearing there would never be a release other than suicide. But while walking in New York's East Village one day, she saw a mesmerising figure – a woman wearing a black dress, neon pink hair and shoes to match – which stirred a moment of realisation.

Hegarty, it's been said, felt a similar awakening upon seeing Boy George on the cover of Culture Club's 1982 debut, Kissing To Be Clever. After growing up as something of an outsider in England, the Netherlands and California, Hegarty moved to New York in 1990 to study experimental theatre. The city's performance-art scene offered a creative community of likeminded people, which led to Hegarty forming an avant-garde theatre troupe called Blacklips and, later, a music ensemble called the Johnsons. Hegarty was awarded an arts grant in 1997 which enabled the recording of Antony And The Johnsons' self-titled debut soon after.

Since then, Hegarty has been subtly refining ways to express a beautiful singing voice that's difficult to describe. Over four studio albums, the music has shifted from soul, cabaret and art pop to a compositional world of its own. The long-awaited release of Turning, then, seems like a perfect opportunity to hear the 43-year-old reflect on a remarkable career trajectory and the lessons learned along the way.

You say in the film that this project was a dream come true. What did it mean to you and what inspired it?

Antony Hegarty: Turning has gone through several different incarnations in my life over the last decade. We first performed it as a collaboration in 2004 for the Whitney Biennial in New York, after stumbling upon this form of the turning portrait. It was something that Charlie [Atlas, co-director] had been developing in a couple of short films. I asked him if he wanted to collaborate on a whole concert of portraits of people from my community – a mixture of trans women, fixed gender women and artists; all people who were an inspiration to me somehow – set to my music of that period, which was basically what would become I Am A Bird Now.

Then I won the Mercury Prize in 2005 and my career shifted. I had all these international opportunities and the first thing I wanted to do was bring Turning as a project from underground New York to some of the major cities in Europe to see if the experience translated, if it could mirror a similar community in those places or if the people there could spread it by themselves. So, in 2006, I brought those 13 women with my group on tour to five cities and we filmed it.

The women would be sitting in the front row and one by one they would come up for this intimate portrait. They would be watched by the rest of the women before going back down, so there was this sense of witnessing each other that was kind of profound. There was something so affecting and restorative about that. My idea of heaven would be watching those turning portraits for eternity, just observing.

In the concert, the women in the piece are anonymous. There's no narrative associated with them and their life story. So, towards the end of the run, I started interviewing the women to find out what they thought had happened. It became an intuitive kind of study to see where their experiences met. Those interviews, plus Charlie's beautiful footage of making the performance piece, were combined to document the project. The film then became about integrating all these much more directly personal experiences and weaving them through the fabric of the performance.

I saw an interview with Nomi [one of the models] where she said that before Turning she felt lost and insecure, whereas afterwards she felt proud and had learned to live in the moment. What impact do you think it had on all of the participants?

AH: Everyone had their own experience. Nomi was just coming into her adulthood when we made that film. It was a transformative experience for all of us; there was a kind of alchemy to this really simple form. I think the fact that we didn't have a particular meaning assigned from the outset left it open. But the thing about trans-feminism is that there's a certain unspoken power in that bridge between those two experiences of femininity. It represents a frontier, in my mind, and that's always been a part of my aesthetic.

How much progress do you think has been made since the tour was filmed in terms of understanding gender identity and female empowerment?

AH: Turning was ahead of its time, in a way. It's funny to be releasing the film now, almost 10 years after its inception, and to have seen what has happened in the intervening years. There was a sense of planting seeds in the collective consciousness, which we did unknowingly. Turning was made in 2006. Riccardo Tisci [fashion designer] came to see it in Paris and then introduced transgender models on the catwalk two years later. Now there's been a shift in the perception of trans people in popular culture. That's the way it evolves. Someone inspired us, then we did this, then it went there and on to the next thing.

As an individual, how does it feel revisiting the material eight years later? How different is your life now?

AH: As different as could be. [pauses] I think my focus is very different, my relationship to my work is different. The work in Turning is so interior; it's so personal. The music in it came from a time when I didn't have an audience and wasn't really writing for one. It was something... [pauses] It's hard to know what to call it. A growth from my heart. It was just growing out of me, these life expressions that I had to make. It was certainly a necessity in order to survive.

