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VILLAGE VOICE Preview and interview 01/05/05

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Antony & The Johnsons
Islington Academy November 2, 2004
By Paul Gorman

The extraordinary NYC androgyne - whose in-concert performances make Lou Reed cry - receives a stiffer-lipped but no less rapturous London reception.

Slinking on stage amid a blue and purple-lit haze created by a belching smoke machine, the dishevelled choirboy known simply as Antony - in ruffled collar and oversize pink mohair sweater - slipped unannounced onto the piano stool at the Islington Academy for one of the most highly anticipated performances of the year.

Although he was support to the supposed main event - the peyote McGarrigle meanderings of neo-folk pin-ups CocoRosie - this was definitely New York-based Antony's night, not least because of his starry associations: Laurie Anderson has described his voice as "the most exquisite thing you will hear in your life - discovering Antony is like hearing Elvis for the first time", and her partner Lou Reed is just as rabid a fan, having recruited Antony for a world tour a couple of years back and more recently recorded a track on the forthcoming Antony & The Johnsons album I Am A Bird Now, which also features a series of stunning cameos from Rufus Wainwright, Boy George and Devandra Banhart.

The fact is that Antony simply sounds like none other, as though Nina Simone's voice has been reincarnated in that of a strapping, peroxide-haired boy/man.

With a nod to his guitarist Steve - who comprised the shifting-cast Johnsons for this gig, picking out minimalist melody lines and contributing an hilarious triangle solo during the aquatic Daylight & The Sun - Antony effortlessly launched into an utterly beguiling set, where the pure, operatic tones of his voice and the deftly executed piano figures of such songs as I Fell In Love With A Dead Boy, Bird Gerhl and Fistful Of Love acted as counterpoint for lyrical content loaded with connotations of unfulfilled adoration, gender confusion and sexual violence. "It's true I always wanted love to be hurtful," he trills heartbreakingly on Cripple & The Starfish. "It's true I always wanted love to be full of pain. I am so very, very happy, so come on and hurt me I am so very, very happy, so please hit me..."

Despite the darkness of the material, the celebratory atmosphere was underpinned by Antony's charmingly peculiar stage persona, which won the audience over from the get-go when he asked whether his voice was too loud ["You will tell me if it is won't you?" he pleaded. "Just holler, and I'll do something about it"].

Later he revealed that he has a British passport, having been born in Chichester. This in turn led to a witty peroration which took in the White Cliffs Of Dover, guitarist Steve's failure to obtain a work permit for this show (complemented by much baleful eye-rolling) and a quick burst of a song Antony claimed to have written about an 18th Century English wench who escaped to France to indulge in necrophilia.

The anthemic You Are My Sister - which is performed as an emotionally-charged duet on record with Boy George - proved a particular highlight...


Tuesday November 9th 2004



I Am a Bird Now (Secretly Canadian) "

In the five years that have passed since their first self-titled album was released on David Tibet's Durtro label, Antony and the Johnsons have developed a reputation for being one of New York's greatest musical groups. Last year Secretly Canadian reissued that album, introducing the band to a much wider audience. Antony undoubtedly won over a legion of new fans, myself included, after his stunning performance alongside Devendra Banhart and Joanna Newsom to a packed house at the Bowery Ballroom last summer. Not only is Antony an amazing songwriter with an instantly recognizable warbling and soulful voice, he is also an absolutely incredible performer, like some eccentric and otherworldly cabaret act, a latter-day Klaus Nomi.

The artists that chose to perform alongside Antony and the Johnsons on this new album are a testament to the tremendous respect that Antony has earned from the musical community. Lou Reed, Devendra Banhart, Rufus Wainwright and Boy George all make guest appearances on different tracks, each guest perfectly and unobtrusively complimenting the music. This album is full of alternately haunting and uplifting piano-driven songs with beautiful and subtle arrangements that deliver an incredible emotional wallop. To describe it as a masterpiece is no exaggeration. I Am A Bird Now is destined to be one of this year's most acclaimed and beloved albums. [RH]


OTHER MUSIC NYC November 2004

The Lake (Secretly Canadian)

I perceived something remarkable about Antony when I attended his last performance (which featured Boy George, by the way.) I suppose you can anticipate extraordinary things from extraordinary people, but this was something else, really. I have never experienced Antony and the Johnsons live, and I didn't really know what to expect, only a faint concept of something somber and reserved. I was quite mistaken in regard to the latter. Antony's performance-landscape idly unraveled into a colloquy that defiantly existed outside of his exclusive narrative and peculiar ambience, creating a dialogue that defined everything 'selfless' in the warm collocation of the 'other' into his radial context as he effortlessly wove through his cavalcades into the profound depths of human affection. Humor, laughter, and confounding positivity were his dialectical bridges. We laugh as the result of the discharge of superfluous nervous energy in regards to the repression of certain behaviors or fashions of thought, which leads to an entrapment of requisite energies. When those quelled sentiments and dispositions are circumvented, it is expressed in laughter. These are the Freudian pleasures we derive from tapping into the abysmal forces that can ultimately be traced back to the 'id' instincts of life and death. This is a shared humor, a communal defense mechanism, a dynamic unconsciousness bursting through as an attemptive encounter with prejudice, self-deprecation, rebellion, and depression. And for one to have the capacity to endure and share this laughter with his or her audience in this humanistic tendency is quite exceptional.

