If you ever happen to visit Chichester on England’s south coast, the birthplace of Antony Hegarty from Antony and the Johnsons, you’ll find a sleepy walled city with cobbled streets, a 12th-Century cathedral, and a market cross, brushed up alongside the conveniences of modern life. Hard to believe such a modest, inconspicuous place was home to the boy who would become one of the world’s most daring, forward-thinking artists. Transplanted first to San Francisco and then New York in 1990, Antony was absorbed into the club culture and found his voice. Since his Mercury prize winning 2005 album I Am a Bird Now put him on the international map, he has emerged from the stages of afterhours bars as an artistic powerhouse – touring the world, collaborating with the likes of Charles Atlas on the live show and film Turning, composing the soundtrack to the biopic quasi-opera The Life and Death of Marina Abramović, and being asked to direct London’s 2012 Meltdown Festival. His soul-reaching sound and breathtaking stage performances transcend the ordinary offerings of the charts, squeezing the collective heart of his audience and bringing them to life-affirming tears. His passion for femininity, female empowerment, and openness has made him an icon for the unheard, as he uses his celebrity to make change happen. To breach the brainwaves of such a man is a woman who knows all about making a statement and being proud of it – Blondie’s Debbie Harry. The boy who broke free from the Georgian walls of a quaint English town chats to the punk pioneer who proved that girls could be kickass too. Incongruous, yes, but enthralling nonetheless.
DEBBIE HARRY—Hi Antony! How’re you doing?
ANTONY—Good. How are you doing?
DH—I’m doing great. I just finished some recording… I was watching the news this morning about the Pope climbing into his gigantic helicopter and leaving the Vatican.
A—Where was he flying to?
DH—To Castel Gandolfo, which is the summer residence of the Pope, I have no idea where that is, but I imagine it’s some place cooler than Rome for the summer.
DH—Transylvania! That could be cooler. I gather you don’t have much hope for the papacy?
DH—Well I certainly don’t. But I noticed as he was leaving, there was a small group of people – nuns and priests and guards and everything – and nobody was crying. There were no tears. What do you think about that?
A—That they weren’t even trying to shed alligator tears at his departure?
DH—Yeah. Not a wet eye in the house.
A—Oh my God! You are too much.
DH—But you know. That’s one of the things that I was sort of noticing with your relationship or your simpatico with Marina [Abramović] is your relationship to tears.
DH—And I think it’s quite wonderful. And some of the politics of that, where you say something about feminism and the shift of government towards a more feminine system, I think part of that is the ability to have tears and to express tears, and I just thought of that as a sort of jumping off place for our little conversation.
A—That’s such a fascinating point. It’s funny because for the last three years especially, I’ve been challenging myself to try to use my public platform to participate in a cultural dialogue more vigorously than I would normally assume I could as a musician, particularly in expressing strong points of view, or expressing my intuitive sense of things. And it’s funny because as an artist the public has such a different reason for feeling that your voice is worth listening to. It’s probably partly because they feel that I’ve taken that emotional risk, that I’ve in some ways presented myself so vulnerably, or in a way that they perceive as vulnerable, that it’s actually that gesture that’s afforded me a platform that I can then use to talk about other things, which is totally different to a politician for instance…
DH—They attack vulnerability more than applaud it, or salute it, or share it.
A—I think that people actually trust artists more than they trust politicians at this point because we’re not seen to be as disingenuous. We’re not politically motivated as much as we’re just wholly expressing our point of view. I don’t know exactly what I’m getting at, but
I think it’s interesting to, on one hand, talk about vulnerability and an expression of emotion or even a performance of emotionalism, and then on the other to talk about aggressively speaking my mind as an artist, because it’s so rare that we get an opportunity to do that.
I always loved that [lyric] that Laurie Anderson wrote: “Only an expert can deal with the problem,” which is why most of us feel so alienated from current affairs, most of us are just sort of asked to assign someone to represent us en masse on our behalf and then we’re not supposed to participate. Anyway, I’ve been really trying to get into it; I started a group called Future Feminists with Kembra Pfahler, Johanna Constantine, and Bianca Casady – you’ve known Kembra and Johanna for years too, right?
DH—Yeah, they’re fantastic.
