Antony plays it straight
by Seth Rogovoy

(NORTH ADAMS, Mass., March 5, 2003) – Among the less outlandish myths that have sprung up around avant-cabaret singer Antony is that his voice is a soprano or countertenor. Some have even described him as a castrato. Yet it’s clear from listening to his recordings, “I Fell in Love with a Dead Boy,” and the self-titled “Antony and the Johnsons,” that Antony sings in a pretty traditional tenor range.

So why the confusion?

“I don’t have a very high range, but it’s something to do with the styling of my voice that seems feminine to people,” said Antony -- who performs in Mass MoCA’s Alternative Cabaret series on Saturday night -- in a recent phone interview from his Manhattan apartment.

It doesn’t come as a total shock that people might be confused about Antony’s voice. Antony luxuriates in androgyny. His music is all about breaking down preconceptions between male and female, about the arbitrariness of the borders between man and woman.

And his voice is unique. While not particularly high in pitch, he sings with a lot of vibrato, with depths of emotion often seemingly on the verge of tears.

“It’s that emotional resonance that seems feminine,” said Antony, whose tenor voice has often been compared to Billie Holiday’s and Nina Simone, but who also recalls Roy Orbison and the contemporary soul singer Seal.

“When he sings it is the most exquisite thing that you will hear in your life,” Laurie Anderson has written about Antony.

As a young teen-ager, Antony was first captivated by the sound of Marc Almond, a New Wave singer best known as the leader of Soft Cell, but also for his solo career featuring versions of songs by Jacques Brel.

“Marc was one of my biggest influences as a kid,” said Antony. “He was a very full-frontal sissy singing his guts out.”

Antony was born in England, and his parents moved to Amsterdam in 1977. “It was wonderful moving from a small town in England to Amsterdam when we did,” said Antony. “It was a hippie-punk paradise, and that was very positive.”

From there, Antony’s family moved to California.

“When we moved to California, I was expecting a similar liberation, but it was very different,” he said. “We moved to a conservative suburb of Silicon Valley. But I’m not one for regrets really. That experience and the ones that followed shaped the person I’ve become. In a way I feel American. I’ve lived in New York City longer than anyplace else in my life. I feel it’s my home.”

Antony got his start in New York’s downtown alternative theater and performance-art scene. He first presented his songs in after-hours cabarets at the Pyramid Club. With his group, the Johnsons, he began performing concerts at the Kitchen and the Knitting Factory, before beginning an extended residency at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater.

Because Antony began performing in fringe venues – and because some of his early material contains themes of sado-masochism and hermaphroditism – Antony has been pegged as a fringe artist, a preconception he seeks to dispel.

“I don’t think of what I do as inaccessible,” said Antony. “I certainly don’t think of it as being limited to the interests of people in those very marginal demographics. I emerged out of the after-hours performance world, but that context doesn’t define the nature of the work. That was just the context of the moment. That was who was listening at the time.

“I’m interested in a much more general audience, people from different walks of life. I’m interested in making something that’s beautiful and that people respond to. A lot of it is quite gentle, so it tends to evoke introspection.

“I try to keep the landscape of my songs open enough so that people can bring their own universe to them. I’m certainly not interested in singing for my own indulgence.”

This summer, Antony will embark on a new chapter in his career, presumably reaching new audiences when he tours Europe and America as a member of Lou Reed’s ensemble. Reed has become something of a mentor recently; Antony’s vocals are featured on many tracks on Reed’s new album, “The Raven,” including Antony’s new reading of the Reed classic, “Perfect Day.”

“I think he recognizes in me an honesty and a risk taking that’s in his own work,” said Antony about Reed. “He puts himself really far out there in all his work, and that’s something that I do, too.”

Having championed Little Jimmy Scott about a decade ago, featuring him on his albums and taking him on tour, Reed also clearly has a stylistic affinity for the androgynous vocal qualities that Antony represents.

“He probably sees me as one of his progeny, which he’d be right in thinking,” said Antony.

In the past, Antony’s concerts were noted for their theatricality and outrageousness, but nowadays Antony and the Johnsons – who include violinists Joan Wasser and Max Moston, cellist Julia Kent, pianist Jason Hart, bassist Jeff Langston and drummer Todd Cohen -- prefer to play things straight, for lack of a better term.

“There’s always a performance element because I’m a hambone, but generally speaking we’re shifting focus to the music,” said Antony. “I’ve become tired of wearing these frilly cupcake outfits. It tends to confuse the issue.

“I don’t feel any loyalty to these outfits. I’ve traded them in for something more somber. I don’t think I’ll be going back on that, either.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on March 6, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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