I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
The first time I saw Antony perform was November 1992; he was onstage at a downtown club with Johanna Constantine and Poison Eve, two other original members of the Blacklips Performance Cult. They looked like something out of a glamorous horror movie, and they presented a version of the Star Spangled Banner with Antony singing. His voice gave me the chills, and the fact that he had the lyrics written in ink on the insides of his arms made me wonder whether it was serious or some kind of joke. (It turns out he wasn’t solid on the words.) Anyway, it was unforgettable. I became a cult follower and followed Antony’s path from his time with Blacklips through various solo performances to his current music project, Antony and the Johnsons.
In 2004, we had the opportunity to collaborate for the Whitney Biennial on Turning, a piece we performed at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. Antony presented a concert in parallel with my projections of a series of live video portraits of New York models. The models took turns standing on a revolving platform on stage and being filmed by two cameras. The resultant images were processed and mixed to create slowly changing multi-layered composites.
Charles Atlas Let’s talk about Turning first. It looks like we are going to be able to present it on tour in Europe next fall.
Antony What it whittled down to for me in the end was tableaux—staring at something that I thought was beautiful and magical, something transcendental, which for me is usually moving across androgyny toward the feminine. It’s an iconic idea; a slowly turning portrait of a person’s face where the turning creates a shedding of self that can be very revealing, and in tandem with the music, very intimate.
CA I’m looking forward to doing it again, because I’ve been wanting to continue to work on my end of things as the video technology and my understanding of it progresses. And I think it will be amazing and fun to do it on tour.
A It’ll be a rogue’s gallery of gorgeousness.
CA What’s going on with you at the present?
A Well, I am going to Australia tomorrow for two weeks. We’ve been on tour for about a year. Having done two European tours and two North American tours, Australia will tie it all up in a ribbon.
CA Has it changed your way of performing—doing so many shows?
A It has. I think I’ve developed a stronger experience of seeking while I’m singing, like waiting for some kind of wind to come from behind me; some momentum. As I got more tired on tour I started seeking inspiration outside of myself. I would sing for other people, for the room, for patterns of light I would imagine shooting around in the theater. You know what I mean—letting the ghosts do it for me. It became more emotionally detached in a way. Not that the performance was detached, but the imagery I drew from wasn’t necessarily personal.
CA Do you do something during the day to prepare for a show? Or do you just throw yourself in?
A Yeah, I don’t prepare. Sometimes I try to psych myself up, but there’s no use; it either works or it doesn’t. Can I get out of my own way tonight? It depends.
CA What would your ideal performing situation be?
A I used to think it would be, like, this gilded silent theater—but I’ve found that I actually enjoyed some of the hardest situations the most. Like performing at a festival where everyone is standing and talking or when there are terrible sound problems; it teaches you to rise to the challenge. Especially with an enthusiastic crowd in a really rough venue—you have to fight to get their attention, but when you do it can be so spirited. Sometimes nuances of imperfection in a perfect space are much more annoying than when many things are terribly wrong and you can burst through it.
CA When I last heard the current configuration of your band (the Johnsons), musically it was very together and complex—much more developed than when you started performing with a group of musicians. How did that happen?
A When I was performing in nightclubs, it was just me and a tape. Over the last few years I’ve developed more skills around playing with a group of musicians and finding out what that’s about, what other voices sound like and how they can interact. And I’ve honed an idea of what it is I want out of that: something articulate, something that breathes. Over last summer I think the band was more successful—we didn’t work with drums, and the sound was very spacious, sort of an interaction with silence. I was always challenging my musicians to seek and develop that relationship between sound and silence.
CA Where do you come down on drums now?
A I’m still trying to figure it out because I am interested in rhythm, but I have to figure out another way. One of the big things that set me free in the band was getting competent enough on the piano that I could accompany myself, because then I could direct from there. Everyone could attach themselves to what I had in mind about momentum, as opposed to my trying to communicate momentum as a vocalist and inevitably getting frustrated. Until I started playing piano myself I was never really satisfied.
CA How does it happen that you’re a singer—how did you learn to sing? Where did you first sing?
A I was singing in school as a kid in England. We would sing hymns in the morning.
CA So was it a church school or a public school?
A It was Catholic school—which is public school in England. There is no non-denominational school in England, at least that I’m aware of. Most of the English schools are Church of England.
CA You’re kidding! So in a Church of England school, Muslims and Jews have to sing Christian hymns?
A No, no, I don’t think in Church of England schools they do anything. Church of England is not a real religion. (laughter) It’s just a way to get a divorce—set up by Henry VIII. But in Catholic school they sang hymns.