But the source of the songs... some of them were very lonely places, very solitary places. Then they wound their way into all sorts of contexts and forums as my visibility grew. Some of them went on to become symphony pieces performed by orchestras in places like the Royal Opera House [London] and Radio City [Music Hall, New York]. The songs themselves have had these really intense journeys and have gone through a process of transformation over the last 10 years.

This point in particular came a year after I Am A Bird Now – material that you once felt would be unapproachable. And yet it was embraced in such a spectacular fashion. Looking back, why do you think that album made such an impact?

AH: I mean, I can see the chain of things that happened to open up that window in culture... [pauses] but I don't know why that happened. It was a great boon in my life, in a weird way. It was like a sea change.

But what do you think it was that people connected with?

AH: I think, with music in general, people just inevitably connect with feeling. The opportunity to hear expressed feeling. That's what has always drawn me towards music. It's something where, by connecting to someone else's voice, I feel less lonely. I feel more alive. I feel more connected to the world and to the rest of humanity. Sometimes a voice can be like a lifeline.

As a singer, has the place you're drawing from changed over the years?

AH: I think this body of work represents the most intimate portal into my life. But has that place I'm drawing from changed? I would say yes, it has. I always had it leaning towards an almost earnest approach to singing. From 2004 to 2005, I started to draw more energy from the world around me, from the people before me, from the space and time of my imagination to the sound, light and physical materials surrounding me. The process of singing them started to become more universal and, although still profoundly connected to me, the imagery pouring through the songs became less and less personal.

Turning was a turning point in that way for me because it was the first time I was visually embodying other people's experiences in the songs. With each model behind me, I used to imagine that my eyes would turn into their eyes. I used to imagine that I was like a piece of glass and that people would see through me and see the experience or the story as a narrative of the woman behind me, on screen. So you can see how I started to forfeit something that was very personal in lieu of something more universal.

You mentioned this intimate portal into your world. Do you think that helps you to feel better understood as a person or does it have the opposite effect, where you're detached from the experience?

AH: You know, I think the whole process of revealing material like this over a course of years transforms it so profoundly as to be almost unrecognisable from the experiences that led me to creating it in the first place. I don't write a lot of songs. A lot of these songs have walked with me through 10 [or] 20 years. I wrote 'Cripple And The Starfish' when I was 20 and I'm still performing it 20 years later in wildly different contexts – like having a symphony, as I said, [performing] a song I wrote on a keyboard when I was in college about my parents or a book or whatever.

A lot of doubt and fear can crop up in the creative process. When you're recording songs like that, songs written so long ago, are there ever any moments where you wonder, 'Do I still have it? Is the same inspiration there?'

AH: For me, I just see everything as creative material. If I pick up a shell of a song that I wrote 10 years ago, all that matters is the reality of that material as it's living today. My creative process is a long one, so I could have started a song 10 years ago and then finish it 10 years later. It's all just about pushing around words and melodies, for me. The material is kind of shape-shifting. I've spent a lot more time drawing and doing visual art in the last few years as well and I don't differentiate between mediums.

The creative process is just a process and you can't really separate it from life. Growing your hair is a creative process. Your body is creating hair. Being alive is a creative process. Whether it's growing something in the garden or growing a song, the material accumulates. It's the process of being alive; it's the passage of time. Things change. I just feel like [creativity] is a reflection of the world around me and I don't think you can divorce yourself from that. So I don't really think in terms of, 'Do you still have it?' Even if I was doing something new, I think I would be engaged in the same process. Do you see what I'm saying?

I do. But as a writer, I also know what's it like to spend years creating something without getting it to the point where you want it to be.

AH: Well, you need to release yourself of any expectation of what that material should be. Just start letting it be what it's naturally evolving into, even if it means just pulling words out of the dictionary and laying them one after another. Words are everywhere. A lot of the time, I think what holds people up in creative processes is this expectation of what it is they're doing. It's also this sense of judgement, you know, people editing themselves.

