Antony & the Johnsons
November 15th 2004 - Son'Art, Bordeaux
interview with Antony by Barbara H


Barbara H: Hi Antony

Antony: Hi

BH: How are you?

A: I'm ok, we've been travelling today

BH: For how long have you been touring ?

A: we started two weeks ago, we're gonna go until the end of November

BH: You're on your own...

A: I'm with Coco Rosie...

BH: I mean, on stage

A: It's just with a guitarist, my friend Steve and then i just play the keyboards. One day gratefully i'll graduate to the world of pianos but right now it's just a keyboard

BH: Have you done this before, touring on your own ?

A: No, usually i do special events where we can do the real show... this is just a sort of a much rougher... a sort of escapade just to get my feet wet and see a little bit of the world and try something different

BH: Do you think a full-band tour with the Johnsons will happen?

A: Next year, i think so

BH: Could you tell me how it started for you, i read that at first you were more a performance artist than a musician...

A: I started performing in nightclubs in New York City, late night performances in clubs, singing, always singing and then doing some sort of theatric spectacles with other people who were like me, a little bit more punk, but always doing music, sometimes doing a few plays, i did some experimental plays, i used to write musicals, in the tradition of John Waters but more tragic, modelled after [John Water's] Female Trouble...

BH: Where do the Johnsons come from, the whole band ?

A: The band is a sort of a loose garment for me, it's a changing group of people, i work with a lot of different musicians in New York... It's become a very open entity so right now the Johnsons are just one boy i play with, in New York i work with a few string players who have been very important in the creation of the record, Maxim Moston, Julie Kent and Joan Wasser. But you know, it sort of changes. I met them all in New York through the musical work there.

BH: So your shows are real "shows," with performance artists and a cabaret influence...

A: Not so much anymore, right now it's just music. I used to do some stings with my friend Joanna Constantine, she's a dancer, she used to do some dance and stuff but lately i've just been playing concerts, i'm more interested and focused on that.

BH: Until very recently, you only played in front of an audience who knew what they were going to see, a small audience, the people interested in the art scene in new york, how does it feel to play in front of a wider audience ?

A: It feels like a natural progression, you know when we were performing more for festivals it wasn't just in new york, we performed for festivals and special events, we did a show in Nancy, with Yann Tiersen, but that was two years ago. The difference really is just that we're performing smaller concerts, these are much smaller shows than i would have done if i had come to France in the old way, which would have been to go to modern art institutions and things that were financing special projects. So i'm just trying that out.

BH: How has the audience reacted so far ?

A: The audience has been receptive and the people who know my work seem to be glad to see me coming around because i haven't done very much touring, you know it's just a good opportunity to just check in... sometimes i feel like i'm a little bit short-changing cause it's no real piano, some of the things that i tend to rely on aren't there so it's very barebones, just keyboard and voice. But at least people can check in a little bit with how i'm feeling or see how the way that i'm singing now has a bit evolved, they can see a bit of what i'm thinking and i'm presenting a bit of the new songs which is just good.... you know we have a record [I Am a Bird Now, secrety canadian] coming out in February, that's one of the reasons i wanted to just get out a little bit.

BH: Are there changes between your new album and Antony and the Johnsons ?

A: It's more intimate sounding, there's a lot of guests singing on it which is part of the way that it evolved in the end, it wasn't something i had anticipated until the 11th hour, all of a sudden a lot of people just came in to complete the record which i was having trouble with, finding solutions and suddenly all these people came and helped me. I don't know, it's very different from the first record.

BH: You put up a lot of emotion when you're singing, is it exhausting to perform these songs every night ?

A: No it's a pleasure, it's really a pleasure to do the show. The more i do it the more i want to do it, it's not like i'm crying all the time you know, singing is a pleasure, i wish i could to it more...

BH: Now let's talk about the people you're associated with.... you're on Devendra Banhart's Golden Apples of the Sun compilation...

A: do you know Devendra ?

BH: yes

A: he's amazing, he's probably one of the greatest artists i've ever met

BH: how did you meet him ?

A: I met him through his label Young God in America, we just have mutual friends and mutual interests and i finally met him in the middle of last year and it was really grand to meet him because he was a big inspiration to me, for helping to finish my record and giving the positive outlet ... Devendra sort of fostered a really wonderful community of people around him, he's very charismatic and he brought together a lot of people and really helped them to feel a sort of momentum. He helped me a lot too, he's just a great guy.

