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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

A distinctive voice will be coming out of Carnegie Hall tomorrow night. The group Antony and the Johnsons has been championed by Lou Reed, Boy George and Rufus Wainwright, and it's wrapping up a national tour at Carnegie Hall. Lead singer and songwriter Antony has been profiled in The New York Times Magazine and last month won Britain's Mercury Prize, a prestigious reward in rock music, beating out popular favorites like Coldplay. And yet in today's electronic, hip-hop-driven pop, Antony's ghostly gospel-influenced sound could not be more different. NPR's Elizabeth Blair has this profile.

(Soundbite of "Hope There's Someone")

ANTONY: (Singing) Hope there's someone who'll take care of me when I die, will I go...

ELIZABETH BLAIR reporting:

With this voice, Antony--that's all he goes by--stops you in your tracks, and that's partly his goal. He likes performing in rooms that are created to observe silence, as he puts it. On his recent tour, he played mid-size theaters, a woman's club and churches.

ANTONY: Churches are kind of a space where we can think more expansively or sort of check our pedestrian worries at the door and start to dream a little bit about why we're here or what we're doing and how we feel about how we feel.

(Soundbite of "Hope There's Someone")

ANTONY: (Singing) Hope there's someone who'll set my heart free, nice to hold when I'm tired. There's a ghost on the horizon when I go to bed. How can I fall asleep at night? How will I rest my head?

BLAIR: Antony was born Antony Hegarty in England, moved with his family to California when he was 10, attended Catholic elementary school and then a performing arts high school. When he was a teen-ager, Boy George was at the height of his popularity. The androgynous pop star made a huge impression on Antony because, he says, Boy George was beautiful, soulful, feminine and vulnerable.

ANTONY: What he was was a 19-year-old boy with his heart on his sleeve and a very specific experience in forming that that wasn't really spoken about. There wasn't really dialogue to frame that kind of experience in 1981 or '82. But any child of between seven and 37, it was like a lighthouse when George sang "Do You Really Want To Hurt Me?" That was a very resonant moment in culture for a certain kind of person.

BLAIR: A certain kind of person conflicted about his or her sexual identity and looking for a role model. After attending New York University, Antony became a fixture on Manhattan's Lower East Side as a gay artist, active in the neighborhood's alternative Cabaret theater scene. David Frick is senior editor of Rolling Stone magazine.

Mr. DAVID FRICK (Rolling Stone Magazine): The scene that he comes from is--it's so far underground you can't take the subway there. It's a real special place, and it's really for people who feel that they are outcasts.

BLAIR: Frick points out that Antony's been popular for a while in New York's underground arts world. But once he started focusing on his music, he attracted big names, like Lou Reed and Rufus Wainwright. The New York Times Sunday magazine did an in-depth profile. In September, he won the Mercury Prize, a respected album-of-the-year award given by a panel of journalists, artists and others in the music industry in the UK. That officially elevated Antony to `next big thing' status. The press, mainstream and alternatives started writing more profiles and reviews of Antony's CD "I am a Bird Now."

(Soundbite of "My Lady Story")

ANTONY: (Singing) And lie in road for you and I've been your slave. My womb's an ocean full of grief and rage...

BLAIR: David Frick says Antony's roots might be in alternative theater, but he's also inspired by punk and pop and good old-fashioned American soul and jazz, like Nina Simone and Otis Redding.

Mr. FRICK: And you don't hear Otis Redding's very masculine, gruff delivery in Antony's voice, but you can hear the way he connects with the soul in those great Otis records, like "Pain in my Heart" and "Try a Little Tenderness." You know, Antony's range is much different. His presence and delivery are practically from another planet, but it's still soul music.

(Soundbite of "Fistful of Love")

ANTONY: (Singing) And I feel your fists, and I know it's out of love. And I feel the whip, and I know it's out of love.

BLAIR: The lyrics to some of Antony's songs are painful to hear. This song, "Fistful of Love," is about a physically abusive relationship. The victim forgives the abuser by saying he knows the violence is being done out of love. When he wrote it, Antony says he was thinking about a whole history of tormented love songs. In particular, he was listening to an 1956 recording of Billie Holiday's "Live at Carnegie Hall."

(Soundbite of "Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do")

Ms. BILLIE HOLIDAY: (Singing) I'd rather my man would have hit me than for him to jump up and quit me. It ain't nobody's business if I do.

ANTONY: In `Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do," she sings that line `I won't call no copper if I get beat up by my papa, ain't nobody's business if I do.' And I was thinking, `Gosh, she's at the birth of punk right there on the stage of Carnegie Hall'--Billie Holiday being so hard-core, so much more hard-core than I could ever be in "Fistful of Love."

(Soundbite of "Fistful of Love")

ANTONY: (Singing) And I feel your burning eyes burning holes straight through my heart. It's out of love...

BLAIR: Antony and the Johnsons are getting their own turn at Carnegie Hall on Thursday night, and the show is nearly sold out. Antony's personality doesn't necessarily match the bleakness of his songs and he's even considering doing more upbeat material.

ANTONY: My grandmother always told me that I needed to write some happier songs, and that's something I'm really working on.

(Soundbite of "You Are My Sister")

ANTONY: (Singing) You are my sister, we were born...

BLAIR: Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

(Soundbite of "You Are My Sister")

ANTONY: (Singing) ...so innocent, so full of need. There were times we were friends, but times I was so cruel...

MONTAGNE: You can listen to more songs by Antony and the Johnsons at npr.org. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

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