I think what really separates artists from the rest of the world is that artists feel like they have permission to keep exploring and expressing their process. Most people censor that because they don't think it's good enough. Everything is measured against this patriarchal hierarchy of value, as if one person's singing voice is more important than another's. Of course, everyone in the whole species can sing. It's not like birds only have one singer, you know. All of us can sing. It's a birthright that we all express our hearts. We can all cry out and it's the first thing people do.

You're lucky enough to be part of a brilliant network of artists. What's the most important thing that another artist ever said to you?

AH: [long pause] There are things but I can't say them; there are some things Lou Reed told me that I can't really go into because they're personal. But I do think of Lou. He really was a mentor to me, though not so much in my creative process. He really affirmed me as a singer. He was the one who kept pushing me out into the spotlight in the years before the Mercury Prize. He took me on a world tour. He was always singing my praises. He was like a father, in a way. Through his own life and by advising me, Lou was my greatest mentor in navigating the world as a public artist. Lou was definitely the one who continually encouraged and loved me. He gave me a lot of love.

There's a lot of bullshit in the media and it can be good to use these opportunities to clear up any misconceptions. Do you feel there are any that have hung around you?

AH: Not really, honestly. Every interview is as much an impression of the journalist as it is the artist or subject. You look at interviews and you see a portrait of two people. The worst thing that can happen is if you're misquoted and then that quote is misquoted. That does drive one crazy but thankfully that hasn't happened to me too often. The most embarrassing thing is when your words are misrepresented or sometimes you say something stupid and you live to regret it. God knows I've done that several times too. [laughs]

Hudson Mohawke reportedly said that he's working on an album with you and that the material is political and angry. What can you tell us about that?

AH: I can tell you that Hudson has got some nerve to announce my album before I have. [laughs] But, whatever. I'm definitely working on some tracks with Hudson but that's been a little bit misrepresented because I'm working with several producers. Hudson is one of those and I'm really excited about the tracks we're working on. When that project gets closer to completion, then I'll probably reveal a bit more but it's still in its infancy. I think he was just enthusiastic because we had some really great sessions. I love what he does.

Are you taking a Kanye West approach where you're picking some of the best producers in the world to work on your album?

AH: No, but... Years ago, I did a project with an electronic producer – Andrew Butler, who's one of my best friends – for Hercules & Love Affair. I found that doing something like that can give you a totally different energy. I wanted to try some different subject matters, and a shift in the aesthetic of the music really helped me to do that.

I don't know if you've heard of Scott Walker's new collaboration with the band Sunn O))) but would you consider an unexpected or counterintuitive collaboration like that?

AH: Well, I'm always up for anything. I just sort of follow my nose. Right now I'm working on these more plastic songs.

What do you mean by plastic?

AH: That's how I describe electronic songs. That's really serving me right now but more will be revealed in the future. I've just been focusing on finally releasing Turning, because it's been such a long journey to get it finished, and I've also been working on the Future Feminism show here [in New York] for the past few months. We [Antony, Kembra Pfahler, Johanna Constantine, Bianca and Sierra Casady] presented these 13 tenets of Future Feminism, which arose from our perspective on the world today. We put together a big festival which we presented on a bowery and which featured guests like Marina Abramovic, Laurie Anderson, Kiki Smith and Lydia Lunch. Brilliant people. To me, there's such a relationship between this Future Feminism exhibition and Turning, but across two different decades.

You've often mentioned this seismic shift towards a female governance and away from a patriarchal society. But what are the practical steps to actually get there?

AH: Well, we haven't written a playbook of political moves or whatever. Really, Future Feminism's purpose was not to prescribe specific actions at this point. The main thing has been to identify a vision, to identify a cause for hope or even to identify what that would look like, you know, in a world where everyone's telling us that 50 per cent of the world's species will be extinct in the next 70, 80 years; in a world where the flora, fauna and wildlife have halved in the past 40 years.

The first phase of Future Feminism as an art piece was just to work collectively, to sit in a circle with other people and find a collective voice, to find consensus and apply a different process. Turning was all about a circular process - this circle of women witnessing each other one at a time, a community holding space for each individual's voice as opposed to a hierarchical model where only the voice of the one on top is heard and the feelings of other people are kind of crushed into submission.

