Antony Hegarty's Otherworldly Sound Antony Hegarty, lead singer for Antony and the Johnsons, has a striking sound — "between male and female ... at once ethereal and earthy," one critic writes. The group's new CD is The Crying Light.
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Antony Hegarty's Otherworldly Sound

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Antony Hegarty's Otherworldly Sound

Antony Hegarty's Otherworldly Sound

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This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Antony has a beautiful voice that's hard to describe, so I'll go with John Hodgman's description from his New York Times article about Antony. Hodgman says, Antony's voice "keens in the upper registers, somewhere between male and female, between childish innocence and weary adulthood, at once ethereal and earthy." I'll add that Antony is a very emotional singer, and listening to him can be a very moving experience. Anthony is transgender and has said that gender is an issue that's innate in everything he does.

He was born in England, and his family moved to California when he was 10. In the early '90s, Antony gravitated to New York's gay experimental-theater and cabaret scene. Lou Reed was an early champion of his work, and they recorded together. Antony has also recorded with Rufus Wainwright and Bjork, was on the soundtrack of the Dylan biopic, "I'm Not There," and performed in the Leonard Cohen tribute film, "I'm Your Man." In 2005, he won the UK's top music honor, the Mercury Prize. He has several albums with his band, Antony and the Johnsons. The new one is called "The Crying Light." Here's a song from it called "Another World."

(Soundbite of song "Another World")

ANTONY AND THE JOHNSONS: (Singing) I need another place. Will there be peace? I need another world. This one's nearly gone. I'm gonna miss the birds, Singing all their songs. I'm gonna miss the wind, Been kissing me so long. Ooh. Another world.

GROSS: Antony, welcome to Fresh Air. I love your music, and it's a pleasure to have you on the show. One of the things I love about your songs is that you are not afraid of expressing big emotions in songs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ANTONY HEGARTY (Singer/Songwriter; Frontman, Antony and the Johnsons): Well, I just - you know, the thing with "Another World" was just, like, you know, instead of shutting down and going into denial, which is how I deal with it on a day-to-day basis, I just wanted to express it in as clear a language as I could, the simplest language, how I felt when I reflected on the changing ecology and this sense of vanishing and what that seemed to mean for me in the future. I almost wanted to sing it from the perspective of a girl in the future, and...

GROSS: Uh-huh. So, you don't hear that song as being about mortality like I do?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HEGARTY: Well, it is about mortality, you know...

GROSS: Global mortality.

Mr. HEGARTY: Well, it's all the same.

GROSS: Yeah. That song is called "Another World," and there's something otherworldly, I think, about your voice in a way. It's not a soul-music falsetto. It's not an operatic voice. It's not, like, a very manly voice, and it's certainly not a woman's voice. I'm tempted to ask, where did your voice come from? Like, was that always the voice that you sang in?

Mr. HEGARTY: My voice has slowly evolved in response to, in a way, in dialogue with my favorite singers, you know, as I was a kid, just as I absorbed more and more voices of people I loved, singers I loved, and then you kind of try it on for size. And I think the thing that ends up defining a voice is if you can, you know - there was a point where I started to really make a personal connection with it, emotionally started to inform the singing with a sense of my own feeling, my own experience, and that's really what colors a voice more than, like, the style or prowess of a voice.

GROSS: I want to play a song from an EP that you released that - this came out just a few months before the new album, and the EP is called "Another World." The song that we just heard is on both albums, the EP and the new album, "The Crying Light," and this is called, "Shake That Devil." And I guess, one of the things I really like about this song is that it goes through - first of all, it's really dramatic. It's really gripping, like, you really want to know the story behind it. And also musically, it goes through these different stages. It starts off sounding almost like it's a Kurt Weill song with, like, accordion in the background, and then it gets into an almost experimental electronic sound, and then something closer to parade music and rhythm-and-blues with an element of, like, free jazz. So, it goes through these musical evolutions. Would you talk a little bit about the story behind the song, both lyrically and instrumentally?

Mr. HEGARTY: Yeah. For me, it's kind of modeled after, like, a clapping song. You know, it's just like a - you know, you just use, like, bold, kind of, almost kind of archetypes, like, just go through the animals and tell a story about wanting to get away from perpetrators, or sort of banishing perpetrators, really.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HEGARTY: One by one, just like, knock - you know, taking them out. You know, it's kind of an empowering song in a way.