A—People would ask me about Kembra or Johanna and in an effort to explain who they were I came up with Future Feminism as an idea. That they were somehow so feminist and they were futuristic, and yet they weren’t connected to any institutional body of feminism or any older guard of feminism. They seemed to be out on a limb by themselves forging their own solutions and also embodying them physically, performatively, you know?
DH—Well I like the idea that there’s so much satire involved and to me that is a tradition that is completely political, and a wonderful tradition, but it’s not as much American as it is European. Because of my recent working introduction to Marina, and the way she demands from men and women this response of tears and bringing out – because they say the poison is in the tears, and to let that go, it’s made me think wow, this is such a beautiful reality. I mean, you never see a politician crying.
A—Or if you do it’s some sleazy attempt to appeal for forgiveness. It’s interesting with Marina, the tears thing; it’s really become like a trademark. She’s done a lot of portraits of herself crying, still portraits, where the tears become almost like a symbol, or a piece.
DH—Well I know with your audiences, or myself, when I’m in your audience, because of the tension and the melancholy aspects of the music itself and your insights about love and being human, it really moves people, and there really isn’t a dry eye in the house. People are so moved and there is no fear involved. People just love feeling this way with you and how you bring them to these realizations, and then they have the freedom to express that. Is this an intention of yours? Do you really want this to happen?
A—It’s funny, Debbie. We’ve seen each other for 20 years, inthe clubs, and in New York. When I started out doing shows at Pyramid and Jackie 60, performing in those environments where everyone was drunk and wasted and it was 2 am, I was so aggro at that age, when I was 21, 22. You were given a three-minute window to present a song. I was very motivated by Diamanda Galás, by the way she would just rip through you, but I thought, I don’t have that skill set, but let’s see how far I can bring the room emotionally in this three-minute window.
So I would go to this piano studio to rehearse, and for six hours a day I would literally be sitting there crying and singing all the time. The goal for me at that age was just to be as close to crying as I could be while I was singing. I think I just did it because I needed to do it. I had so much in me that was unresolved. I was coming out of my adolescence, and I had a lot in reserve, let’s put it that way.
DH—Yes, I understand.
A—I was very hell-bent on trying to get people to feel as strongly as I felt. I think it was a bit more of a war-like activity at that age.
As I got older I wasn’t so much about manipulating the audience to feel a certain way. I went into a phase of just being so grateful for
a space where people would witness me. Because I think as a kid I was taught that emotions were a sort of lower caste of human expression. I grew up in a family where you were supposed to be rational, and if you were emotional you were associated with the feminine. But my feeling always since I was a kid was that I was very emotional, and
I was determined to express myself.
In my thirties, I suddenly had some success in certain parts of the world. To be witnessed on that scale emotionally was really transforming for me. When I got the Mercury Prize… Oh my God, to suddenly be heard by a big part of the world was shocking to me, really shocking. Because you know where I came from. I came from the dredges of New York late night. I was used to that context.
DH—That’s sort of meaningless to me, but I do understand coming from a counter-culture underground situation, that’s for sure.
A—What do you mean? What’s meaningless to you? I don’t quite understand.
DH—I feel that those value-judgements are wrong. That is the most valuable place to come from, that kind of position.
A—The late-night position?
DH—Yes. It’s very personal, and you have a lot of freedom – much more freedom that way.
A—Those late night roots are important for me, but there was something about going into the daylight too and being heard, especially with that kind of material. With material that felt impossible, unapproachable, that you’d been taught was never going to be embraced.
DH—It is the dichotomy of the music world, that there seems to be a strong division between the sort of producer-generated versus the artist-generated identities, you know?
A—Also just as an effeminate. You remember how it was even in the nineties or early 2000s, as an effeminate, I assumed that there weren’t going to be options for me in popular culture, and I think everyone else assumed it too. It was really like a series of miracles that ushered me through the portals.
DH—I guess having that big hit, that really just went into the clubs and went everywhere; that was a huge breakthrough.
A—After a while my approach shifted as a singer and I started just singing for the people before me, actually trying to embody some of their emotion rather than trying to conjure my own. I stopped having a compulsion to be emotionally seen in a way. You know what I mean?