Theatrical and exorbitant -- Antony resonates, visually and audibly (with a fascinating multi-octave vocal palette) through the caliginous layers of the social and cerebral panorama depicting powerful, haunting imagery. Almost surrealistic. With (perhaps) a Klaus Nomi-like androgyny and a euphonious influential palette that softly echoes avant-cabaret style singers (Mabel Mercer?), Nina Simone, Bryan Ferry -- and a gorgeously sparse, emotive styling that could only parallel Arthur Russell. This EP is an early preview to the album I am a Bird Now set for release in February. There are two non-album tracks, "The Lake" and "Horror is Gone" and the explosive "Fistful of Love" -- which features Lou Reed on backing vocals and guitar. Blissful and wondrous, Antony is peerless. One of the most essential releases of the year. Mahssa Taghinia



Antony: "The Lake" For a long time in the literary community, Edgar Allen Poe was viewed as a bit of a joke, seen as a sort of silly horror author whose stories were only entertaining to children (or like-minded adults). He has since gained credibility, despite the heavy juvenile pall that hangs over his work. Anyone that still doubts his value, however, should be pointed to Antony's breathtaking rendition of "The Lake" to quickly overcome any reservations as to Poe's emotional impact.

Originally issued on the Split EP with Current 93 Live at St. Olave's Church 2002 (which explains the otherwise anomalous presence of the declaration, "Tonight it's just the two of us," at the end of the track), "The Lake" has now been made available to a slightly wider audience, as the closing track to Devendra Banhart's Golden Apples of the Sun compilation. The exposure befits the song's intimacy, as being released on the relatively obscure PanDurtro label and a limited edition (though critically acclaimed) compilation makes its discovery akin to the narrator's finding of the titular lake, drawing out both the terror and excitement of the hypnotic power of a memento mori. By presenting the song simply through a piano and his powerful voice, Antony allows the haunting lyrics to fully resonate, and contradicts any assertions of emotional irrelevance. After this song, it's difficult to look at Poe's poem with snobbish indifference anymore: Antony's performance is so powerful that it may force that appreciation to spread throughout Poe's entire oeuvre. [Nathan Humpal; August 23rd; 2004 (4.5 stars of 5)




NOW Toronto April 8th 2004

The Toronto Eye April 8th 2004


June/July 2003


Once you've seen Antony perform his searing, personal, completely modern take on the torch song, you'll understand why he's attracting admirers like Lou Reed.

Over the past few years, Antony and his band The Johnsons have been making converts out of audiences at small New York venues like The Zipper and The Knitting Factory with songs about isolation, anxiety, and blurred sexual identity. This summer, Antony will accompany Lou Reed as a guest vocalist on his European and American tours. Then, in the fall, Antony will release his new album, I Am a Bird Now. Lou invites Antony over to his studio to compare notes about life and art.

LOU: You've got a really phenomenal, multi-octave voice. When you were a kid, did you say to yourself, "Hey, I've got a great range and vibrato"?

ANTONY: No, but I was in the choir in school. I went to a magnet school for the performing arts in San Jose... the armpit of Silicon Valley. I was fortunate. It was probably the only high school in the area where I wouldn't have been duct-taped to a tree and spat on. I was also the lead singer and songwriter for a death rock band.

LOU: Really? Did you scream and have hair down to your shoulders?

ANTONY: There was a little bit of screaming going on, yes, and I did have long hair. I was quite androgynous.

LOU: So why did you come to New York when you could have stayed in California?

ANTONY: I saw the documentary Mondo New York about the underground cabaret scene during the 80s. I loved those performers... Joey Arias, Dean Johnson, Phoebe Legere. They were so elegant and punk. Joey singing "A Hard Day's Night" dressed as Billie Holiday inspired me. So I went off to N.Y.U. in 1990. I was nineteen.

LOU: What did you major in?

ANTONY: Experimental theater. My degree is about as useful as a degree in knitting. Basically, I moved to New York to go to the Pyramid Club. I came to the city looking for signs of life that appealed to me. I wound up spending a lot of time on the piers.

LOU: I have friends who complain about how the piers were cleaned up. But they don't know what's still going on there at night. Some of the docks don't have lights... there's plenty of activity out there. It's just patrolled.

ANTONY: But the old wooden piers were so beautiful. In the summer, they were like rocks covered with seals. There would be three hundred oiled, naked fags lying out in the sun. It was an outrageous cultural moment.

LOU: When I was in college, I got to know the poet Delmore Schwartz. Without him things could have taken a very ugly turn.

ANTONY: Wasn't he a big influence on your early poetry?

LOU: Absolutely. He was a big influence on my life. I had this incredibly talented writer sitting next to me at the bar every day.

ANTONY: Was that where you took all of your classes?

LOU: Yes. [laughs] It was like something out of a novel. I did actually meet him at a bar every morning. He was so funny and smart it was staggering. He wrote a short story called "In Dreams Begin Responsibilities." It's only five pages long, written in the simplest language you can imagine, yet it's brilliant... incredibly emotional. I found it very inspirational. He always carried around a letter from T.S. Eliot extolling its virtues.