GROSS: OK. Well, why don't we hear it? This is "Shake That Devil" from Antony's EP "Another World."

(Soundbite of song "Shake That Devil")

ANTONY AND THE JOHNSONS: (Singing) That dog had his way with me. Shake that dog out of the tree. That dog had his way with me. Shake that dog out of the tree. Shake that dog right out of me. That dog, that dog.

That dog had his way with me. Shake that dog out of the tree. Shake that dog right out of me. That dog, that dog.

That bird came at me with a knife. Told me she wanted my life. Shake that bird out of the tree, So that everyone can see. Shake that bird right out of me. That bird, that bird.

Shake that bird out of the tree, So that everyone can see. Shake that bird right out of me. That bird, that bird.

That pig took everything I had. That pig made me feel so bad. Shake that pig out of the bush. Now let's give that pig a push. Shake that pig right out of me. That pig, that pig.

Shake that pig out of the bush. Now let's give that pig a push. Shake that pig right out of me. That pig, that pig.

Shake that devil.

That dog had his way with me. (That dog, that dog.) Shake that dog out of the tree. (That dog, that dog.) Shake that dog, shake that dog.

That dog had his way with me. Shake that dog out of the tree. Shake that dog right out of me. (That dog, that dog.)

That bird came at me with a knife. (That bird, that bird.) Told me she wanted my life. (That bird, that bird.) Shake that bird, shake that bird. Shake that bird out of the tree...

GROSS: That's Antony from his latest EP, which is called "Another World," and he also has a new CD, which is called "The Crying Light." I'd like to talk with you a little bit with you about gender. You describe yourself as transgender. What does mean to you?

Mr. HEGARTY: Well, you know, it's pretty simple. You know, I don't identify as a man. I identify as transgender, you know? I mean, it's a pretty typical phenomenon. There's probably transgender people in most families, somewhere around the line. Usually exhibits...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HEGARTY: Its symptoms, like, by the age of five or something, you know that your alignment is subtly or very overtly different than the kids that may be around you. You know, I always aligned more with my mother and my mother's side. And my pursuits and interests as a really young kid were more creative and always leaning more toward the feminine side as opposed to towards the masculine side of activities. So, I mean, it's really as simple as that, you know? I mean, I made a choice to, sort of, really spell it out for people, especially since I'm not someone that is transitioned to - towards anything, really. I'm just sort of in a process of embracing myself as a transgender person and presenting myself, you know, as I am, but...

GROSS: You mean as opposed to having a sex-change operation to surgically alter yourself?

Mr. HEGARTY: No, not necessarily. That's not what I meant. But you know, it could be more subtle than that. You know, I mean, I think people tend to be really obsessed with transgender people's physical configurations. But transgender is a condition of the spirit, you know? And there's something very reductive that tends to occur in perceiving transgender people and even gay people, in that society tends to want to reduce them, in almost a crude way, around an obsession with their sexuality or even their genital configuration, you know, which has - there's a kind of a cruelty to that, when, in fact, what we are dealing with is people whose spirits are different.

And it's much more subtle and there's a lot more potential there within each of those children and within each of those adults that remains unacknowledged and sometimes even unexplored, because people, even individuals, fall victim to society's impression of them or society's reduction of them. And what you tend to notice about a transgender kid, you know, they're usually the ones that are kind of dancing by themselves in a little circle of light, and they see colors more brightly, and they're very sensitive to the feelings of kids, other kids, and adults around them. And my suggestion is that they have a little gift inside their hearts that could be a real asset within the family. And I think that's true of gay kids, too, you know?

GROSS: Well, I think it's interesting that you keep using the word "spirit," because it's part of what I really like about your music, is that there is this spirit to it. I mean, and - I think - like, one of the things that's interesting about music, particularly when you're listening to, like, a CD as opposed to being in a theater with a performer, is that all you have is the voice and the music. There is no body; there is no physical manifestation of the body. And in that sense, it is more just spirit.

Mr. HEGARTY: Well, it's not tangible. It's sound; you know, it's flying around in the ether. It's really a place where we express the experience of our being, and it transforms into sound, almost a magical thing that can transform and engulf us or just, you know, fly to the heavens, you know? It's a way that we communicate with things that we don't understand. It's the way we always have. You know, it's the same thing with dance, you know? Your body dreams outward, you know, and it kind of ricochets into the universe.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HEGARTY: That's the magic of creative expression, and it's a gift that we were all given, you know? It's like a boon; I think of it like a boon.

