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ntony has been a mover on the New York art and music scene since his participation in the Blacklips Performance Cult who graced New York’s Pyramid Club in the early 90’s. Antony and the Johnsons began in 1999, releasing a self-titled record on David Tibet’s Durtro Label (later re-releasing it on Secretly Canadian) after Antony received a New York Fine Arts fellowship for "performance art / emergent forms." Antony and the Johnsons released I Am a Bird Now in early February, a review of which you can read here.
I don’t spend very much time with music that doesn’t inspire me. That said, I like a lot of different things. I like Beyonce. I don’t think she’s a threat.
Stylus: Is Beyonce “sincere” to you?
Is Beyonce sincere… good question (laughs). I don’t judge her by that yardstick—it’s not why I love her. She just gets me going. But really, I do feel like this has been a very refreshing period—it definitely feels like there’s been a new leaf turned over in subculture. It just seems like there’s a lot more room for people to go out on a limb, to put themselves out there in a way that seems more honest or openhearted, you know? You mentioned two people who I find really inspiring (William Basinski and Devendra Banhart), and there’s a bunch of others, too. I love Animal Collective, I was listening to them all morning—you know, even though some of their subjects are quite pedestrian, it’s very spirited. It’s a far cry from electroclash, you know what I mean? If anything, I move more in this direction, stuff where my heart’s at. Something that touches me is something that I want to be with.
I completely agree, and that’s music that appeals to me too. There’s been a big… it’s not a renaissance so much as it is that for some reason or another there are all these bands that are doing different things stylistically, but all share a very spiritual root. All of the sudden that’s okay again. I don’t know when it happened, but it’s exciting.
I felt like it started to happen last spring. It had been bubbling up, but it really came to the front of culture last spring. It was like, ‘wow, God,’ like the windows flew open, and everything started to really cook again. I think it’s a really exciting time.
Was there a particular moment last spring that you realized this had started happening?
For me, it was hooking up with Devendra and all those kids, and really seeing that there was all this momentum going on. I always felt like I had functioned inside a vacuum, you know? I’d been doing work in New York throughout the 90’s, and it always felt like quite a lonely pursuit. It was nice to hook up with all these people and suddenly feel like there’s this collective, with, like you said, myriad aesthetics but the root, the motivation is a shared one. I called it a ‘zeitgeist,’ because it was something happening across cultures and being received across worlds. I go to a record store in Glasgow and all the kids there are listening… even though America’s one of the most hated countries in the world, there are a lot of American kids making work and kids around the world are listening to them. It’s definitely something people are ready for. In Australia, 19 year kids walking around with “The Heart is Deceitful [Above All Things]” [the 2002 J.T. Leroy novel] in their back pocket. People are plugged into this whole other thing.
As an aside, you’re involved not only in the music world, but in the world of visual arts to a certain extent. Do you find that there are parallels, or do you see similar trends happening in arts besides music?
It’s funny, I was talking to a friend who runs a gallery about this whole thing, and she said it’s really true in visual arts as well, that there’s been this new sort of momentum that’s intergenerational, and people from a bunch of different areas are suddenly having the opportunity to have their work seen for the first time. I think about William Basinski as a case in point—he’s had his work, you know, stored away in his apartment for years and years. Some of the pieces he’s releasing now are things that were recorded in the 80’s that are just seeing the light of day, and people are finally receptive to it. It seems like things are being drawn together in a bouquet, and it’s a good thing.
Do you think this notion of a deeply spiritual impetus within art is a part of a natural cycle or ebb and flow of, say, aesthetic sensibilities, or do you think that it’s a response to certain ways the world has been changing?
The way I map it out is really in terms of my own experience, so… To me, the 90’s were very apocalyptic in a kind of way: firstly, we were coming up on a new millennium and there was this sense of dread, and then also, there was a still a lot of shock and fallout from AIDS in the urban arts community. Politically, America continues to be really dark in some respects. In a way, 9/11 sort of cracked a depression in the cynicism that had permeated the city. It shocked everyone awake again. And after a while of getting over that, it really felt possible for something new to come in. Also, what came was a new generation of people. A lot of these kids are in their early 20’s, and maybe we’re just far away enough from some of the Ground Zeros, just far away enough from some of those old guards depression and cynicism, that we can afford to be more wide-eyed and return with something new and refreshed. Society is more alienated than ever, and a lot of young artists have returned to the idea of the “personal” as a place to start to have a waking life, you know? Everyone’s returning to personal and local ideas. I read a critique of this feeling saying that kids are disconnected from culture or that they’re living in a vacuum or totally unaware of the world. I disagree though: to try to nurture a sense of connectivity, in this era, if you have to go to the “personal” to block out the television, or whatever you have to do—it’s revolutionary. You have to start from the personal and local and grow out from there. For me, it’s been a great source of inspiration and help, this new approach. It’s envisioning a new kind of hope rather than being doomsday-ish, being Damien Hirst and chopping another cow in half, using these same television techniques to squeeze the last bit of emotion out of us, to shut us down forever. Instead, do something that would support life rather than to deaden us more. It’s a healthy direction, but it’s swimming against the tide in a way—it’s a very interesting counterpoint to what’s happening in society in general.