ANTONY: What happened to him?

LOU: He died in the Hotel Dixie in Times Square... some kind of heart attack probably brought on by amphetamines, liquor, and God knows what else. He hit a home run right off the bat, and it was hard for him to stay up there. Baboom, there it is. How do you live up to that? How do you make it happen again? After I wrote the song "Heroin," people said, "Now what can you do?" I was only twenty and I thought, "I'm finished already? I shot my wad, that's it?"

ANTONY: You know, a lot of people tell me that my songs are too self-indulgent, too full of sorrow and grief.

LOU: It amazes me that you're accused of self-indulgence simply for putting some feeling into your work.

ANTONY: People are terrified of emotion. Most of the art in New York right now is pop and superficial, with a thin layer of cynicism and irony. When I started performing, AIDS was bringing about a cultural apocalypse in New York. I think of the piers as the Native American burial grounds for homosexuals. The people who survived were like war veterans... they were shell-shocked for years. I arrived in New York after the bomb dropped, but I was still preoccupied with this feeling of the cloud that had swept over the land. Some of my favorite artists died...

LOU: Where did you find your first artistic venue in New York?

ANTONY: I did late-night performances with this troupe of bedraggled after-hours types at the Pyramid Club. The aesthetic was blood bags and gore, lots of outrageousness and beauty. I worked with these trannies and drag queens... each was a beautiful individual who had an incredibly strong sense of themself. We took turns writing scripts. I loved arranging them ... giving them songs to sing, characters to play.

LOU: The movement I was involved in when I started out was made up of the same kinds of people.

ANTONY: Besides being the resident den mother, I would punctuate each show with a torch song. Eventually I wanted to focus on my own work. I was in over my head trying to manage so many other people...

LOU: Almost no one can do that. Andy was able to do it, but the mortality rate over at Warhol University was pretty high. A lot of students didn't make it across that river. So you started performing on your own?

ANTONY: I started another performance group. We were staging surrealist plays about hermaphrodites searching for their parents at the end of the world. I realized there was a limited market for that kind of production, so I decided to record an album. Before that, I had been recording keyboard arrangements on a four-track tape recorder and singing along over them when I performed.

LOU: I had a six-track recorder, believe it or not.

ANTONY: Everyone wants those old machines now. They have a beautiful, warm sound. Old bits of tape have a nice bit of hiss as well.

LOU: I hate tape hiss, I really do. Nor do I like skipping or popping sounds on records. There is room for progress. Did you already know all the musicians in The Johnsons when you got together?

ANTONY: I did know my drummer, Todd, from Blacklips. I put an ad for string players in the Voice, but nobody in the current group answered it. I met all the rest through other musicians. The ensemble slowly came into its current incarnation... two violins, a cello, and a bass. The string trio is second to none, and they look as good as they sound.

LOU: Yeah, it's like a modeling agency. There isn't a snaggletooth nerd among them.

ANTONY: I'm the biggest snaggletooth in the band, even though I'm the lead singer. I'm the anomaly in front of all these beautiful creatures.

LOU: You are very beautiful onstage. You have moments.

ANTONY: I used to want to be an androgynous archetype. I presented myself as a drag character, Fiona Blue. But now performing has become more intimate for me. Back then, I wanted to see just how far I could push a drunk nightclub audience. It was a challenge... I would go onstage at 2 a.m. and try to transform the room in three minutes... see if I could make the whole drunk crowd cry their heads off.

LOU: How did you know you could do that?

ANTONY: I had a more aggressive, military approach in those days. I was inspired by Diamanda Galas's cutthroat approach to emotional communication. When I went to one of her shows, I literally felt my asshole getting ripped out. Her music went right through me like knives. I thought that maybe I could do something like that, but with a certain tenderness, a feeling that wasn't as much about rage as it was about grief.

LOU: It takes enormous talent to communicate emotion like that.

ANTONY: I wouldn't cry but I would hold the tears inside myself. I really tried to manipulate the crowd. Since then, I've tried to work more from my internal reality. Much of my material is borne from isolation and my desire to move beyond it. I like to think of my work as a type of soul music... not so much in style, but in essence.

LOU: Certain soul music just kills me to this day.

ANTONY: I can't stop listening to Otis Redding at the moment. I'm totally obsessed with him.

LOU: The first time I put on Ray Charles' "What I Say" I started crying the minute it began. What a freeing experience. Thank God for music that shows you that there are other forms of life out there besides white-bread suburbia.

ANTONY: I feel the same way. I heard Ray Charles's cover of "Yesterday" toward the end of high school, and it changed my life.

LOU: Certain music can knock your socks off if it's consistently emotional, every last bit of it. You deal in emotions, as do I. I admire that about you. It's hard to do and very hard to do song after song. When we tour, I think we're going to have a very emotional show.


PAPER Magazine May 2003

With a voice reminiscent of soul priestess Nina Simone and a style that stirs up memories of the legendary costume artist Leigh Bowery, Antony writes gorgeous, crystal-pure tunes with titles like "Cripple and the Starfish," "Atrocities" and "I Fell in Love with a Dead Boy" -- all possessing a silvery, sweetly masochistic intensity.