GROSS: Well, I want to play a song that I think speaks to what we're talking about. It's called "For Today I am a Boy," and this is from your album, "I Am a Bird Now." Do you want to talk a little bit about this song before we hear it?

Mr. HEGARTY: "For Today I Am a Boy," it's a song I wrote in my mid-20s. And it's funny, because it was a really good - it was a real growing pain for me, that song. It's the simplest, you know, the simplest theme, and I wrote it, and I remember my friends being like, oh, you can't sing that...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HEGARTY: That is too much, you know? And I thought, oh, they're probably right; it is too much.

GROSS: Why, because it sings about, you know, wanting to be a girl?

Mr. HEGARTY: Well, it's just such a kind of earnest, open idea, you know, it seems almost embarrassing. But oftentimes, when I'm presented with that feeling, it's a little clue for me that there's something interesting there to explore, because if you can move through your shame, generally, there's a reward waiting for you, or move through that sense of embarrassment or sense of self-censorship, it can be rewarding. And what was fun about that song is that I performed it all over the world, and I was just shocked to see how many people responded to it. It ended up becoming, like, people's - one of people's favorite songs of my live set. And I'd see, like, boys, like, soccer hooligans in Italy with their arms around each other, like, screaming the song at the top of their lungs.

GROSS: Really?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HEGARTY: It was really, like - I could never have imagined, like, how diverse the cross-section of people was that would relate to that song in some manner.

GROSS: I'm trying to imagine a line of soccer players singing, one day I'll grow up, I'll be a beautiful woman.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HEGARTY: It was just so touching. Like, even in Ireland, even places where, like, English was the first language, you know, people - you know, so I couldn't, like, just say, oh, they don't understand the words.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HEGARTY: Like, it was really great. And you know, you start a song from - with a seed of something personal, but then it - often, when you do it live and you do it hundreds of times, it starts to flower in a way. And there's more and more trains of energy that can lead you to the song, you know, sometimes not even personal ones. And now when I sing that song, I really just sing it for the world.

GROSS: Well, why don't we hear it? This is Antony singing "For Today I Am a Boy" from one of his earlier albums, which is called "I Am a Bird Now."

(Soundbite of song "For Today I Am a Boy")

ANTONY AND THE JOHNSONS: (Singing) One day, I'll grow up; I'll be a beautiful woman. One day, I'll grow up; I'll be a beautiful girl. One day, I'll grow up; I'll be a beautiful woman. One day, I'll grow up; I'll be a beautiful girl.

But for today, I am a child; for today, I am a boy. For today, I am child; for today, I am a boy.

One day, I'll grow up; I'll feel the power in me. One day, I'll grow up; of this I'm sure. One day, I'll grow up, no womb within me. One day, I'll grow up feeling full and pure.

But for today, I am a child; for today, I am...

GROSS: That's Antony singing "For Today I Am a Boy" from his album "I Am a Bird Now." He has a new album that's called "The Crying Light." We'll talk more with Antony after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is the singer/songwriter and musician Antony, and his new album is called "The Crying Light." Now, I want to talk a little bit about some of the people who influenced you and what you took away from that and kind of transformed into part of your own art. Let's start with John Waters, the filmmaker. I know his work was really influential on you, in that when you were a student at the University of California in Santa Cruz, that - correct me if I'm wrong here - that you started doing plays inspired by his films?

Mr. HEGARTY: Yeah, that's true. You know, I was a freshman in college, and my friend showed me "Pink Flamingos" and "Female Trouble," and I just got it in my head, you know, that any renegade band of friends could put on a little show.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HEGARTY: So, I started writing plays for my social circle, and at the end of the year, we would put on a big presentation in the cafeteria or whatever. And I would tend to cast myself as some singing entity in the center of the play, and I would put my songs forward in those situations.

GROSS: This might be putting you on the spot, but would you sing a few lines from one of the theater songs?

Mr. HEGARTY: Oh, it's too early for that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: OK. Could you recite it? Could you just tell us what the lyrics were?

Mr. HEGARTY: Um, what, from my first musical, "Meg and Sylvie"?

