Antony and the Johnsons’$2 2009 album The Crying Light felt like the apex of everything the enigmatic singer and gay icon Antony Hegarty had been attempting to express since forming the band in 1997. It took the swirling chaos of his greatest inspirations, insecurities, and fears and compressed them into a delicate array of restrained, tense, and emotionally devastating songs. The album made him a star. And stars can change things up, which is exactly what Hegarty has done on his fourth album, Swanlights. The record is as feral and unbridled (his words) as Crying Light was elegant and controlled. Along with the willfully chaotic new album, Hegarty is releasing a book, also called Swanlights, which includes collages, photographs, and writing collected during the time he worked on the record. Vulture’s straightforward discussion of Hegarty’s creative process evolved into a madcap treatise on everything from the Buddhist concept of the hell realm to the virus of human beings and why men should be forcibly subjected to hormone therapy.
In the Venn diagram that exists between the work on the record and what’s in the book, is there some overlap? Or are they separate?
The drawings just had significance for me and told a story that the songs didn’t tell. My perception of the world is sort of systematically addressed and elaborated on in the book and then the songs are more erratic. It’s not as linear as my past albums have been. The whole thing is more sprawling. Usually I keep things really tight and edited to within an inch of their lives. This one is more reaching toward extremes.
What were you going for with the sound?
I wanted it to have more voluptuous kind of voicing, more cacophonous feel to it, like a kind of a wilderness to it. The last album was very austere and I wanted this record to be much more shaking and feral.
That hasn’t always been your process, right?
The Crying Light had a very different aesthetic focus that was moving towards austerity and really pushing towards the most essential elemental voicings, and I wanted this one to have more. There was a lot that was taken out of The Crying Light and this one was about fitting lot of things in. Very arpeggiated voice arrangements, so there was a lot more chirping and ribbitting on this record …
It seems like healing or soothing is a part of what comes across in the book …
I think when I’m addressing broken-ness, I’m trying to address human impact, because we are coming to understand, in an unprecedented way, that we are having this catastrophic effect on the rest of nature. Nature’s always been the mountain of stability in our lives, something that we’ve just abused in the way a newborn baby kicks her mother, feeling that it would be impossible to really impact that security. Everyone’s grappling with it. I’m putting it forward as an artist in my work, like my process of acceptance and self-loathing and attempts to make change. It’s going to change everything, change all of our spiritual structures. All of our political structures, all of our governing structures, all of our economic structures, all patriarchal capitalist structures and theological structures have to be radically overhauled if we’re going to make it. And also the way we think about ourselves.
We’ve really been gearing up for this for at least a couple thousand years. Male patriarchal theologies have been gearing up for a sky-god apocalypse since the beginning of Christianity and Islam. They sought to subjugate the feminine and alienate us from the feminine aspect. All of the people with earth-based, more feminine spiritual systems were … And these people are like viruses, they’re killing everything they encounter. But that’s us, too. And I have to make spiritual sense of the fact that I am a part of that system as an artist as a westerner and that’s the work that has been put before me to do.
What does Swanlights mean?
It’s an idea I just made up of, like, if a spirit jumps out of a body you could see its reflection in the water. It’s the idea that the spirit could be tangible even three times removed from the body. It’s me trying to unlearn all the bullshit I learned as a kid, raised a Christian. That as human beings we had this unique spiritual constitution that was totally different from the rest of nature. All that was created so that men could assume power and get more money. So that those power structures, so that the Vatican could take over the world, so that people could reign supreme and collect their hoards of wives and gobble up all the gold and live in their weird virulent testosterone-driven fantasy.
What’s the role of this kind of violence that’s displayed in your art now? Is it intended to show that the feminine doesn’t have to be wimpy?
The feminine aspect isn’t wimpy. I’m grappling with the fact that I have estrogen and I have testosterone. And some people have a lot of testosterone, and testosterone was given to us by nature to fight wolves and defend the homestead and kill animals for food. I mean, people have testosterone for very good practical, nature-based reasons and women have estrogen for very good reasons. I recently read this article in the Guardian and it was like there’s no difference between men and women. There are huge differences between men and women! As a transgendered person, I’m excruciatingly aware of the biological difference between being male and female. There is a huge difference! It’s chemical! I mean, I really feel that men should be forced to take estrogen treatments before they make any real decisions around governance and war. All men and women should be required to do at least a three-month period of hormone treatment of the other sex just to come to grips with what it means to be flooded with testosterone or flooded with estrogen. People behave differently on the basis of that and if you don’t believe it, just try it!
Well, it is a drug.
The feminine biology is going to be super-helpful to us right now. We should be asking circles of old women to help in all areas of governance. We should be replacing all these circles of men with circles of the eldest women in all of our communities.
There seems to be a preponderance of cold places in the book. Do you really like the cold?
I went to visit an island in the Arctic Circle owned by Norway, in 2006 because for at least ten or so years I’ve been really preoccupied by the arctic. In a way, it becomes the most sacred landscape because it’s so fragile. There’s this level of self-hatred because to destroy ultimately to destroy the Earth and to destroy all reflections of divinity and creative expression. It is to create the loneliest hell realm we could possibly have. It’s like the hell realm they talk about in Buddhism. This maze devoid of life.
Do you feel better for having made all of this?
I don’t know. Björk says she believes this is the century where everything is going to merge — science and ethics and feminism and ecology. She has a much more positive outlook than me. When we do this thing with factory farming where we’ve got, like, 3 billion chickens with their noses cut off sitting in dark rooms, it’s like, where do we think we’re going when we die? Not to say that I believe in reincarnation, but it all comes around. If we build a hell realm for ourselves to live in, that’s where we’re headed. If there’s going to be consciousness in the future, it’s going to be us peering out of those little eyes.