CA Okay, so how long did you go to Catholic school?
A Through fifth grade. In England there is a different culture around singing because everyone wants to be on Top of the Pops. (laughter) You would be 13 and you would be cool for having your own band. It didn’t occur to me to feel ashamed about singing until we moved to America where suddenly all these girls were singing in breathy, pathetic voices, and the boys weren’t singing at all; they were just punching each other.
CA I sang as a boy. I actually was quite good until my voice changed, then I couldn’t sing anymore.
A Maybe you just needed an adjustment period.
CA I always wondered about people who have an incredible range like you do—was there ever a period when something changed in your voice? Or did you start out with this voice?
A I don’t think I was a particularly good singer as a kid. I just sang like everyone else did. Over time I imitated all of these singers that I liked, and they were the ones who gave me singing lessons.
CA So how did it develop? Did you sing along with records?
A Yeah, I would definitely say I learned to sing from pretending to be other singers, people like Marc Almond, Rozz Williams, Kate Bush. I started writing songs and recording them on tape when I was about 13. Then I started to forge my own ideas about melody or what have you. But they were still a response to the things I was listening to.
CA Do you have tapes from when you were 13?
A I’ve got a box of them somewhere in my apartment. (laughter)
CA When was the last time you listened to one of those tapes?
A Probably ten years ago or something.
CA I don’t have anything from my childhood, to know what I was like. I barely have a memory.
A That’s because you were a woman! (laughter) You were a girl then. Did you forget everything after the sex change?
CA In your early theatrical work you were always dealing with pretty big subjects. The titles of your plays—The Birth of Anne Frank, Funeral of Fiona Blue, Miracle Now—are a marked characteristic of what you were trying to encompass in your work. Or that’s how I perceived it.
A I’ve never thought about it like that. You know, it’s funny, because the starting points for those works tended to be extremely personal, translated, or abstracted into something epic. But all of the voicing in it would be utterly personal.
CA Though it maintains that epic implication.
A I guess it’s just my natural grandiosity. (laughter)
CA Since all this touring, performing, and publicity has taken up a lot of your life, are you continuing to have moments where you feel like writing?
A It’s not like I set any time aside. Sometimes when I sit in front of a good piano at a particular venue by myself, I find that quite inspiring, just to write little bits and pieces. And I carry a dictaphone with me, so I make little notes and things. But I’ve been thinking more about ideas than writing poems. Mainly there’s just one image I’ve been thinking about, which, when I think about it, is the same idea I’ve been turning over my whole life.
CA Would you like to elaborate on this obsessional idea?
A A body dies and spirits fly out of it.
CA Do you still keep diaries?
A Usually I have three diaries a year—this year I have one. I was just looking through it before I came here. I was too overwhelmed to take notes on the big things that happened this year. I do sometimes chronicle key conversations—like all the mean things you have ever said to or about me! But my diaries are miserably ineffective as a timeline in my life.
CA But they’re so voluminous.
A They are! It’s true. I don’t know—do you think the epic thing is bad?
CA No! I don’t think it’s bad at all. I think it’s characteristic.
A It’s a way to get it out of the personal.
CA It’s something very you. I don’t judge it, I just think it’s you.
A Isn’t it a way of abstracting the personal a bit, just enough to get it onto the canvas?
CA Well, there are different ways. There’s something very compelling about having a bigger reference for something personal. A person’s self-expression comes out for the same reasons any kind of art comes out.
A Do you feel like you do that in your work? Go toward something epic?
CA No. I don’t think that’s characteristic of what I do. I might do something like that, but it’s just not characteristic. I don’t think I’ve ever gone out to address a theme; something just emerges for me. There are artists who naturally think in big, or cosmic terms. I just don’t.
A Oftentimes I find that I’m drawn to mythical imagery, but I don’t necessarily have a grand scheme or an ultimate theme in mind. I tend to piece possible meanings together, later. I don’t create the work in a topical way, with an idea of addressing a particular issue. I tend to be quite intuitive in the way that I put words, or imagery, or anything together.
What’s been exciting about touring is finding how open-ended some of the songs can be thematically, particularly songs on I Am A Bird Now. And I have sung the same song from radically different perspectives and addressed different things emotionally each night. “You Are My Sister” has been a crazy opportunity for me to sing about all sorts of things. It started out just about my sister, but singing it on David Letterman I was thinking the whole time about women in Iraq. Then you go to Belfast and everyone in the audience is singing along to “You Are My Sister” and you think, Jeez! It’s a heavy issue being neighbors in a country like that. When we did Turning, the song had another implication. When Boy George joins, it’s another thing again. So, sometimes the structures are epic, but they’re not necessarily nailed down topically.