GROSS: Sure.

Mr. HEGARTY: Well, the musical was about these two sisters. And I played the character Meg, and my sister was Sylvie, and she was kind of this heartbroken girl who, you know, was always getting involved in, kind of, abusive relationships. And she'd been beaten up and thrown out of her house, and she'd been kidnapped on the street by the biggest S&M fiend in West Virginia. And I heard about it. You know, I was living in a penthouse in Manhattan. I was a retired prostitute and sex-worker, and I knew that something was terribly wrong. So, I flew out to West Virginia to try and find Sylvie before it was too late. And you know, it was just sort of a chronicle of all the people I went to visit to try to find out where she was. And you know, at the last minute I found her with the biggest S&M fiend in West Virginia, and I shot him and rescued Sylvie, and that was the end.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: I guess one of things that surprised me when I read how much John Waters had influenced you is that John Waters, particularly in his early films, had this real love of a trash sensibility and things that were intentionally kind of crude and ugly. And you just seem so interested in all manifestations of beauty.

Mr. HEGARTY: It's interesting, because - I love that you mentioned that, because to me, like, the John Water's films, they are about beauty, too. You know, I think John Water's perspective in the John Water's films is just one of the things that's being presented. You've also got all these auto - what I call auto-performers, who are performing themselves, people like Divine and Mary Vivian Pierce, I mean, people who are really performing heightened versions of themselves. And I think that was something that I intuited when I was a teenager and said, well, we could do that, too, me and my friends. You know, we've got something to put forward. I mean, the notion of a character was just an excuse just to be yourself, you know what I mean?

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HEGARTY: And I think with Divine, Divine to me is like a heavy beauty ecstatic. It's almost coded so that people that aren't up to scratch wouldn't even be able to perceive it for what it was. I mean, maybe it's a very kind of post-modern kind of camp, you know, the joke being that, like, some of the most beautiful things in the world are almost imperceptible by people on the outside, and yet on the inside, the people on the inside of the circle can see it for what it is.

GROSS: Antony will be back in the second half of the show. Antony and the Johnsons' new CD is called "The Crying Light." I'm Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of song "Kiss My Name")

ANTHONY AND THE JOHNSONS: (Singing) Kiss my name, Mama in the afterglow When the grass is green with grow And my tears have turned to snow.

Well, I'm only a child Born upon a grave, Dancing through the stations Calling out my name...

(Soundbite of song "Opus 51")

GROSS: That's Anthony Braxton and his orchestra from a box set of his long-unavailable recordings from the '70s. Coming up, Kevin Whitehead has a review, and we'll continue our interview with Antony and hear about how he became part of the New York gay experimental-theater scene when it was being decimated by AIDS.

(Soundbite of song "Opus 51")

GROSS: This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross back with Antony, the singer/songwriter and pianist of the band Antony and the Johnsons. He has a keening, ethereal voice that is somewhere between male and female, which is how Antony sees himself as a transgender person. In 2005, he won the UK's top music honor, the Mercury Prize. He grew up in England, the Netherlands and California, and moved to New York when he was about 20. Antony and the Johnsons have a new CD called "The Crying Light."

You came to New York in 1990, and my impression is that you went to New York because you sensed that there'd be an art and theater scene that you could really relate to and become a part of. What was that scene like when you got there?

Mr. HEGARTY: Mm, it was pretty shadowy and lots of amazing things happening. It was a little bit disrupted, you know, I mean, more than a little bit disrupted because there was - there had been all this activity with people dying. And I always describe it, like, there were all these little black holes in this sky where stars should have been, and yet, there were these other stars, kind of, really shining bright and no one was super much talking about it. But it was a strange moment, like, the early '90s in New York in the club scene. A lot of the real matriarchs of the - of that performance scene had recently deceased, and some of them were about to.

So, it was a mixture, you know? There were lots of survivors, and there were different generations of people kind of grappling with the changing climate. And I love that as a segue because in a lot of ways, the way that I experienced underground performance - the queer performance scene of New York in the early '90s is there's a lot of parallels between that and the way I perceive the global sense of the climate change now. You know, it's the same sense of vanishing and almost an idea of not being able to document things as quickly as they're dropping and not knowing what the future holds in a sense that the culture was permanently changing. You know, this idea of vanishing is having a massive impact on our future.