The circular model is one that holds space for each person's point of view. It's strong enough to contain those multiple viewpoints while making decisions through consensus-building. That was the process for creating Future Feminism's tenets. In a weird way, the [practical] thing we had to offer was modelling this form of sitting in a circle and talking to each other, for weeks at a time, comparing our feelings and experiences and finding out what it was that we had in common.

You often call for people to examine male privilege. But for someone who already believes in equality, how does one do that beyond just feeling shame and guilt?

AH: Oh, there are so many more productive things to do than sit around feeling shame and guilt. [laughs] Beyond touching on shame and guilt in a perfunctory manner, I wouldn't bother with that at all.

What are the things that men can do? That's really what I'm asking here.

AH: What I was trying to say before was that we modelled this idea of consciousness-raising. I think what everyone can do is to start creating spaces and forums, to talk to peers, friends and family, and start deconstructing these things we take for granted, to unpack these old systems, in order to understand ourselves more deeply, to understand why we do the things we do and how our privileges affect other people's lack of privilege.

[You could ask:] 'How do I support or not support the women around me? How do masculine and feminine archetypes affect the choices that I make? Which archetype do I tend to favour in my decision-making processes? Do I have opportunities to make different kinds of choices that I haven't yet fully realised?' It's not just about men and women. It's about masculinity and femininity in each individual.

I think that's the revelation of trans-feminism. Everyone has a spectrum of masculinity and femininity inside them. In every individual, a war of misogyny is raging. Every man is repressing and oppressing the femininity within themselves, raising up male values as governing values. Because that's what we've been taught to do, just as every woman has. Misogyny isn't just something that affects women. It affects men.

But I don't think I've been taught to repress the female part of me and I don't feel like I do.

AH: Well, that's wonderful! That's wonderful news. I don't think you necessarily have been. I'm not speaking to your experience specifically. Maybe you have a wonderful freedom and you came from a family where you were really nurtured and embraced and sensitised to these issues. That would put you ahead of the pack, because a lot of people aren't doing that, obviously.

For myself, it's just about becoming more and more accountable. That consciousness is worth something, I think. It's part of a bigger picture. You can't necessarily quantify how that's going to affect the future but the more people that grow towards that, the better. I mean Jimmy Carter's writing books on it. Spiritual leaders are talking about the same stuff. The feminist party in Sweden is really emerging. It's not radical.

There's something in the collective consciousness now about this issue that you're addressing: 'What can I do? How can I participate?' And I say: participate in your own personal life. Address the women around you. Create a circle. Have a meeting. Have five meetings. Start to talk about the ways that gender is influencing and has influenced your lives. Not just over dinner. Take a weekend; take a retreat.

It's profound when you start talking to people on that level, especially today when all of our time is being controlled and administered through technologies. We participate in conversation through social media or whatever and our lives are more and more regimented by it. People barely look at each other anymore when they actually are in conversation. People are so plugged-in that they don't settle down into a depth of conversation very often. I don't. That's what was so rare about that [Future Feminism] process.

A friend of mine told me that she doesn't consider herself a feminist. I said, 'What are you talking about?' and she explained that she felt that way because her attitude isn't, 'Fuck men.'

AH: Yeah, that's just internalised misogyny. I mean, everyone's affected by that. We all have to... I call this 'unpacking the baggage'. You have to unpack the baggage around misogyny. Feminism has certainly been culturally assassinated, although now that's being revised, particularly by the likes Pussy Riot. People are starting to unpack some of the bias against the word and the misperceptions that have been levelled against it.

Obviously, a feminist is just someone who supports the elevation of women's human rights. Who could possibly not want that? It's the most basic and beautiful thing you could ever want for your sister or your mother. Any woman who says she's not a feminist is just someone who's afraid of being penalised for saying she wants to advocate for women.

Is it naive to expect a reasonable person, in this day and age, to have moved beyond that point?

AH: It's hard, you know. Things are changing quite fast at the moment. A lot of women who said they weren't a feminist five years ago would be saying they're feminists now. There isn't as much bias against the word as there was. The meaning is changing. Ten years ago, people would have said that feminism's goals had been accomplished.

