Lou Reed's protege hits all the right notes
The first concert Antony and the Johnsons played in Ireland was on the night of Bob Geldof's Live-8 extravaganza in 2005, that back-slapping convention that masqueraded as a political rally. Switching off the TV coverage of 'Bland Aid', I headed to Dublin's Vicar St.
Unlike the preening prima donnas over in Hyde Park, Antony Hegarty glided almost unnoticed across the stage, sat meekly at his piano, facing sideways, and began to sing a bunch of unforgettable songs in a voice that seemed to tremble as it soared. Here was a singer to restore your faith in the power of music to move, to cajole, to transcend the everyday.
A love affair of sorts had begun that night between Ireland and this unprepossessing torch singer. An English-born, New York-based émigré with Irish roots, his distillation of soul, pop balladry and chamber music found its perfect expression in the group's second album 'I Am A Bird Now'. That record was the surprise -- but popular -- winner of the UK's prestigious Mercury Music Prize in 2005.
The love affair intensified. Antony returned with his band to the same venue later that year, giving an equally mesmerising performance, and then last September they were elevated to the main stage of the Electric Picnic festival in Stradbally. The following month, he was part of the all-star line-up at the four-hour tribute concert to Leonard Cohen, 'Came So Far For Beauty', which held The Point in Dublin spellbound for two nights. Antony's performance was widely regarded as the highlight of the show.
Now Antony and the Johnsons are heading to Cork on Thursday night to perform one of the series of summer concerts billed Live at the Marquee (other acts lined up include Lionel Richie, The Flaming Lips, Status Quo and Madness).
"Yeah there's been something kind of magic about the rapport I've had with Irish audiences in every show I've played there," says Antony, speaking from his home in New York, where he's currently recording his new album. "It's been very emotional -- for personal reasons too, because I have family connections there. It feels kind of mythic for me.,"I was born in England, but my father's Irish, and I have aunties in Rosslare and relatives in Donegal. I think that some of the Irish experience of music is alive in my music. There's a lot of spirit and emotion and soulfulness and sometimes sadness, an acute perception of things that comes through a lot in the Irish relationship to music. The only other place I experienced anything like it was in Portugal, where they have the fado tradition.,Antony lived quite a nomadic existence as a child, his family moving from England to
Holland to California. But he says it was only when he fetched up in the Big Apple that he really felt at home. "I consider myself an immigrant and I consider myself a New Yorker," he says. "And New York is a city of immigrants. I'm very comfortable here because everyone comes from somewhere else. There's a celebration of diversity here. Or rather diversity is a non-issue. It's kind of the last stop in America. If you can't make it in New York, then you better just leave (laughs). For me it's the city of promise. I stayed because I found so much that I could relate to.,The first Antony and the Johnsons album -- self-titled -- was released to little fanfare in 1998, and it sold modestly. He worked at various odd jobs, including publishing, by day and sang at a club by night. He helped set up a performance collective called Blacklips.
Lou Reed invited him to join his touring band as a backing singer. Indeed, had he been born a few decades earlier, one can easily imagine Antony being welcomed with open arms into Andy Warhol's Factory. "Lou's been an unbelievable influence on me and in my life," he says.
"He's been a mentor for me; an advocate for me. I don't think my record ('I Am A Bird Now') would have been released if it hadn't been for him It was only at Lou's insistence that his label called another label and got it in the works.,"Otherwise it probably wouldn't have got a European release, which is ironic because it did really well there. But that's often the case with records that don't quite fit in the box. I think that's how people felt with my record. They didn't know what to make of it. But now that I've developed a rapport with the world, people aren't as wary of it.,Antony has just returned from touring with Reed in the US and Australia. They also shared a stage in Dublin at the aforementioned Leonard Cohen tribute concerts, where Antony performed 'The Guests' and 'If It Be Your Will'. How did he enjoy the experience?
"I made a lot of friends on that project," says Antony. "People that I really loved, like Beth Orton and Jarvis (Cocker) and Nick Cave. But at first I was really tentative about doing it. I thought 'there's too many words and I don't understand the poems and I'll never get through these'. But then once I dialled into them, I found the lyrics were something I could really relate to.,"There's just something so magnificent about those songs. I think I was lucky to be assigned them. But his whole catalogue is that way. It's kind of like a bottomless pool. They go as deep as you want. They really embody that mystery and articulate it. As a singer, they're so rewarding to approach." I tell Antony that the first time I heard his voice coming from the radio (courtesy of Donal Dineen on Today FM) I thought he was a black soul singer.
"I spent a long time absorbing everything by Nina Simone and everything by Otis Redding," he replies. "Certain black American singers had a massive impact on me. Obviously they're a massive point of reference for what I'm doing. When you think about the African-American tradition of music, it's been a beacon in Western culture.
"There's something there that comes from the church -- American gospel music. And you look at Irish music and there's certainly parallels to be drawn with people finding solace, consolation and redemption in the music.,Antony and the Johnsons with special guest Martha Wainwright play Live at the Marquee, Cork, on Thursday. Tickets are €49.20.