GROSS: Did coming of age artistically during the AIDS epidemic just kind of heighten your sense of mortality?

Mr. HEGARTY: It just changed the rules, you know? It's, like, the suburban nuclear family notion that people die when they're 70 or 80, after having, like, this certain story of a life. I think when I hit about 20, I became aware that for people in my demographic, the rules were different. You know, you could drop dead at 25; you could drop dead at 35. People in that community, you know, not many of them were hitting old age. So, it was just - it did change your perception of what made a life and what was to value in a life.

GROSS: During your artistically formative years, when you were figuring out, like, who you were as a singer and songwriter and musician, did you ever play in bands or perform in other people's theater or perform in clubs that you came to realize weren't really you? That weren't really the direction you should be heading in?

Mr. HEGARTY: Well, I went to school at this wonderful place called the Experimental Theatre Wing for two years.

GROSS: This was part of NYU?

Mr. HEGARTY: It's a part of NYU, and it's probably the most unusual undergraduate theater program in the world. It's like a - you know, the curriculum is all sort of developmental and expressive and based on, like, '60s ideas, Grotowski kind of ideas about post-modern theater and performance. And there's a tremendous - they give you a lot of room to pursue your own interests, you know, and to sort of develop the things that you care about. And so, I mean, I had certain mentors at that school who really encouraged me, basically, to do research on this lineage. Basically, the reason I got to NYU is because - I moved to New York is because - well, two things: I had a teacher named Vito Russo, and he'd come out to Santa Cruz, and he'd sort of said to me, you know, Antony, you should probably move to New York.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HEGARTY: And then, he actually died the year I got here, but he was, like, a kind of an early mentor for me. And then, I had a theater teacher who saw my second play in my sophomore year, "Sister Rose and the Terrible Secret," and he said, you know, the only people that are doing this kind of work - you probably aren't even really aware of it - but they all live in New York, people like Charles Ludlam, Jack Smith. You know, that's where your family tree is, you know, aesthetically. I mean, the work I was presenting were these (unintelligible)-esque plays, so that's what they were responding to. They weren't necessarily plugged into the music aspect of it that I'd been carrying with me since childhood. So, I went to New York, and I guess I was searching for a sense of belonging. And I'd even - I interviewed people, interviewed people that would like to become my friends. And I did a lot of research, you know, on this - I don't know what you'd call it, like, sort of a - like, 40 years of queer underground subculture performance, in New York, especially. And in my early 20s, I really, really clung to that idea that there was this longer story that I was a part of.

GROSS: Do you see the performances that you do now as still connected to that underground music and theater scene of the early '90s and late '80s that attracted you to New York in the first place?

Mr. HEGARTY: It's definitely connected to it because a lot of the themes of my work were developed in those environments, you know, in nightclubs and underground theaters. But as I say, in a way, it was a long diversion, and yet, it was formative for me, but in 1996, '97, I decided to just focus on my music.

GROSS: Well, I want to play another song, and this shows, like, yet another side of you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And this is a recent track, and it's not - you're the featured guest on this. It's performers who go under the name Hercules & Love Affair. And this is a dance track that manages to be, like, really contagious rhythmically, but what you're singing is very moving.

Mr. HEGARTY: Oh, thanks.

GROSS: And very emotional. So, you've got kind of the best of both worlds, like, a contagious beat and a real emotional hook. So, I want to play "Blind," and maybe you could talk about this collaboration before we hear it.

Mr. HEGARTY: Yeah, it's a collaboration I did with a friend of mine, Andy Butler. And we were doing this - actually before I recorded my album, "I Am a Bird Now," the last album, Andy and I just went into the studio, and he said, you know, you love Yazoo; I love Yazoo; let's do our best imitation, basically.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HEGARTY: Let's do our best imitation. So, for me, it was an exciting challenge to sing, to get people to dance, to lift their legs and feet. You know, oftentimes, I don't sing from a dancing place, and it was a great kind of jump start for me, and a great challenge, and I'd just be sweating, screaming in the sound booth and just trying to figure out what it meant to sing to raise the spirit of stuff like that.

GROSS: Oh, man, but you're so great on it, so we've got to hear it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HEGARTY: OK, thanks.

GROSS: And this is called "Blind."

(Soundbite of song "Blind")

HERCULES & LOVE AFFAIR: (Singing) As a child, I knew That the stars could only get brighter, And we would get closer, Get closer. Mmmm.

