The Ugly Duckling – Antony And The Johnsons

Antony Hegarty on his new album and book

Art is solitude, volatile, complicated, says Antony Hegarty, frontman for Antony And The Johnsons, on new album and book ‘swanlights’. It’s just like fishing.

Antony Hegarty exudes sensitivity. Dressed all in black, he looks pale. Hes had a tough day. He doesn’t like the room hes been sat in all morning. He’s cold, he’s hungry, he’s complicated. He doesn’t smile and barely offers his hand in a reluctant welcome. “I’m fat, so only shoot me with flat light”, he tells a photographer whilst a painful expression inhabits his bloodless face. This is a man full of insecurities.

Yet Antony Hegarty is an award-winning artist loved the world over, a friend and collaborator with such names as Rufus Wainwright, Lou Reed, Hercules And Love Affair, Yoko Ono and Björk, who appears on this new record in the achingly delicate ‘Flétta’. He’s an artist, musically and visually, and he’s poured his very soul out in a new album and book, both titled ‘Swanlights’, a follow on from last year’s ‘The Crying Light’ and almost a rebellion to 2005 Mercury Prize winning ‘I Am A Bird Now’.

Despite his success, Hegarty craves attention and recognition. He’s an oxymoron – a shy exhibitionist. Music is his job, he says, drifting away from any chat about his new album, darker and deeper than anything he’s has released before. Visual art is his hobby if you like, but one that runs deeper than an oak root. “It s a bit like fishing,” he says about his visual art, after describing his sparkling mineral water as “too salty”.

“There’s very little structure, unlike music, which has chords and harmonies. You can break it down to be anything you want it to be. It’s not an escape, but a different place where things can manifest. For me, it’s solitude. It brings me ‘there’ rather than me having to go ‘there’.”

Fair enough! It’s understandable that someone so full of emotion – who can explode onto the avant-garde music scene and break grown men to tears with his Alison Moyet-inspired warble, his sexless presence, his towering figure as gentle as a Care Bear creates art for himself, but now his art is out there for all to see. He says himself that it’s “rudimentary” and “simple”. Many of the images are based on a ‘cut out the bad’ routine, where the nasty bits of an image of conflict are simply cut away; the flesh-ripping trap round the leg of a fox, the trail of the animal’s blood and the look of terror in its eyes. It’s almost childlike; the same as blocking your vision during a horror film so you can’t see what’s happening.

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Even through Hegarty says this himself, he wants it to be loved by even the most robust art historians. Maybe it’s a little delusional, but Hegarty sees it as his role in this world… for the time being anyway.

“It can be challenging to bring your interior world into public view, but that’s my job. As a community, we seek guidance from artists, just like we do from scientists. There’s a value in it. My music is about sharing my expression, but with visual art it’s more complicated; it’s almost private, but yet I want to share it. It’s the destiny of my creative work. Maybe that’s something I’ll question later in my life. I still fall victim to the need for approval.”

Hegarty is unplaceable. Even his accent is a weird mix, the foundation being from his childhood in Chichester, but with a twang of American, where he has lived since his teens. These days, he lives in Manhattan, where “things are a little less distressing then the rest of America”.

Hegarty’s surroundings have a massive bearing on his expression, from his anger at media manipulation, Fox in particular, to climate change. “In the last month theres been this stupid business of building a mosque at Ground Zero. By getting people to say no to a mosque, you’re getting people to say no to freedom of religion,” he says. “America is on a slippery slope. It’s the political climate of the world that makes me feel hopeless, like with climate change; it’s like sending off our own death papers.”

Strong words from someone so soft, but it’s this anger and frustration that has led to the creation of visual art of his own manipulation of imagery and an album which he himself says is more volatile than anything he’s recorded before.

“I was raised a Catholic and told that paradise was somewhere else, that this world is just a work place, but that’s just detaching from physical life. Now I believe that we have to develop the relationship with our environment and value it. I think about what’s precious to me.”

It would be ideal if we could just cut out all the bad bits and pretend they’re not there. Unfortunately, us grown ups have to soldier on, but at least there’s a bit of solitude and beauty to be found in Hegarty’s art.

Words by Gemma Hampson

Read ClashMusic’s review of Antony and the Johnsons’ ‘Swanlights’ HERE.

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