Opinion: Will He Make It To The Rapture?—The Cultural Relevance Of Antony Hegarty Of Antony & the Johnsons

By Melissa Vincent

The opening chords of “Twilight” by Antony & The Johnsons are of an entirely harrowing nature. Complemented by singer Antony Hegarty’s fragile vocals, delicately ascending keys manifest into a dramatic orchestral flourish as his voice gradually grows more powerful alongside it. It is the first song, Hegarty’s first formal presentation as an artist, from a self-titled debut album which would become the structure to one of the most stunning collections of music from any artist in modern times.

Hegarty’s musical and artistic background is a rich one to delve into. He has performed his music with some of the most prestigious orchestras around the world, been awarded the esteemed Mercury Award for his 2005 effort, I Am a Bird Now, and last year he curated the prestigious Meltdown Festival. As an indication of the company he keeps, past curators of the same festival have included David Bowie, Nick Cave, and Patti Smith. In a distinguished art sphere where album sales matter less than critical acclaim and evolving artistry, Hegarty is a prolific and prominent figure.

Despite his accomplishments, questions can be raised about whether his work is capable of remaining relevant over time. Whether it’s defined as polished folk or elementally classic with a modern twist, exciting new innovators pop up each week, challenging the vitality of an artist fond of recycled sounds. Hegarty creates music that is familiar but inaccessible. The polar opposite of what is typically played on the radio or at a club, his music requires a shovel to be dug up then a sifter to truly understand its crevices.

While perhaps not exactly what casual listeners seek out, his music is necessary for them to listen to. Classical music is embedded in our collective global culture from major theological institutions to our national anthems; thus by overexposure we have become desensitized to the sounds of grandeur that these formats employ.

Hegarty has given us a new way of listening to accustomed tones. By attaching unsheathed lyrics flattered with contemporary values, a richly textured, bone-tingling compromise is met as he tackles themes such as trans issues, family dynamics, and mortality from another angle. Take, for instance, “I Fell in Love with a Dead Boy.” Hegarty cleverly slips a reflection of sexual identity into an overall narrative of a love so strong that emotional actions take precedence over practical reasoning.

Despite insisting that the focus be put on his music, it could be speculated that Hegarty uses his sexuality as a guise to hide behind or even amplify interest in his endeavours. Identifying himself as a transgendered artist, Antony Hegarty has managed a feat nearly unparalleled in the context of modern music. His art, which spans several platforms, has reached a level of interest where his music intrigues his audience before his sexuality becomes a topic of discussion. A fearless voice in a community that many have attempted to silence, every addition to his catalogue, such as his brilliant rendition of Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love,” is one that employs an unparalleled confidence.

For decades, concern about the state our environment has been the “en vogue” biodegradable bandwagon of choice. With Radiohead using biofuel for their tour buses and Texas indie band Okkervil River encouraging fans to use sustainable ways to arrive at their shows, being conscious of our physical livelihoods has now become intertwined with the identity of the modern artist. This raises the question of whether Hegarty, who has often criticized our attitude towards our planet, is part of this shared crusade to appear as socially conscious as possible. Is it authentic, or simply a façade? Furthermore, what right do artists have to speak about issues outside of their respective field?

Seldom have other individuals — musicians, ecologists or otherwise — spoken about the world we reside on quite like Hegarty. Bypassing the physical necessity of living on a healthy planet, Hegarty describes our world as a spiritual extension of ourselves. To him, all of nature is a mirror for the richness of our own preciousness, which is an ideal he holds deeply and emphasizes frequently in this music. The notion that the world is not only a Mother with feminine characteristics, but also a creative entity, has led him to found the Future Feminist Foundation, which includes a collection of friends and collaborators who share a forward-thinking mentality towards the Earth and support women leading economic, political, and religious intuitions.

In Hegarty’s most recent album, Cut the World (2012), a live compilation album recorded with the Danish National Chamber Orchestra, the second song, aptly titled “Future Feminism,” is a nearly 8-minute-long monologue describing everything from our homeopathic relationship with the ocean tides to the struggle of female political figures trapped in patriarchal, monotheistic societies. These are bold statements, but essential ones, as they summarize the ideas he has been alluding to for more than a decade.

Lou Reed, lead singer of The Velvet Underground, and arguably one of the most influential figures in rock in the last 50 years, is usually reserved with compliments. Upon experiencing Antony Hegarty perform, he once said, “When I heard him, I knew I was in the presence of an angel.” For Hegarty’s devotion to creating art not only nakedly humanistic at its core, but constructed with a deep reverence for all life on earth, few would beg to differ.

This article appeared in Demo‘s January 2014 print issue.

Melissa Vincent is a first-year Linguistics student too interested in everything to decide on a minor quite yet. She is an adorer of literally all the sounds we treat our ears to, and thinking of “best of” lists in any category gives her heart palpitations. A head in the clouds, lover of all earth dwellers, she’ll still get down to Deafheaven and Michael Gira any day. When Neutral Milk Hotel reunited she cried on the bus. A lot. People stared in shock. She didn’t care, and then an old man gave her a hug. They remain friends to this day.

One Response to “Opinion: Will He Make It To The Rapture?—The Cultural Relevance Of Antony Hegarty Of Antony & the Johnsons”
  1. calebtrask says:

    beautiful article! contratulations to the writer. much better than most you can find about Antony on “bigger” media

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