DH—Sure. I think as you get older and more confident your drives and your needs spur you on in a different way. How could you be a complete artist unless you had emotional growth? It would end. You would just do what you did and then not go any further. But that will never happen for you. I think that you will always be doing what you do. And that is something that is normally not included in the recording industry – that you can change, that you can evolve, that your point of view can grow. They usually want you to keep doing what you did, and keep making that money that certain way. I understand the “it’s just light entertainment” value but then the other thing that’s more thought-provoking and more abstracted and stronger in the long run, the evolution of that is what we really need.
A—As a performer, when you sing, where do you draw from?
DH—Well, it’s a little complicated for me because I’ve created a third person. I’ve got this character, although as I’ve gotten older it’s less of a character and more of me personally, but I never really wanted to preach at people; I always wanted to trick them into feeling or thinking a certain way and responding. It also had to do with my idea of feminism. I’m quite a bit older than you, and coming from the psychology and the position of women and feminists in the 1950s, you had very limited options and it made me so angry, that being a punk was the perfect positioning for my anger and frustration. I’ve always said that being in the right place at the right time was a bloody miracle! All of my crying and all of my tears were done completely in private, and I would not ever really have that available in front of an audience, I would always be this scary, crazy, aggressive mad-woman on stage, constantly moving, and making indelicate gestures, bouncing off walls, which at that time was a new thing. Now it’s more of a given.
A—I don’t see people doing that today.
DH—No, you’re right, it’s been lost a little bit; it’s been milled down, as it were. I don’t know if it’s entirely as necessary as it was then, because it was a time of transition and change and to make that kind of vigorous statement maybe isn’t as important now because it’s been done, and things have moved on.
A—I think it’s interesting right now, even if you look at the last election, it’s almost like the tables have turned. It’s more taboo to say derogatory or manipulative things about gay people than it is about women now. The right wing returned with such vengeance to try to dismantle abortion rights, for instance, and yet they didn’t go near their usual election-year attacks of gay marriage and gay rights. It’s as if that gay lobby has become so powerful, and Dick Cheney’s lesbian daughter has finally had some kind of an influence in the short term on their ability to manipulate the masses with this fake moral issue of gay rights. You say that it was a different time and we’ve moved on – but the truth of the matter is that we may have moved on but I don’t necessarily think we’ve moved forward. We’ve moved forward in certain obvious ways but misogyny is so sublimated into the culture, and all of the systems we’re functioning in are still patriarchal systems.
DH—Oh, absolutely. That’s why I was so fascinated with the papacy this morning, because it reminds me of witch-hunting and burning women and terrible things from ages past.
A—They’ve done so many hateful things for so long. Just a couple of years ago at Christmas, the Pope made the announcement that allowing gay people to marry would be as dangerous to the world as the destruction of the rain forests. It’s such a joke. And it just goes to show how totally disconnected from reality the Catholic Church is. He’s disconnected from a real understanding of his power, because he literally has the power to affect the ecology of our planet. With his appropriate endorsement we could move forward with a plan to save our ecology.
DH—That was one of the things I was equating with the idea of tears, of saving the water and saving the environment. One of the things I saw [on TV] quite a while ago, was an American-Indian girl, and she was weeping and weeping about the environment and how deeply concerned and worried she was, that she could actually feel the pain of the earth. I know that this is a big tradition that you could be completely empathetic with the rocks and the air and to really feel these things, and I think that this is a valuable part of an evolution that’s going on.
A—That reflects back to me, and also to this notion of what punk is today. A strength of feeling, especially a feeling that isn’t necessarily deemed appropriate by a patriarchal system, like emotional out-pouring, can be a very powerful form to take in culture, because it ricochets down to the root of people. Like the cry of a woman when her child has died, you just can’t deny it. And it’s why people always went to see singers, you know?
I just saw that thing on one of the TED conferences. The speaker said that the reason in Spain they cry out, “Olé! Olé!” in Flamenco was because in the old days, when singers would sing, and the audience felt like they were seeing God, they would shout out, “Allah! Allah!” and then that turned into “Olé! Olé!” It’s a spiritualism associated with emotional truth and that intuitive connectedness, which is what singers embody, not what politicians embody. Increasingly, I feel like as a creative community, it’s really our time to participate.