Back in the early '90s, he performed with Blacklips, a collective of what he calls "toothless perverts, drag queens and punk women," appearing at such groundbreaking venues as the East Village's Pyramid club. When Blacklips disbanded in 1995, he formed a new group, the Johnsons, which eventually focused on music, his primary passion. Since then, he and the Johnsons have released two CDs, and they'll be recording a third this spring. As if that's not enough, Antony has just provided backup vocals and a cover of the classic "Perfect Day" for Lou Reed's latest opus, The Raven, which was inspired by the work of Edgar Allan Poe. Now he's filming an upcoming indie feature, Wild Side, directed by acclaimed French auteur Sebastien Lifshitz (Come Undone). He'll also tour with Reed this May and appear in a Seattle festival curated by Laurie Anderson.

Antony's stage patter is witty, and his manner can be camp, but don't ever call him "arch." He has no patience with the overly self-conscious, distanced cool affected by so many hipsters these days. "In the world of 2003," he says, "hope and sincerity are the new punk."


The Berkshire Eagle
March 12, 2003

Antony and the Johnsons
by Seth Rogovoy

(NORTH ADAMS, Mass., March 9, 2003) Saturday night's concert by Antony and the Johnsons at Mass MoCA was a bit like a dream -- that is, if your dreams are directed by David Lynch, with his typical undercurrent of subterranean, sublimated anxiety, sexual or otherwise. Singer Antony, who writes most of his own material, cut an exotic figure with his heavenly heartbreaking tenor and his effeminate mien. He sang of the pain of love (and vice versa) in an inordinately heightened, emotional state intended to resolve itself through a kind of soulful transcendence or catharsis.

His band, the Johnsons -- really a small orchestra -- aided Antony in his efforts with artful arrangements of his cabaret compositions. Violinists Joan Wasser and Maxim Moston were credited with the gorgeous arrangements, which were fleshed out with finesse by electric bassist Jeff Langston, pianist Jason Hart, drummer Todd Cohen and guest cellist Michele Schifferle.

If you closed your eyes, you could have been fooled into thinking you were hearing the voice of a black soul singer a Smokey Robinson or Otis Redding, say, suddenly struck with an exaggerated vibrato and a plaintive streak. Antony channeled the melismatic style of singing that soul inherited from gospel -- the dance of several notes to put across a single syllable -- which only heightened the built-in tension provided by lyrics like "Forgive me, let live me, set my spirit free," and "I am very happy/So please hit me."

But subtlety was exaggeration's equal, which is what kept Antony's performance from succumbing to camp. Most of his songs spoke to universal themes of the pain of love (and vice versa). This was played out to the utmost on a simple blues in which he sang, "Be my husband and I'll be your wife." The lyrics were utterly typical of Delta-style, country blues, but the undercurrent -- the David Lynch factor -- was the intensity of the focus on domination and submission within a loving relationship.

Blues, or even conventional love songs, will likely never sound the same to anyone who attended Antony's performance.

Antony has become something of a protege of Lou Reed's, and he concluded his sold-out performance in MoCA's Club B-10 with an apt reading of Reed's "Candy Says," linking this concert to many previous ones at MoCA by Reed-connected and Velvet Underground-influenced artists, including Patti Smith, Cowboy Junkies, Luna and Little Jimmy Scott. And the Club B-10 itself continues to grow in character, taking on the aspect of a real nightclub.


Man, You Should Have Seen 'em, Digging Edgar Allen Poe
A review of
Hal Willner's "Closed on Acount of Rabies" at Royce Hall, UCLA Halloween 2001 


The voice of ken Nordine introduced the proceedings ( after some amusing asides from Harry Shearer, lurking in the wings and up to no good, "Do not take cipro during the performance.") This was followed by the astonishing appearance of Antony and the Johnsons. I had been reduced to tears by this ensemble during rehearsals, as had that hard man out of a hard town, Detroit's own Wayne Kramer. Antony is a star in broken shoes with the ghost of the Big 'O' living inside his throat. Chris Parnell read 'Hop-Frog' and made you wish that you were not there and very glad to be there, all at the same time, whilst the musicians perfectly evoked the atmosphere of a medieval court. Elysian Fields picked up the torch which had set ablaze the triumphant jester's cruel tormentors from the previous tale and made torch song of their own 'Dream Within A Dream'. Mark Mothersbaugh and Nelson Lyon laid waste to 'The Doomed City,' resonant with contempory horror in the light of current events. The former Devo spud groaning like a carnival ghoul in between wound up samples of old lounge records as Mr Lyon orated like a true thespian, off mic and to the back of the hall. Then the irrepressible Syd Straw came on to read a full voiced 'Morela' followed by a punky 'Spirits Of The Dead', somewhere, Joey Ramone was smiling. Enter the always elegantly attired Van Dyke Parks who read the whimsical 'Desultory Notes On Cats', whilst seated on a sumptuous green chaise lounge. This being a prelude to 'The Black Cat'. My first treading of the boards, sliding on to join Joyce who hardly left the stage all night. I scratched and scraped as she bowed and rasped. This piece was followed by the very welcome return of Antony and his Johnsons for 'I Fell In Love With A Dead Boy'. Great song. Hubert Selby Jr. leaning on his cane and rocking on an invisible front porch chair in the wings.