CA I think that’s a positive thing, that you can let it have many meanings.
A Another one is “For Today I Am A Boy.” Some of the most emotional times I’ve sung that song, I’ve just sung it for women. Another time I sang it quite evocatively for a flock of flamingos.
CA It’s a surprise when you find out how people interpret, through their own experience, whatever it is that you’re giving out.
A If the focus of the work stayed in my personal experience, I would find it too claustrophobic. In the live arena, you find the audience comes to you with different sets of needs. Sometimes there’ll be an alchemy between what you’ve been thinking about and the audience’s own issues as a community. Even if it’s just a flight of fancy in your mind as a performer, it creates all sorts of energy to draw from.
CA You create an atmosphere in your performance that allows that to happen, that allows people to take it wherever they want.
A I want to enable that flight for people, for them to have their own experience with the performance. Facilitating that on tour was so incredibly satisfying, what I would qualify as a boon in my life.
CA I wanted to ask you about your theatrical background. What did you do just before you went into NYU’s experimental theater program? What made you go into a theater program?
A It was just an opportunity. Me and Johanna Constantine were at Santa Cruz, where I was a creative studies major. I was taking studio art classes, photography and a tiny bit of theater, but I was never remotely interested in the theater. Except, well, at the end of each year I put together a play with all my friends in it. I suppose they were transvestite musicals, modeled after John Waters’s early films, but taking themselves a bit more seriously. And with a weird vulnerable edge, but hard edges too. I’d star as the tragic character in the middle. Those were the first times that I took on a feminine persona and it was totally intuitive; I never would have called it drag, I just did it.
The first one was Meg and Sylvie and I was Meg. In the second one I was Sister Rosa, this nun who eats too much cheese and is abducted by a group of perverts and forced to perform in seedy nightclubs under the alias “Fiona Blue.” They developed into huge musicals with, like, 25 people in them. We’d do them in the cafeterias of the colleges late at night. There was one professor who was familiar with the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, and he pointed me toward New York City.
Johanna was listening to John Sex and Marilyn and the Movie Stars; we were watching Mondo New York with Joey Arias and Joe Coleman and Dean and the Weenies. Everything was pointing in the direction of New York. It didn’t seem like there was anywhere else to go, except maybe London, but no school in London would have me. Ron Argelander, who was an assistant of sorts to Jack Smith for a period, was the temporary director at the Tisch School of the Arts’ drama department and was doing auditions that year. I auditioned for him with one of my transvestite eating-disorder monologues and he was just like, “God knows what you’re doing or where you came from, but you should probably come to New York.” He put me in Playwrights Horizons, which was a miserable failure, then he transferred me to Experimental Theatre Wing, where I just started doing my own things. I immediately wrote the musical Cripple and the Starfish, and staged it.
CA Did you do it at ETW?
A We did it at Theater for the New City. They wouldn’t do it within the school.
CA But you were a student.
A It was an independent study. Some of the staff at the school were suspicious of my talents. So I took the entire student body and did this super-apocalyptic transvestite musical at Theater for the New City. Those poor theater students didn’t know what had hit them. No one knew what to do with me at ETW, but some people were very supportive, especially one singing teacher and a couple of others, like Martin Worman from the Cockettes, who was the one who outlined the lay of the land for me with regard to transvestitism and the avant-garde, as well as Ron Argelander, who told me about Jack Smith.
Then I went out and interviewed Hattie Hathaway [legendary performer and promoter and multi-decade veteran of the downtown art/club scene from The Mudd Club through the Pyramid through Jackie 60]. Me and Lily of the Valley went to Pyramid and I approached Hattie, pretending to be Lily’s manager, and got him a gig at “Scream!” on Saturday night. Shortly thereafter I did an interview with Hattie for a performance studies class. I transcribed this single-spaced 15-page interview with him, where he basically told me everything. Everything—the whole scoop! From Marsha P. Johnson to the Gilded Grape to Tanya Ransom [head drag queen at the Pyramid] to Ethyl Eichelberger and back again. I think he was just fascinated that there would be this 19-year-old student in 1990 knocking on his door and asking him to put in his dentures and tell him a tale. He took me under his wing. And I was so wide-eyed; I think I was looking for a place to belong, or a family, or some connection. It seemed like that’s where fate had landed me. In retrospect it was true—that I did belong there in a weird way. That was my era, for better or for worse. It was that weird bridge between the good times and now, a pretty dark, shadowy decade, the ’90s. It was the worst possible time to come of age. It was like, “Welcome to the funeral of the good times. Welcome to arduous struggle.” (laughter) Did you not feel that way?