DH—It’s funny because you say that and I think about back in the seventies, and I know this is so bizarre, but there was a time when walking out on stage this phrase would always pop into my head: “Sacrificial lamb, sacrificial lamb,” and that sort of was a stepping off point.
A—I totally know what you mean. My first cassette I released, when I used to perform as Fiona Blue, was called Behold the Lamb of God, which is exactly that, the sacrificial lamb.
DH—Well I feel like in spite of the fact there is a lot of misogyny and a patriarchal society worldwide, and in some places women and gay men and women are completely smothered in a terrible way, in a lot of places in a lot of ways we can survive now where at one time we could not without bowing down to the powers that be, or to the master sex, or whatever you want to call it. But I think more and more that subversive approach is actually working.
A—I was thinking about the first record I ever got of yours, which was when I was seven years old. The second record I ever bought in my life was a cassette of Plastic Letters, when it first came out. I guess I got it in the beginning of 1978.
A—We’d moved from the south of England to Holland for a year, and Amsterdam in the late seventies was such a utopia. And I grew my hair really long and I was wearing a lot of jewelry and clogs, and I listened to Plastic Letters and The Kick Inside by Kate Bush. Those were the first two albums I had.
A—As I got older I realized the difference between childhood and adulthood seems like such a divide, and yet it’s amazing that kids are listening to the music of young adults and it affects them so intensely.
DH—And they totally understand it; there’s no gap. It’s amazing the change in our understanding and our knowledge of what we’re capable of. I have very early memories of when I was three months old. They’re a little bit abstracted, because when you’re a little kid you see a building or an old house or a room or something and it seems so much bigger. Do you have very early memories like that? Do you remember what your earliest memories are?
A—I have these surreal memories of listening to music, drawingpictures, and making choices about what I wanted to wear.
DH—Nice. That’s very interesting, because it means you really knew who you were.
A—Listening to those Blondie records when I was a kid, it was at the dawning of my consciousness of the greater world around me – that there was love, and there was beauty, but there was also a sense of danger…
DH—Hatred, and anger and all that…
A—There’s so much more I want to talk to you about one day, just about Jackie 60 and your whole passage from there.
DH—That was one of the most wonderful times for me, those few years at Jackie. I was sort of a lost cause in many ways, but yet Jackie was like medicine, in the way that I could go there, and I loved seeing everyone collected in that atmosphere, and Johnny [Dynell] and Chi Chi [Valenti] and the people that presented the club and held it together. That was such a big job for them – they worked so hard to do that every week or every two weeks. That was insane how they did that; I don’t know if they ever slept.
A—But when you came out with your career, obviously you started to really soar in the late seventies internationally, you were sort of so far out there. Was there a point where you felt like you left New York for a while and then you came back to New York?
DH—It was that thing where our fame and acceptance in Europe, in the UK, was so great, and so much bigger than our fame or acceptance in the United States. The United States was at least five years behind in terms of getting Blondie to be accepted, so there was always that real dichotomy. The other dichotomy that existed was we were sort of being sold in terms of cuteness and lightness of being and being fun but the lyrics and the content of our music was very dark and most of it was about death. [Laughs] So it was a very strange world to be in.
I remember doing a promotional tour in the States, and because the radio stations were very independent and everything hadn’t been franchised it took me three months to go round the country and visit all of these DJs. A lot of them really didn’t want to be in the room with me alone. They were afraid, physically, that’s what I was told, because they didn’t know what to expect. I thought that was completely absurd.
A—You’re like a triple threat. The work was really aggressive, the music was really beautiful, and you, you’re so extremely beautiful, I’m sure it was just so intimidating for them. It was kind of like Kurt Cobain or Nirvana, where something very authentic could at the same time have gigantic appeal. Something very real and subversive could also be pop.
DH—And people really have no problem understanding, as you said, no matter what their age, even though maybe intellectually it can’t be verbalized by kids, they instinctively have the feelings and they’re totally in tune. And that goes hand in hand with [the fact] they say music came before speech – it came before any kind of verbalization or understanding or intellectual description – and that it’s fundamental in our nature. And that’s a wonderful place for us to end. Oh I love talking with you and I hope we get a chance to hang out and talk again.
DH—Thank you, Antony.