David J LA 2001


London, U.K.
September 29th, 2001

(excerpt from)
My cultural life: Laurie Anderson

The musician and artist loves music that isn't mainstream, films directed by Mike Figgis and the video art of Pipilotti Rist, but hates her own work.

"I am an enthusiast. I constantly babble on about how this record is the best thing that I have ever heard in my life!, so right now my favourite band in the whole world is Antony and the Johnsons.

My partner Lou (Reed) and I discovered them completely by chance. Lou often goes into stores and buys 30 records on impulse, and he picked up their album Antony and the Johnsons (World Serpent), because he thought it had a cool cover. When he came home and put it on the stereo, it blew us both away.

Musically, their sound is really simplistic: just three string players, a bass guitar and drums. But listening to Antony's voice is like hearing Elvis for the first time: two words and he has broken your heart... when he sings it is the most exquisite thing that you will hear in your life." - Laurie Anderson


June 26th 2001

Antony and the Johnsons
(World Serpent)

Not since Klaus Nomi became an international star with his freaky opera-tinged dance music has an authentic gender-variant artist grabbed the attention of the New York Times, a long overdue wake up call to all those who crave knowing what and who matters in art...

What was not known at first was that hidden inside this delicate hollyhock of a man was an exquisite voice. First in line lusting towards Antony's gorgeous, delicate, Beowulf voice was La Diva Populi, Diamanda Galas. Listening fill all of us so full of wonder at the enormous emotional resonance spewing from the painted lips of this psychedelic vision of Dylan's Johanna.

Antony may be the eight wonder of the modern world. He is Moses crossing the gender divide in a blood red dress. He is St. John of the Cross preparing the way for a new expression of gender in art, He is Joan of Arc choosing song rather than sword to stamp out the flaming faggots on fire at his feet. He is the avenging Angel making safe the world for all the future Marsha P. Johnsons and every single child who grows up knowing they are different.

He is a modern mystic using sound and emotional energy in the way the painter Robot Irwin does on canvas to tear at the hypocrisy keeping in the dark the essential right to the infinite expansion of beauty humans have the capacity to be.

Make no mistake this is no freak show. Antony and the Johnsons are a shining light beaming down the path of self definition, a gift of an expanded understanding of humanity unfettered by the limiting definitions of what is masculine and what is feminine.

Antony presents one vivid vision of how to bring Kali-like balance to personhood. He stands welcoming at the gate each of us has to pass through to find our individual selves.

Herein is a soundtrack for personal salvation. His "Rapture" is the most exquisite cry of love written in the last 50 years.

Antony is the oracle at the gate of identity.

Thank you Klaus, thank you Cockettes, thank you Marsha P. Johnson, thank you Dr Julia Yasuda, thank you Leigh Bowery, thank you David Tibet for saying yes, yes, yes to Antony to be his own glorious self. - Jim Fouratt


excerpt from
Spring 2001


by Adam Shecter

Antony Johnson has just received a picture of a dead man. It was given to him by a fan at a recent concert. The picture is an old wake portrait, as a young boy lies peacefully and neatly arranged in a coffin. Despite the painful essence of the image, its overall tone is romantic, calm, even beautiful. It is Antony's favorite memento right now. It fits his music well. Antony Johnson has been performing in the New York music and theater underground for the past ten years. His music includes elements of torch, soul, jazz, gay cabaret, and classical romanticism. With his band, the Johnsons, Antony creates music that is highly dramatic, emotional, and lyrical. Now, with a musical cameo in Steve Buscemi's prison drama Animal Factory, Antony Johnson will reach his largest audience to date.

Adam Shecter: How long have you been singing?

Antony: I've been singing since I was a kid. Most of my voice training was from listening to other singers.

Like who?

When I was 10 years old it was Kate Bush, Boy George, Marc Almond, Alison Moyet... you know, the singer-y singers... Then it went into more blues and black American singers—Diamanda Galas. Billie Holliday, Otis Redding, people like that. I spent a few years just listening to Nina Simone. She really had a big influence on me. Her idea about an extreme emotional connection to the voice was so inspiring. As I went through different singers, my voice morphed into its own thing. It's almost like you develop an identity by default. I always think of my voice as a big compilation of all these people. I guess if you put enough ingredients in the pot, you get your own voice.

Did you formally study music?

I don't have much formal training, which can be a problem. Sometimes musicians get frustrated with me. The Johnsons come from a variety of different backgrounds, and they're all very talented. But I've got a pretty good ear so I can usually communicate what I want to them. I tend to write by myself on piano with chords. Then we think of counter-melodies and stuff later on... but definitely the vocal—the emotional attachment to the song—is the basis of it, what it's saying, and all the frilly stuff comes later.

When did you move to New York?

I moved to New York from California in 1990 to attend the Experimental Theatre Wing at NYU. I was there for two years. Then I became involved in nightclub performance at the Pyramid, which was kind of like the Bethlehem of punk drag at that point in my mind. Once I got involved there I met a whole bunch of afterhours kinds of people.

What were you doing there?