I think those things are absolutely true, and you’ve accurately pointed out some of the conditions in the last decade that made it feel deadening and doomed. People are rebuilding from this point of origin, themselves, making basic, expressive gestures, that ten years ago would seem irrelevant or unrealistic.
Or culture just couldn’t support it. It’s like the last song that Elizabeth Fraser did with the Cocteau Twins, this song called “Half-Gifts.” In it she sings, in English words, in 1995-96, ‘I still care about this planet, I am still connected to nature and to my dreams for myself,’ and in 1996, that was truly a revolutionary stance to take. And it didn’t even register on the Richter scale. In a way, that was her setting up something in the collective unconscious that wouldn’t come to the forefront until now, you know? There were people that were putting out some of these ideas in the 90’s, but there was no way for it to come forward as a group. I feel like in a way, I participated in the rumblings of the unconscious part of it, and it’s just now coming to consciousness.
It’s a fascinating topic, and it’ll be interesting to see not only what the people working in this vein will do, but to see where people who are latching onto it will take it, how it will grow.
I think about it like macrocosm versus microcosm. People are working out these microcosms, these personal and local worlds. And what kind of relationships will they negotiate with the world, or what kind of effect will this have on the world? That’s the story that’s yet to be told.
I’ve always been really intrigued by the idea of honesty in performance—that there are things that are actually better expressed with a disclaimer of theater or theatricality. For a lot of people, being performative isn’t at odds with, but it mixes unusually with the idea of being honest in expression. Take, just for example, Candy Darling, who graces the cover of the new record- there’s something deeply poignant about her, but mediated by this fundamental sense of artifice.
I might have a different sense of what’s authentic. For me, something that’s stripped down and brown might be totally contrived and full of artifice, and something like [Austrialian performance artist/fashion designer] Leigh Bowery might be a direct hotline to something that’s very authentic. The word ‘artifice,’ to me, is like ‘cabaret,’ it has the same sting; there’s this idea that there’s a process of veiling, something that isn’t true. With someone like Candy Darling, what some might perceive as artifice, this gesture of femininity, is actually a revelation of a true sense of herself: a more intimate gesture couldn’t be made, it couldn’t be more authentic. ‘Artifice’ suggests to me a baroque frill, a sense of defense, a layer of something that separates you from the truth. Sometimes form and creative expression magnifies the truth.
That’s exactly the string I was trying to pluck. I think it’s fascinating and amazing that with Candy Darling, there’s this strong gesture made—
And it actually heightens the soulfulness of it.
Even the picture of [former Blacklips member] Paige on the inside of my record where Kabuki [Starshine, makeup and performance artist] did the makeup. It’s years and years of soulful heightendness that would get Kabuki to make that painting on Page, who he cares about so much. This collaboration, it’s—it’s partially just creating art.
I got a very distinct feel from the record, and part of it had to do with the guests—Boy George, Lou Reed, Devendra Banhart, Rufus Wainwright, to name a few. It’s like you were at the head of this revolving table of people, a revue of sorts. Were you trying to create some total feel to the record itself?
The process of bringing people in was kind of intuitive; I didn’t conceptualize it that much. But it brought this added dimension to the material. It made the transition to becoming a body of work rather than just a cycle of songs. The guest thing was something I hadn’t really anticipated, it was one of the last things that came into focus. The record was quite hard in a way. I mean, it was so personal, but it took a village to make it. They fortified me and helped the project come to fruition. And I look at the record as a whole and see the influence of so many people, and that’s tremendously rewarding. From the whole vision of Peter Hujar [whose photograph of Candy Darling serves as the cover for I am a Bird Now] as an artist, seeing the album through his lens, and then the musicians- with guests like that, they bring not only their technical voice, but their entire story: they contextualize anything I asked them to present within their own story, and because the record’s so personal, it comes forward even more than it might in a normal situation. That was the greatest reward—I wouldn’t say it created a community, but there’s a collective voice to it. It does relate it back to my experience in theater, to create tableaus of people, to arrange a group of people to say something as a whole.
Antony and the Johnsons will be touring North America in February. Dates and ticket information can be found here.
By: Mike Powell
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