The art of the outsider
Singer-songwriter Antony Hegarty graces Eamon Sweeney with an insight into his unique view of the world as well as the new album
Today sees the release of the fourth album from one of the 21st century's most compelling, intriguing and singular outsiders. While Antony Hegarty confesses his vocal style draws heavily from his heroine Nina Simone, it remains utterly unique; a tender, trembling quiver eliciting a deep emotional response unmatched by anyone else in contemporary music.
The swoonsome suite of songs that bagged the Mercury Music Prize in 2005, entitled I Am A Bird Now, unexpectedly brought transgender to the mainstream.
Several artists have flirted with androgyny, from David Bowie to Brett Anderson, but none have so fully immersed themselves with their personal transgender identity, often in a heartbreaking manner that will resonate with just about anyone with a pulse.
Antony also covers the likes of Beyonce and Whitney Houston, but never drenched in knowing irony or tacky kitsch. "Singing a song from a girl's perspective is empowering for me," he says of his rendition of Crazy in Love. "It's a good laugh and it's touching."
"As a transgender person," he says, "I'm allowed to dream a little bit out of the box." On the sleeve notes to Swanlights, he adds: "I thank the earth every day for making me transgender, because it makes me like an animal, beyond the providence of Christians and patriarchs. I live on the outskirts of society, and I have become feral and intuitive."
But the standard industry phrase "sleeve notes" falls far short of encapsulating the beauty of a lavish 144-page book that accompanies Swanlights, providing a terrific companion piece for what's arguably his most complete and coherent album yet.
"This new album and the book came to fruition at the same time," he says. "They're married in a way. It was a way to engage creatively without having a lot of expectations and slowly building my ways of seeing the world. I started recording The Crying Light and Swanlights at the same time. I finished recording and released The Crying Light, went touring and came home and started working on Swanlights again."
Like The Crying Light, Swanlights was preceded by an EP, which is something of a lost art in the era of the rampant download.
The lead track, Thank You For Your Love, is a typically touching Antony composition, accompanied by a video featuring footage of his early years in New York.
"At first it felt too personal to put forward and far too embarrassing," he confesses. "I always love that challenge, though, as there's usually something interesting in such vulnerability. They're films I made as a student when I first arrived in New York.
"I'm sure it's a similar experience for anyone who has looked back at themselves 20 years ago. A moving image tells so much of the nature of that person and I hardly recognise myself in those images. It's emotional and touching.
"When I made that document, there was no one listening, I was just making little projects just for the empty space. I'm curious about the relationship we have with ourselves over that span of time. I can be in a kind of dialogue with the person that I was when I was 20.
"There is one kind of meditation I kind of like to do where we could almost be like an angel for ourselves and visit ourselves at different points in our life," he continues. "Imagine if there was some point of difficulty you had when you were a child. You could visualise going to visit that person and being a source of strength and support for them. In a funny way, it creates a loop in my imagination.
"Maybe it's that energy that pulls you through and helps you survive at a difficult time, when someone else might not survive. It was always the destiny of that footage. I couldn't have imagined at 19 that I'd be broadcasting little films of myself 20 years later on the internet."
Neither could he have ever envisaged working with fellow enigmatic pop genius Bjork on the track Fletta.
"I love it because it's a time capsule of a certain point in our relationship, because we've really got to know each other well through all these creative meetings," he reveals. "I've also talked a lot to Bjork about the environment and an artist's responsibility in history. I love her patient voice on that track. I think sometimes this is a bit of an impatient record; it's always striving towards something.
"She accepts unknown qualities and things we don't understand. She really embodies those qualities with her voice."
As the world at large grapples with economic problems, Antony considers the environment to be the primary issue.
"Our personal interests are eclipsing our ability to act," he maintains. We're at a point now were we don't have any more time. In my work over the last 20 years, a big undercurrent has been grappling with this burgeoning overload of information that scientists are putting on the table. We're having this detrimental effect on our ecology and wringing biodiversity out of the environment.
"For me, it poses an existential crisis. All my belief systems are challenged. I was raised to think that nature had permanence and we were just ants scurrying across the face of the earth without having any real impact on it. It was as unwavering as the sky above us.
"This idea that nature could be vulnerable was a hard one to accept, because it burdens me with a new responsibility for the way that I step on it. It's frightening, because I'm used to being taken care of by the environment and almost like a baby of it. It pours forth resources to me which I gobble up. It burdens me with a power that I don't even want.
"It's a huge change in how we perceive our world and our reality. It's a game changer, so it's not surprising that it's taking us more than a decade to come to terms with it. It's an affront to our systems of operation and could be catastrophic."
Despite Antony's deep heartfelt concern, his work doesn't share the same twitching anxiety of an artist such as Radiohead. His oeuvre is more meditative and considered, and full of constantly touching beauty.
"I started out quite visual," he says. "Then, when I was about 11, I changed track and got into music, because it seemed more emotionally expressive. I had heroes like Boy George in pop culture at the time; people who were really putting themselves out there.
"I'd always loved music, but I wasn't particularly good at it. I just started to apply myself to it. I think of myself as a naive artist on almost every front, but I forged a way. I wrangled a relationship with each of the mediums where they became expressive for me.
"I'm really putting this book forward, but not with the sense it qualifies as fine art, but because as visual material, it's resonant and imbued with meaning for me and I wanted to share that.
"As Bill Hicks said, 'We are the facilitators of our own creative evolution'. You can reach through time and collect ideas from your former self."
Swanlights is out today, see review page 15