I started a group called Blacklips which was a sort of performance collective. That was really the beginning of my performance adventures in Manhattan. Back then I would play a tape made with a keyboard and a four-track and I'd be singing over it to a bunch of drunks at three a.m...

But now your shows with the Johnsons have become much more of a spectacle, much more put together. You have poetry, performance...

I think spectacle is something I've always been interested in. I've done a lot of theater/performance art types of things—I'm super-interested in the façade and the make-up—things looking beautiful, the lights being beautiful...

Your shows have a cabaret feel. They essentialize the power of performing live.

I want it to be about the music, too. I struggle with the idea that I am a cabaret artist. I don't want to be one, but it might be the reality of the situation. I go back and forth with that. A lot of my newer songs are less theatrical. There's a certain grandiosity to my shows, but I just think as I get older things will get more subtle... more of a musical venture. But I'm happy for it to have all of those other elements too. Maybe I should introduce more visual tableaux into the concerts—that might be a good direction to go.

You're also appearing in film now. You have a cameo in Steve Buscemi's Animal Factory.

He wanted me to sing a song.

How did that come about?

Steve Buscemi emerged from the New York performance scene, and a lot of his friends from the last twenty years are people that I also now know. Tom Murrin from Paper came to one of my shows and told Steve that he should come and see me. Steve came to one of my concerts last year and was into trying to make a scene for me in his movie.

It's a rather striking scene. You're singing in front of a bunch of prisoners that seem very hostile to you.

The way it's shown in the movie and the way it happened in reality were different. We all went up to Philadelphia to this really frightening, barbaric, abandoned prison. The scene was filmed in a messhall. All the extras in the film were on work release from other jails in the area, so we basically had a cafeteria full of real prisoners. Once I realized I was singing for real prisoners it changed the whole dynamic of my process. I was so affected by the place already... and then the fact that they were all going back to jail...

How did your performance go?

One little guy, this Scottish guy, came up to me and he was like, "Do you like the Cocteau Twins?" And I was like, "You're a prisoner?" [laughs] A lot of them were coming up and congratulating me. When I came into the room they all sort of stared at me. They didn't know what to make of me—I obviously stood apart—I had my eyebrows shaved and my shirt tailored to be tight and weird fitting and a little feminine and I was in a weird state of mind... I was radiating weirdness, but once the music started it was pretty obvious where we were all going. I'm not sure how much that reads in the film, though.

In the film, the prisoners are making fun of you.

They overdubbed laughter and cat-calling. That wasn't part of the original situation. I think Steve was trying to have it make sense. But the biggest part of it for me was the actual experience of filming. It was the most intense performance experience that I've ever had. It was so real—the stakes were high.

What did you think of the film?

I think that Steve is a massively inventive and talented man. Willem Dafoe is so beautiful—I fell in love with him. Eddie Furlong was really beautiful too. The film is basically a romance, though some might struggle with its ambiguity. It doesn't fit easily into any genre. I am delighted to have been part of it.

And, as a result, you're also reaching a larger audience. People who've seen the film want to hear more of your music.

It's all kind of new to me, this idea that people I don't know could have a strong relationship with my work. In the past, I've performed for a community of other artists—people I know and their friends. Now it's going into another phase where there are people approaching me who I don't know. Some of them have a strong relationship with what I do—it's really unusual. I wonder what that relationship is, and I'm interested in that.


March 27th 2001

Exquisite Corpse:
Antony and the Johnsons deliver ethereal, unsettling love songs

by Kurt B. Reighley

Singularly named singer Antony is no ordinary mortal. The 20-something New Yorker boasts an unconventional back story—born in England, raised in California—but the minute he lifts his otherworldly voice, one wonders if he even hails from this galaxy. Echoes of Nina Simone, Brian Ferry's early Roxy Music performances, and even cabaret great Mabel Mercer occasionally resonate through his quavering quasiclassical delivery. But ultimately, Antony is peerless.

Framed by nine-piece chamber music-performance art ensemble the Johnsons, Antony's instrument carries no identifiable markings of gender or age, allowing him to sound blissfully naive one moment, seasoned and sage the next. And neither his visual presentation—white-faced androgyny a la performance artist Leigh Bowery and new wave icon Klaus Nomi—nor the lyrics on the group's self-titled debut album from 2000 anchors his persona in terra firma any more securely. Born from a realm of black water and flickering candles, haunting numbers including "Twilight" and "River of Sorrow" play like lost Shakespearean sleepwalking scenes, while others ("Rapture," "Atrocities") invoke powerful spiritual imagery enhanced by Antony's extraterrestrial deportment.

Yet the most arresting moment on the nine-track debut is the one that comes closest to a traditional rock song. Downplaying strings and woodwinds in favor of piano and drums, the penultimate "Divine" pays homage to the drag legend (Antony's "self-determined guru"), building in excitement as the singer rips into the line "I hold your burning heart in my hands" with gospel fervor. Contrasted with the dreamlike feel of the rest of the program, this down-and-dirty outburst reveals an unexpected dimension of Antony's character. Perhaps he is human after all.