BH: you also sing on Rufus Wainwright's new record...

A: yeah, (laughs) Rufus is such a nutcase, he had me singing on that record this ridiculous piece, i sound like one of those fat ladies with the viking horns in opera (laughs) but, that was his vision for me...

BH: how did you two meet ?

A: we did a piece for a fashion show of a mutual friend of ours and then it evolved and some of the musicians i worked with he started to work with, my violin player he started to ask, Max, to do some of his arrangements, he became interested in some of the people that i work with. We started to see more of each other and just became friends. Rufus is such a talented boy... anyway so we're both singing on each other's record now, he's singing on mine and i'm singing on his, it's just nice. He's doing a very beautiful song on my record, it's a very short song but he does it so gorgeous... are you a fan of Rufus' ?

BH: I really like his first record...

A: his first record, oh dear...

BH: I didn't like Poses and Want One as much and i think the new one is better

A: There's a couple of songs on it that are so fantastic , Rufus is a tremendously talented musician, the kind of boys that you'll... he'll say [impersonates Rufus] "ok all 7 of you i want you to do this note, you this note, you this note..." and you'll have 7 people singing different notes and then they sing it and then he'll point at one of the singers and say "you're out of tune" he has these really discriminating ears and a very sophisticated sense of melody, he's just feet ahead of most pop musicians and i think... my idea is that Rufus is going to become a great writer of musicals and operas... I think his music is gonna open up beyond pop music into a whole bunch of other areas. He could become the new Steven Sondheim of our time.

BH: Now... Lou Reed, how did you meet him ?

A: I met Lou because he has a producer Hal Willner who asked me to come and do some singing for Lou's record and i was told "Be prepared that if Lou doesn't like your singing he's gonna walk into the backroom and you'll be escorted out of the studio without him saying goodbye" and i was like "oh, god" so i went in and i sang for him and he seemed to really liked it and we became really great friends. He's been a fantastic friend to me, a great power of example and a great support to me. He's a really important person in my life now.

BH: your work seems to connect with the whole late-60s Andy Warhol troupe, the whole Factory scene, the cover of your new single [The Lake, secretly canadian] is a picture of Candy Darling by Peter Hujar...

A: It's funny because that's become very strong, the Candy Darling thing because for Lou's tour, I was sing with Lou on his tour all around the world last year and on encores i would sing "Candy Says"... but even before that when i was doing Blacklips [his pre-Johnsons perfomance art group] when i was doing my performance stuff in the nightclubs in New York in the 90s we did a special night for Candy Darling. Candy darling has always been an icon of the underground in New york, all the performers and drag-queens and punk women... everyone loves Candy Darling, she's sort of like the James Dean of the underground, because she died so young she became a star in this sort of tragic transcendental way and she was so beautiful... so it's just been really interesting that evolution, when I first met Lou i said to him "you know there's one song of yours that i always love so much, it's that song "Candy Says"" and he said [impersonates Lou Reed] "you should sing it Antony, it's your song!" and I was so shocked! so you know so the next time he came to my concert i had prepared to sing it with my band for him and we did it and he loved it and then we did that tour and then one of my favourite artists is that photographer Peter Hujar, he photographed alot of the artists in New york in the late-60s and in the 70s and 80s, he's really one of the great photographers of the 20th century, like, you know, the French photographer [Eugene] Atget, he's like a classissist in that line, someone who was a seminal inspiration to all the other artists, who would never receive a lot of popular acclaim because he was a difficult and underground New York sort of person and then he died of AIDS in the late 80s but all the modern photographers like David Armstrong were all entierly inspired by Peter Hujar... He took a protrait of Candy Darling in the hospital right before she died, just the long shot that's on the cover of my record but then i talked to the estate of Peter Hujar and they gave me permission to use this other picture that had never been published for the cover of The Lake. So I was very excited, it's a very beautiful picture.

The tape stopped then. Antony told me of Jamie who was a contemporary Candy Darling who died in the very same hospital 30 years after, how it was such a painful experience and how everything seemed to become full-circle. His show was impressive.

/dec 1st 2004/