I’m walking in as good as blind. No idea of what to expect. A man thrown to the lions, or a castaway seconds from spying a ship on the horizon. No precedent, no expectations. Just a slightly nervous wait.
I’m sitting in the foyer of a top-end London hotel; the tables are designed for drinking champagne at, ill-shaped for cup, saucer and teapot, which sprawl over the limited surface space leaving no room for last-minute note-taking. Across the room sits one of the music industry’s most enigmatic figures, a Mercury Prize winner and creator of some of the most otherworldly pop music to reach release in this millennium: Antony Hegarty.
It’s his last interview of the day. He’s been through the newspapers, a handful of websites, and now Clash has its turn. But I’m wary of pushing the man at this late stage of proceedings; better, surely, to simply let conversation flow. We’re both here because ‘The Crying Light’, album three from Antony and the Johnsons, is released on Monday (January 19); it’s the follow-up to 2005’s Mercury-taking ‘I Am A Bird Now’, so understandably Antony is an in-demand interviewee, more so than four years ago.
‘The Crying Light’ is a luscious record, one that realises well the balance between sound and silence, volume and void. With orchestration directed by Antony and Nico Muhly – a conductor known for work with Björk and Phillip Glass – it’s an album that builds around you, its growth gradual so that its various rises are rarely overly telegraphed, its nuances subtle but nonetheless superbly affecting. And, of course, throughout Antony’s spectral voice dances across arrangements at turns sumptuous and restrained. It is likely to be celebrated as a worthy successor to his last …and the Johnsons long-play release.
Yet what I know ahead of now about Antony is very limited. He’s been busy between albums, working with Andy Butler on Hercules And Love Affair and singing on a couple of tracks on Björk’s last album, ‘Volta’; he’s also toured extensively, and appeared on records by Linda Thompson, Joan As Police Woman and many more. A gentle giant is how he’s perceived by some, but others speak of diva tendencies – certainly the surroundings we find ourselves in today suggest the man’s keen to have his way in certain areas of his career, as apparently he always stays here when over from New York.
As it turns out, Antony is never less than charming during our brief conversation. Rather too brief it does seem, but it’s a conversation rather than a question-and-answer session that I was after, and it’s what I got.
Any idea of how the new record’s going down, from the interviews you’ve had already?
It’s generally really positive. Preliminarily it seems like it, but I’ve not got the whole picture yet. I respond to the people themselves, and how that’s changed. But I’m a bit more detached from it this time around, and maybe I’m not taking anything as personally.
Does it feel like this album is reaching people the last one didn’t?
I’m not sure about that. I guess it’s the case, but it’s no bad thing. It’d be great. It’s great if they embrace it, if it makes sense to them and has a purpose.
Are you happy to have your songs used on advertisements, to reach more people?
I don’t mind licensing songs, as long as… what’s the word? If it’s for something that I don’t mind, that’s harmless…?
Harmless makes sense to me.
Some things represent a good opportunity to have your music heard by new people. I don’t do a lot of things, but I did allow one of my songs to be used on an advertisement for a perfume in Spain. I thought it couldn’t be too bad. It’s innocuous, that’s the word I was looking. I just thought about people washing their hair, hearing this song and wondering: “Ooh, what’s that?”. But it can be a problem when it’s seen as all you’ve ever done, and that’s how people know your work.
When you became better known after winning the Mercury, did you worry about losing any anonymity?
Not really, because at the end of the day in New York nobody gives a shit, and it’s very different now to how things were 20 years ago: nobody cares all that much. I guess if you were really famous it might be a problem, but in New York nobody really bothers me. You see famous faces all the time, but you’ve got to be pretty off your rocker to grab them, to get into their personal space. I’ve been fine.
I guess it’s easy to slip into the crowd in New York…
Everyone always says they’re overwhelmed by New York, and intimidated, but I find London to be the same way. I guess it’s the concentration of people in a small space, and maybe in London it’s a little more ‘neighbourhood’.
There’s been four years between albums, but it’s not like you’ve not been busy…
I guess it’s been a while, but like you say I have been busy with lots of other projects. It’s sort of good that the Hercules album came out first. It wasn’t my project, it was my friend Andy’s, but I was pleased it did well. I didn’t want to play live with them, because I wanted people to identify with the project and to not see it as mine. It was good just doing what I did – I wrote some of the songs, but I was really a contributor.
Presumably collaborating with Björk was quite different?
Björk was very different. My contribution was a lot smaller than the Hercules record, which I helped to build from the ground up. For the Björk songs I met her in the studio, and let her work her magic.
You appeared live with her, though. I saw you at the Hammersmith Apollo, with an amazing laser show…
The Björk shows were really inspiring. They were fucking amazing. I loved those lasers, and the girls in the band. The costumes, for Björk and the band, were all designed by Bernard Willhelm – they were so futuristic, and he’s always pushing and pushing. He designed all her dresses for the last tour.
Are you generally a fan of that sort of very theatrical show?
Um, I like lighting. I love the way light can be cast over an object, and the contrast of colours. I’m less into the idea of transforming into something other than what you are. I think my interest in the theatrical is more environmental than about the individual.
So more about establishing an atmosphere, or an ambience…
It is about ambience, and transforming the stage into something where you can see the gaps – that’s what I love to watch, where there’s that sense of seeing a chink in the cracks. That’s when you can really start to become immersed.
Are you able to plan ahead for your own shows, i.e. do you know what the venues are like and how you can ‘dress’ them?
I hope that I’m at a point in my career where the venues we’ve got on this tour are going to be suitable, but then again some of the best shows I’ve ever had have been the ones in real dumps, small and dirty places where you’ve nothing to lose. There, the crowd has no expectations. You can really connect with people at those shows.
You sound as if you miss that intimacy…
I’m sure I could get back to it if I wanted to, and I’m sure it’ll return of its own volition. It’s not something that can go on forever, unlike the Queen. She’s well pampered. Very well pampered.
Something that’s immediately striking about ‘The Crying Light’ is the way it’s so very enveloping – even the quiet moments have a lot going on in there, when you listen to the layers. Fair to say you’ve progressed as an arranger?
I worked with some different people, such as Nico Muhly, and I was more careful with the arrangements. I laid every line into every song, and I knew about every gesture. It was a very particular working process, a more studied approach.
And there’s a real warmth to the sound, because of the myriad layers in there…
It’s quite dense in a way, but it can also sound quite spare. I’ve very involved in a dialogue with silence, the silence around the notes and gestures. It’s like a drawing – I like the space that’s not filled, or when you’re left with the relief from a carving. Like if I was to cut a piece from this table, the space that’d be left…
- - -
Antony traces with his fingers a wedge on the table between us, and cuts it free in his imagination. He pulls a lock of hair across his face and adopts a sheepish expression.
“I’m really tired. Can you notice? I rub my arms when I’m tired.”
I didn’t notice. But I guess you’re pretty talked out today?
“Have you got what you needed? I’m feeling a bit crappy.”
I’ve enough, I say. I’m only from a website, after all. We’re used to ten-minute sit-downs while magazine counterparts get considerably more.
“Oh, okay, good. What paper are you from?”
‘The Crying Light’ is released by Rough Trade on January 19. Antony and the Johnsons are on tour in the UK as follows:
21 Brighton Dome
22 Birmingham Symphony Hall
24 Bristol Colston Hall
27 London Hammersmith Apollo
29 Gateshead The Sage
1 Belfast Waterfront
4 Edinburgh Playhouse