A conference call seems a fitting way to connect with Antony Hegarty, of Antony and the Johnsons.
The Mercury Prize winner spoke about his work as a shifting expression of identities, experiences, influences and sounds rather than any fixed product of his imagination. As the interview progressed, his accent changed, and hints of Irish lilt and laid-back Californian bubbled forth and disappeared.
“My speaking voice came as a result of moving around a lot as a kid — it was a coping mechanism, as I adapted my accent to my location,” he said. “If I’m speaking to French people, I’ll use my French accent; in England I’ll use English. I can’t control it. But when I sing, I feel like it’s my real voice.”
When he started singing as a child, report cards praised Hegarty’s enthusiasm, but not his prowess. Moving to America from Britain at 11, he turned to pop favourites Boy George and Kate Bush; then moved on to Nina Simone and others in his late teens, absorbing and expressing influences.
“When singing, even when I was very young, (I remember) it felt like a place I could express things I can’t express in real life,” he said. “I still have suitcases full of cassettes of songs I wrote as a kid.”
In 1990, Hegarty moved to New York to study experimental theatre and form the cabaret collective Black Lips. Along with singing with disco-house revivalists Hercules & Love Affair, he’s worked with Boy George and Lou Reed, as well as Björk, Devendra Banhart and the London Symphony Orchestra.
On his group’s latest album, The Crying Light, Hegarty’s voice exhibits this multi-faceted personal history — blending feminine with masculine, sad ballads with joyous vibrato choruses, and arranging cello, strings and piano compositions focused on negative space. This description fits Hegarty’s approach to music-making in general. Whether lyrical themes, sounds or relationships, he’s focused on keeping things open to allow for spontaneous collaboration.
“If all (a song) is, is a document analyzing what I feel individually, it’s dead in (the) water. I’m just one of many sources in the work,” he said. “What’s interesting to me is what happens in dialogue (and through) relationships — that potential to transform the work in performing it.”
Antony and the Johnsons play:
Toronto – The Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Feb. 17