As a child, I knew That the stars could only get brighter, That we could get closer, Leaving this darkness Behind.

Mmmm-mmmm. Oooooooh.

Now that I'm older, The stars should lie upon my face When I find myself alone Find myself alone. Oooooh.

Now that I'm older...

GROSS: That's Antony singing with Hercules & Love Affair, and the song is called "Blind." My guest is Antony, and he has a new CD, which is called "The Crying Light." Now, I read that after you recorded your first album, you had a medical problem that affected your voice and that you lost a lot of your voice for awhile. I'm interested in hearing what happened and also if that had any long-term affect on - I know your voice came back - but on how you feel about your voice. When you lose something, you become - you really realize how important it is to you and how precious it is. So, you know, if it affected - if losing it temporarily affected what you sing, how you sing or how you feel about singing.

Mr. HEGARTY: Yeah, I did. I lost my voice for about a year, and it was really traumatic for me, but it was really inspiring because it really put things in perspective and to realize what my values were. I really realized that singing for me was my primary value. You know, it was, like, the thing I treasured most about being alive. And it really put a fire under me. When I got my voice back, I was like, I'm going to do my music and I want to sing and I want to do it in a different way than I've been doing it and see what kind of a relationship I can develop with the world around my music. And that was about 1998 I got my voice back, and then I really was - it really shifted my gears.

GROSS: So, you know, in terms of how you actually did break through commercially, what I've read was Hal Willner, who used to be the music director on "Saturday Night Live" and has done some terrific compilations of various performers doing music by Kurt Weill and Thelonious Monk and others, that he heard you and played one of your songs for Lou Reed, who really liked you. And that Hal Willner and Lou Reed's endorsement of you helped you get that first recording contract. Yes?

Mr. HEGARTY: Yeah, it's definitely true. You know, Lou became a real advocate - really, he advocated for me kind of tirelessly. You know, after I did some recording with him on "The Raven," he would come to my concerts and really encourage me and reach out to record companies on my behalf. And you know, the music industry was really - hasn't embraced me, at that time. And really what happened was kind of amazing, you know, 10, even 15 years of working in different artist communities and eventually they kind of form this massive kind of carpet underneath me and just kind of lifted towards daylight of culture, you know? And the industry kind of tried to catch up in the end, you know? It was really Lou that got me a record contract with Rough Trade. I also had a label, though, in America, a wonderful label named Secretly Canadian. And they were these boys from Bloomington, Indiana, and for a long time I was, like, how can I possibly be on a label...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HEGARTY: How can I possibly be on a label that's set in Bloomington, Indiana? I'm so - I'm such an urban artist, but what I came to realize was that they were, like, the very best for me, you know, that they really had my best interests at heart and that they really believed in my work. And so, it was, you know, it wasn't what I'd expected, but ended up being the best scenario for me.

GROSS: My guest is Antony, the singer/songwriter and pianist of the band Antony and the Johnsons. Their new CD is called "The Crying Light." We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is the singer/songwriter and musician Antony, and his new album is called "The Crying Light." Now, you grew up in England, but also in the Netherlands. Your parents moved to the Netherlands when you were how old?

Mr. HEGARTY: We moved to Holland when I was seven.

GROSS: Ah. And how long did you stay?

Mr. HEGARTY: For a year.

GROSS: Oh, just a year, OK. Did that have an impact on you? Do you remember much of it?

Mr. HEGARTY: I remember it very vividly because it was the first time I'd lived in a city, and Amsterdam in 1977, '78, was really an exciting place. You know, it was kind of the convergence of hippies and punks. And the punk thing was really fresh, and that's when I became obsessed with punks.

GROSS: At age seven?

Mr. HEGARTY: Oh, yeah. I was trying to dress like them and draw pictures of them everywhere. And then when we got back to London, I would - you know, there's Kings Road in London. When we got back to England, we'd visit my grandmother in London, and I'd force my dad to drive us through - down Kings Road so we could - it was almost like going to a safari, where we'd go and spot punks.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HEGARTY: We'd be like, oh, there's one with green hair. Oh, there's one with blue hair. Hooray.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: But the great thing about that is that here you were seven, and you got a sense that you could behave theatrically in the real world, that you could have green hair in the real world, not just on stage.