A popular misconception was that women had been liberated: they could vote, they supposedly had some kind of access to the workplace where they could participate in this male system of, 'If you work hard enough, you can crawl up the ladder'. Supposedly, feminism's mission had been accomplished. That wasn't true. So now we're onto another phase of examining it.

What books or films would you recommend to someone who wanted to better understand these issues?

AH: [flabbergasted exhale] I'm useless when people ask me about these things. I can never think of books and films. It's a little bit like Sarah Palin being asked what newspapers she reads. [laughs] The Guardian, I don't know. [laughs] The Guardian does quite good reporting on a lot of contemporary issues affecting women. There are so many other things. [long pause] I can't wrap my head around it, I'm sorry.

You're involved with several different outlets – the visual art, the music, Future Feminism – is there any particular strand that feels more rewarding than another?

AH: It kind of goes back to your question about, 'Do I still have it?' [laughs] It's all part of the creative process for me. I don't differentiate between materials the way other people may. All the different things kind of ebb and flow. Sometimes they have fits and bursts. I may not write any songs for a year and then I could write 10 songs in a week. Sometimes I'll spend three months drawing in the studio. Or I'll spend three months, like I just did, obsessively organising a performance festival where I didn't even perform. It's all just a very fortunate process I'm lucky enough to be engaged with.

Does that help keep you from losing interest in what you do? Are there any moments where you considered taking a break or giving up?

AH: Giving up on what?

It can be difficult, putting your art out into the public and being subject to criticism or finding yourself misunderstood. Most artists I speak to have moments where they feel disengaged and question whether they can or want to do it anymore.

AH: Yeah, I do have that.

How do you come back from it?

AH: [long pause] Well, I've always thought of it like: you want to take a walk in a beautiful stream but you know this stream has little piranhas in it. But if you can accept that you have little piranhas attached to your ankles, you know they can never nibble up much further than your knees. There's always going to be people who don't like what you're doing and people who might love what you're doing. If you can find acceptance and know that things aren't perfect, that you make mistakes in public, that you get embarrassed, that you make a fool of yourself and that you take risks – then you just keep going. The day that you don't want to take the risk anymore, the day that you don't want to feel that vulnerability or that twinge of embarrassment, that'll be the day you fuck off and build a farm somewhere.

It's the terms of engagement, of being in the public eye. But there are limitations to it, for the most part. Pretty much everything that can be said about a person has been said about me already, by someone or other, positive and negative. [sighs] You have to just let it go or wear it like a loose garment.

Ultimately, it comes back to something very personal. No matter how public your work is, it's just a relationship with yourself. And you have to create a little sacred space inside yourself to treasure that... because when you die, that's still what you have. It's what you're born with and what you leave with. It's kind of a story, you know, of the way you accompanied yourself through your life. Hopefully you held your head through it.

That is well said. Finally, as a matter of courtesy, how do you like to be referred to in terms of a pronoun?

AH: It really just depends on what people want out of it. Well, I want what is true for you. I'm not interested in portraying it one way or another. I'm sure your answer would be useful for future reference too.

AH: I am transgender, so 'he' is not appropriate and 'she' is problematic. I'm what I think of as pure transgender. I've always kind of said that, so I let the chips fall where they will and see what people say. Some people refer to me as 'she'. My family thinks of me as trans. I haven't been one to wage war with society to force people to address me a certain way. I let people make that decision for themselves. I don't identify as a man, so 'he' is silly in a way. Being called 'she' as a trans person, trans in the sense that I'm trans, is to be honoured in an aspect of yourself.

It's not as if when you call someone 'she' you necessarily have to pretend that that person is biologically female. It's just to say, 'I acknowledge your seat of femininity. I acknowledge your essence, that you're aligned with something feminine'. And that's a choice you're making: to change [to] the pronoun that is the most pure for their spirit. When people call me 'she', I'm very honoured. I don't say that I'm a woman, although I say I'm a feminine person. Honestly, there's not really an appropriate way to frame it semantically. You could say I'm a woman. You could say I'm transgender. You could say whatever you want. [laughs]

Turning is out on November 10 via Rough Trade