Antony and the Johnsons
w/Devendra Banhart, CocoRosie, William Basinski
Fri-Sat April 22-23, On the Boards, 8 pm, $25.


You don't always
find purity in innocence.

Fact one: Antony (Hegarty, but best known for being of "Antony and the Johnsons") models himself on Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet, and the solipsistic, dashing beauty of Soft Cell's Marc Almond. Not one of the songs on his recent sophomore album, I Am a Bird Now, has a pounding refrain to match the elegiac disillusionment of Almond's "Say Hello, Wave Goodbye"--his songs are way too airy for that, sugared fancies--but Antony's voice is still a rose-tossed bedspread, a trembling, insistent invitation to desire. It feels like the Voice (his voice) existed first and the songs were written as an afterthought.

"I wanted something that I could bring close to the ear," Antony explains of I Am a Bird Now. "I wanted something that people could listen to in their bedrooms and ponder in a comfortable, reflective way. Like the Cat Power album, The Covers Record. I could fall into it forever. I wanted it to sound close to that."

Alongside such outrageously accomplished guests on Bird as Lou Reed (on the soulful "Fistful of Love") and Boy George (a suitably thrilling "You Are My Sister"), Antony has been nurtured by fellow avant-garde NYC folk artists, such as arch lo-fi sister duo CocoRosie. His recent UK support slot with the latter pair--known for matching intensely operatic singing to battery-operated toy instruments--was the first sighting many people had of him outside of the transvestite bars of the Lower East Side. Likewise, Rufus Wainwright (vocals on Bird's "What Can I Do?") and heir apparent to the Jeff Buckley throne, Devendra Banhart ("Spiraling"), are Antony fans. The feeling is reciprocated.

"They're creating something alive, absorbed, and self-examining. They're not afraid to take risks," Antony says of the encouragement he received for Bird from CocoRosie and Banhart. "There's a temptation to make everything technologically perfect, tune every note automatically. These kids would come in and say, 'We want the warts and scratches and pauses.' Bringing other people in made me feel less lonely."

It's strange that Antony should want to align himself with Banhart and CocoRosie. Both tend to be characterized by their stripped-back, often experimental music, the silences and awkward fumbles between the gasps--Antony's lush arrangements and string-sweetened falsetto elegies have more in common with the theatrical, androgynous balladry of '70s David Bowie and Lou Reed. His is rock as opera, every last emotion thrust trembling into the spotlight, big and sorrowful.

Yet Antony does share a lot with his cohorts--a voice that can sound deceptively childlike in its wonderment, and a love for dressing up (in big sisters' clothes). Bianca Casady of CocoRosie sometimes sports a pencil-thin, pen-derived mustache on stage, while her sister Sierra paints a mischievous wink on her eyelid. Likewise, Antony will shave his head and dab on a little lipstick and powder--just enough to accentuate his femininity. (The Johnsons don't exist, incidentally: Antony's stage name is a tribute to a gay-solidarity group. In London recently, he serenaded the audience surrounded by five musicians--piano, acoustic guitar, bass, keyboards, and cello.)

The future star grew up in the sleepy English town of Chichester, the son of working-class Anglo-Irish folk. He went to Catholic school, where he sang in a choir. There it might (possibly) have rested except that in 1981, at the age of 10, Antony moved to California. Later, through reading interviews with Marc Almond, he would discover Andy Warhol and Klaus Nomi, the books of John Rechy, and the whole NYC transgender world--but it was Boy George who really set Antony on his way, after he caught sight of the singer's image on the cover of Culture Club's 1982 debut album, Kissing to Be Clever. "I realized that's what we do when we're like this," he says, placing no inflection on "this," although it must refer to his own inner being, his sexuality. "We become singers. I saw my reflection in his--on the [record] sleeve, he's only wearing a little mascara, but everyone thought he was a woman, because of his feminine soul. He was just 20. I loved the fact he was showing just himself."

So, at the age of 19, Antony found himself on stage at NYC's Pyramid Club, head shaved and smoking a cigarette, perched on a stool like a character from an Almond song, in front of 15 people: "We used to call it Leper Island, where America's disenfranchised all fled to have a party, be free," he told Attitude magazine recently. "People came to be part of a community and end up creating their own. I studied experimental theater, but was drawn to the after-hours nightclub culture. There were a lot of punk drag shows. We started Blacklips, which was all late-night blood bags and beauty theater. I'd throw a liver out on stage and sing a love song to it. It was the time of AIDS."

One of Antony's role models was Candy Darling, the transvestite Warhol Factory superstar of the '60s--appropriately enough, Antony took the part of the colored girl who went "doo do-doo do-doo" during the 2003 Lou Reed tour. He sang plaintive lead for an encore of the Velvet Underground's gentle tribute to Darling, "Candy Says"--vibrato-rich and unearthly in his approximation of half-a-dozen great American female soul singers, Nina Simone not the least among them. "There were times where I felt like I was sky-born, flying up to the heavens," Antony enthuses about the experience. Darling herself is pictured on Bird's cover--a 1974 photograph entitled Candy Darling on Her Deathbed, the model dying from leukemia, but proudly defiant and gorgeous in her fading glamour. It's sadly appropriate--the photographer, Peter Hujar, also died too early, from an AIDS-related illness in '87. A sense of bereavement and sorrow penetrates the beauty within Antony's second album: It's a change of approach the singer acknowledges.

"Making music is not about pursuing the apocalyptic any more," Antony explains. "It's about searching for enlightenment. Where's the hope? I don't need to be brutalized anymore. We know that story now."

editor@thestranger.com

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