Mr. HEGARTY: Yeah, I guess it's that thing, you know, where green hair seems like - it just seems natural to me, like, it's colorful, it's expressive. I mean, when you talk about - I mean, I don't say it's exclusively the transgender kids, but you know, that color, that dream, that creative dream, it's really - was very attractive to me. You know, it was a place to live.

GROSS: You have fabulous photos of the same person on your latest EP, "Another World," and on your new CD, "The Crying Light." Would you describe, like, what - like, the pose on "The Crying Light" and tell us who that person is and what they mean to you?

Mr. HEGARTY: Yeah. I decided to put pictures of my favorite artist. His name is Kazuo Ohno. He's one of the founders of Butoh dance, Japanese postmodern dance form. And he's someone I've been aware of since I was about 16, but I didn't really know who he was until I was 21 and I saw him in a film by Peter Sempel called "Just Visiting This Planet," and I just started crying. You know, he's, like, an 80-year-old dancer who wears, like, kind of a white-face makeup and wears, like, old Victorian women's clothes, and he kind of just moves around in this reverie, this gracious reverie.

And I named the album "The Crying Light;" it's kind of my sense of the kind of space that he creates on the stage. And it's kind of parallel to an idea I have about the kind of space I need to create inside my own heart, which is, like, a, sort of, a feminine circle, a safe place, you know, the circle of the family, you know, where the child could be nurtured in safety and where the child can start to emerge, the spirit of the child in all its creativity and intuition and sense of wonderment. And also, you know, the other thing he does is - he has this one piece he calls "My Mother," which is just a dance, kind of, channeling or honoring his mother and sort of just embodying, almost, the ghost of her spirit. And there's something about his pieces that really makes you cry. And it's also kind of amazing, you know, that he made his masterwork as a solo dancer between the ages of 75 and 95. He's 102...

GROSS: Oh, wow.

Mr. HEGARTY: Now and he doesn't dance anymore. But another tenet of Butoh that really appealed to me and - which is something that I sought to adapt, almost, as a singer was this idea that you can find empathy with and embody the gestures of things beyond the human form, other aspects of the world, like a flight of a flock of flamingos or the heartbeat of a salmon or the energetic movement inside a tree and its relationship to the wind or the ghosts of your great-great-great-grandparents, that you could reach to all those things in your creative mind as a source of inspiration and as a source of momentum to propel you through expression. And it opens up the floor to really - as a performing artist, especially, to find energy from all sorts of different things as opposed to just having to rely on and mine your personal story, you know, your pedestrian story.

GROSS: You know, you've talked about having - the importance of having, like, a nurturing family and of, kind of, respecting the spirit of transgender children. Do you feel - and if this is too personal, please don't respond - do you feel that your parents comprehended that and gave you that nurturing that you want to encourage others to give now?

Mr. HEGARTY: You know, one thing about this story, you know, is that for me it's a jumping-off point. You know, first, I want to say that, like, you know, this idea of nurturing transgender kids, obviously, this has to extend to include all children. You know, I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a child, a young adult, that doesn't emerge from childhood with some sense of brokenness, and in some way, that's part of the human condition. And we all have to go back and look at went wrong, what went right and what went wrong. I do think that's a part of the human condition. Of course, I had to do that, too. But you know, I love my parents, and I'm really close to them. So, that's part of - that answers your question, you know...

GROSS: Right, OK. I want to close with a song from your new CD, "The Crying Light." And I thought we'd close with "One Dove." Would you say something about the song before we hear it?

Mr. HEGARTY: Yeah. This is a song almost about a little bit of fire that lives inside your solar plexus, and it jumps out and you can follow it.

GROSS: Well, Antony, I really want to thank you a lot for talking with us. Thank you so much.

Mr. HEGARTY: You're so welcome. Thank you.

(Soundbite of song "One Dove")

ANTONY AND THE JOHNSONS: (Singing) I was born, A curling fox in a hole, Hiding from danger, Scared to be alone.

One dove, To bring me some peace. In starlight you came from the other side To offer me mercy. Mercy, mercy.

One dove, I'm the one you've been waiting for...

GROSS: That's "One Dove" from Antony and the Johnsons' new CD, "The Crying Light." Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews and Anthony Braxton box set, collecting long-unavailable recordings from the '70s. This is Fresh Air.

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