That spirit persists on the new three-song EP "I Fell in Love with a Dead Boy" (which also includes covers of Julee Cruise's "Mysteries of Love" and Current 93's "Soft Black Stars"): Antony's growing more comfortable walking among earthlings, although he's still in no danger of slipping unnoticed into the crowd. Proclaiming his love for a corpse, the singer celebrates this unconventional amour in a reading that invokes sorrow and happiness simultaneously, recalling Billie Holiday's pre-sob sister recordings of the '30s. "Are you a boy or a girl?" he queries his new love, far more absorbed in asking the question than awaiting an answer. It's a sentiment that appreciative Antony and the Johnsons listeners should have no trouble sharing.

photo by Mathu and Zaldy


The Brain
a weekly digest from the staff at Brainwashed

Live at Joe's Pub, the New York Public Theater, April 11, 2000

I first heard Antony & the Johnsons' recently released single with something like horror. Everything about it was all wrong to my ears: the suave orchestration seemed undermined by melodramatic, effete vocals, the baby-talk phrasing collided uncomfortably with surprisingly harsh subject matter, and intimations of a smooth as silk Julee Cruise vibe seemed absolutely undone by the Pavarotti-like force of Antony's titanic vocals. But since nothing is quite as fascinating as horror, I found myself returning repeatedly to "Cripple and the Starfish", and to my utter surprise discovered that I was hooked. Despite a long fondness for the work of David Tibet, who wisely snatched up Antony & the Johnsons for his label, I've been worried that all my glowing praise of this band might be terribly premature, having heard only one song. So I was glad to see they'd be playing in my neighborhood, and more than a little curious about what I might be in store for.

I arrived two hours early at the posh Joe's Pub in the New York Public Theatre, which filled up early to an extremely enthusiastic crowd. Although I had expected an army of goth teenagers (the band has just been signed by the excellent English label World Serpent, famous forum to a family of darkly intelligent musical cosmonauts including Current 93 and Nurse With Wound), the audience was a surprisingly glamorous cross-section of East Village culture.

The show began with a brief performance piece by satanic belly-dancer Johanna Constantine. Scantily dressed, breasts and face smeared with what appeared to be blood and bile, and sporting a pair of devil horns worthy of Tim Curry, she undulated about the stage flexing and folding ten-inch-long fingers to music in near darkness. Afterwards the band was introduced by hostess Julia Yasuda, described in the playbill as having been "born in a hermaphroditic condition during WWII." As the nine-piece band came onstage (clarinet, sax, piano, drums, flute, bass, cello, and two violins), Village drag hostess Justin Bond, leaned over from the next seat to assure me that I was about to be amazed.

And I was amazed. Dressed in a shoulderless frock, androgynous Antony took possession of the stage with the irresistible power of a superstar. Unfolding out of vulnerability and physical hesitancy, his remarkably powerful voice sang with a riveting and deeply moving intensity. The only comparisons I could find were to heroic artists like Judy Garland and Ella Fitzgerald.

In retrospect, it is precisely the initially jarring incongruity of the elements of this music that I now find so compelling, and the remarkable finesse with which Antony holds them in tension which makes me conclude that this is an artist worth paying attention to. Antony literally personifies this tension in his unusual occupation of gender positions. He's a boy who dresses vaguely like a girl, and yet in no way does he impersonate femininity—he's unmistakably a boy, and yet, onstage at least, he's unmistakably a girl. Not once during his brilliant version of Nina Simone's "Be My Husband" did it even occur to me that there might be some irony in his declaration "I'll be your wife." This strikes me as radically different from the culturally enshrined varieties of gender-bending we've all seen.

Just as his voice suggests a delicacy which can only be described as muscular, his lyrics reflect another tension between innocence and experience. In many ways this resembles the work of Marc Almond—the cabaret stylings, a playful disregard for gender orthodoxy, preoccupation with the subterranean and nocturnal—but where Almond carries his experience like a torch, Antony's lyrics move through darkness without ever seeming to lose their innocence. Part Evel Kneivel and part Maria Callas, Antony plays out with a kind of death-defying bravery the gestures of opening himself to the world.

Similarly, a large part of the emotional punch these breathtaking songs carry seems to come from an almost compulsive movement between happiness and suffering which runs through the work. In the extraordinary "Hitler in My Heart" he sings "Don't punish me / for wanting your love inside of me," while in "Cripple and the Starfish" he pleads, "I am very, very happy, so please hurt me." This gesture of informing emotions with their opposites (he explains, "I always wanted love to be / filled with pain and bruises") transforms his songs into deliciously painful pleasures.

The songs (like his chats between songs) often oscillated between easy humor and loss, as in the haunting "I fell in love with a dead boy", or his cover of the Ronettes' "So Young", and he deftly seasons one with the other for an effect which is truly remarkable. I can't think of anything more illustrative than his description of having brought a house to tears while performing Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" as Anne Frank in a Holocaust-themed show in Germany.

This aversion to the uni-dimensional extends even to the orchestration (which seamlessly moved between vigorous Cure "Pornography"-era drumming and fragile compositions for clarinet and strings), the opening performer (whose slippage between beautifully erotic and repulsively aquatic strikes me as a perfect introduction to this carnival of contradictions), and even the hermaphroditic hostess.

It now seems to me that my initial dislike of this music, which was really a kind of embarrassed shock, was primarily a response to the overwhelming risk taken by the singer. With dazzling audacity Antony is defying genre, convention, and a multitude of borders in order to articulate complex experiences which most listeners are probably not accustomed to hearing celebrated: songs of the rage and agony of love, the blissful joy of grief, the diamond-like ferocity of true tenderness, charity and grace.

Although Antony complained of hoarseness (and even hurled the cigarettes of an entire nearby table of smokers across the room at one point), the sheer force of his voice was unaffected, and the musicians exhibited a well-practiced ease, even though several of them were new to the troupe. This was easily one of the best shows I've seen in years.

Antony and the Johnsons' CD "Blue Angel" is fantastic and will be out on World Serpent by the end of the month. They will be performing three more shows at Joe's Pub in the next month, and the not-to-be-missed April 30 show will feature performances with legendary Little Annie Anxiety and David Tibet.

– Thomas Olson


Issue 197 July 2000


Antony & The Johnsons self-titled debut is such an inspired combination—hallucinogenic Blakean vision married to gospel bombast and soaring strings—that leaves you wondering why no one thought of it before...The glorious heavy boom of Antony's voice is as fallen as Scott Walker's circa Scott 4. The English-born Antony lives in New York, where he assembled The Johnsons to record the material he had worked up for his late night cabarets at NYC's Pyramid Club. The Johnsons are a fantastic group, utilising saxophone, piano, harp, bass, drums and elegiac strings. At their best, on "River of Sorrow", they drive Antony's vocal with the grace and drama of The Bad Seeds. "Cripple And The Starfish", previously released as a split single with Current 93, sounds as baffling and as upsetting in its fuller CD context. But Antony really scales the heights on "Rapture". Introduced by a resigned piano, sky-splitting strings open a gap for the singer to unleash his litany of fallen family and friends by way of realising his sad take on rapture. Otis Redding couldn't have done a better job. - David Keenan


January 30th 2001


It's usually bad juju when a singer calls time-out mid-way through his latest single, so when Antony and the Johnsons hit pause during the radiant "I Fell in Love with a Dead Boy" on January 12th, folks were poised for the worst. Given the barroom tunes bleeding through the Knitting Factory walls, a tantrum would've been understandable, but Antony chose jelly beans over vitriol, rakishly distributing candy to fey admirers and baffled hipsters alike before starting the number anew.

Such droll conviviality comes melded to the man's haunting, unabashedly robust compositions, While the bittersweet contrast has prompted comparisons to Otis Redding and Judy Garland, there's a canny precision to Antony dubbing Divine his "self-determined guru." The departed femme fatale—his womanhood crafted from wholesale defiance—existed as a primal vision of the autonomous (though not untroubled) sexuality that fuels Antony's music and booming, keening voice. Disarmingly childlike, his stage presence twines innocence to decidedly polymorphous perversity, as precocious renditions of the Ronettes' "So Young" (natch) and "Cripple and the Starfish" aptly demonstrated.

Likewise, in the Johnsons' latest reworking of Nina Simone's "Be My Husband," ambling cello and a breathtaking crush of violin stroked the jailbate sauciness of Antony's vocals. But "River of Sorrow" and the Julee Cruise stunner "Mysteries of Love" (Antony here clutching at words as if they were long-flown memories) conjured dusky cabaret melancholia, further mottling the night's coquetry. Still, the chauteuse caught in this dwindling spotlight couldn't give himself over entirely to gloom and doom. The sole encore ("Twilight," no less) found him plopping Deitrich-style into the lap of a potential sugar daddy. "Are you his wife?" Antony blithely inquired of the fellow's female companion. "I would've brought you a chocolate drop." —Nick Rutigliano


8ighth Issue 2000

Antony and the Johnsons
United Kingdom, DURTRO 050CD (2000)

The first album by Antony and the Johnsons is a truly rare thing, a debut that doesn't merely show promise but announces the arrival of a fully formed, major talent. It's an extraordinary collection of modern torch songs, each one a perfect concentration of emotive vocals and vivid instrumental colors.

For bringing this beautiful creation to our attention, as for so much else, we have to thank David Tibet of Current 93, who was introduced to Antony in New York and, deeply affected by the then unreleased album, became his benevolent patron. The album appears on Tibet's Durtro label... This is not the first time that Tibet has given prominence via his label to wayward, neglected talents; English folk singer Shirley Collins, Krautrockers Sand and (more dubiously) Tiny Tim have all benefited from his patronage. But these were essentially archival releases, intended to make available once again records from the past which would otherwise have lain dormant. Antony, on the other hand, is utterly of the present; and yet his songs have a dreamlike, yearning quality that equally makes them timeless.

Antony sings his baroque texts in a richly soulful voice that could melt the stoniest of hearts, while the Johnsons deliver an inspired soundtrack of strings, piano, woodwind and percussion. The music's glorious emotional swell fortifies the listener even as the words tell unbearably of pain, death and atrocity. There is a dark anguish here that moves from nakedly personal confessions to tender elegies for lost friends and poetic meditations on the state of the world. Under Antony's sorrowful gaze, this anguish assumes an overwhelming density, weighing down these songs tragically and unforgettably. Richard Rees Jones