CA Well, now that I look back on it, I don’t know how I would characterize the ’90s.
A There was some fun at the beginning. There was a bit of fun to be squeezed out of it.
CA In terms of art work, I feel like we’re practically going back to the ’60s at the moment.
A Which is a good thing.
CA As someone who’s seen a lot of the work that came out of that period, and the stuff that came after, I feel like, Oh, they’re doing that again. But it’s new for all the people who’re doing it, so—
A We are in a different time. Even though some of the trappings of the aesthetics people are reaching for might seem familiar, I think there’s a more desperate reason why people are reaching for something more personal and meaningful than there might have been in the ’60s—almost as a survival instinct. A gesture of swimming against the tide is manifesting.
CA How does your early theater work feel to you from your current perspective? At a certain point you decided to focus on music.
A Well, there was no future for me in theater. That was painfully obvious. There was no support for it—my work was too weird.
CA Do you have thoughts about how you may reincorporate it with your music?
A I want to make films. I don’t know if the stage interests me as a forum for that kind of surreal imagery in the way that it used to. And I have moved away from the idea of concert as theater and really embraced this notion of music in a room.
But … so, you really wouldn’t say that the ’90s was a dark, shadowy decade?
CA I would—it was a very up-and-down time for me, just personally. I see where the ’90s started and I see where they ended and it looks like a downward spiral. You have a better perspective on it. For you it is more filled with expectation. I kept on hoping that a positive spirit would come back, but it never materialized. I was hoping for a rebellion. I thought that the whole world was becoming corporate and homogenized and people were just sitting back.
A Well, also until ’96 was AIDS.
CA For me AIDS started in the ’80s.
A When I got here people seemed to have been blown out of their shells. They did not know what to do with themselves. It was as though a bomb had hit.
I’ll never forget coming to your apartment with a chewed-up old poster of the Palm Casino Review. Do you remember that?
A I showed up here—I used to torture you with that stuff.
CA The Palm Casino Review?
A Tried to force you to regale me with stories of yesteryear. Remember the whole Peter Hujar story? I felt like on one hand you appreciated what you thought of as my idealism, and on the other hand it drove you mad.
CA It’s absolutely true. Have you never had the clay feet experience?
A What’s that?
CA Where you idolize someone, and then you meet them, and they turn out to be not—
A Well, it’s funny. What others may perceive as me idealizing someone is actually just me being interested in them. Even if they are mean, I don’t necessarily care—unless of course I am in the line of fire! Like when we brought Minette on a “country drive” in search of Avery Willard’s long-lost film archives and she accused me of Satanism because I had “Fuck Me” written in polka dots on my forehead! But we have talked about this before. I like to dream about the way an artist is and you like to know the reality, and the nuts and bolts about who the artist is. You like to bring it back down to the human life. I would like to point out, though, that I do not see the disparity between the most rotten details of a person’s life and the dream they are striving for. It’s been really fascinating meeting artists and finding out the ways they are human and fallible. I can learn from them; I am broken in so many similar ways. How do we make our way as artists in this world? They are all teachers.
CA You are right that I like to bring it down to earth. What I like best in art are usually the things that resemble the artist’s self, and of course then I can’t help but make judgments about it. If a work is very particular to an individual person then that is a good quality—I mostly react against people whose public voice is very different from who they are. That’s from my childhood. I was raised as an Orthodox Jew. My big rebellion growing up was finding out that all these “holy” people were really not so nice. And from then on I questioned everything and was ultra-sensitive to hypocrisy. I don’t think I have ever lost that suspicion.
A You know how much I worship Kazuo Ohno [one of the founders of Butoh dance in postwar Japan]. He is my greatest living hero, and it was shocking to read this book by his 60-year-old son. Kazuo Ohno has been this fountain of life and hope for so many people, and his son writes something like, Everyone comes to me and tells me how beautiful my father is, how much he makes them cry, how generous he is, and what a gift of love he gives to the world. But my experience of him as a father was at times work-obsessed, distant, and difficult.
CA I really idealized these films by the Japanese director Mizoguchi because they were so spiritual they made me cry. They beautifully described longing. Then I read a book about him—he was terrible to actors, he was a tyrant, created tension on the set, said terrible things to people. Everyone was frightened of him.
A Granted, Kazuo was not characterized as cruel in the way you’re describing Mizoguchi. But I do learn something about Kazuo from the information in the book, about the place from where his work emerges. Perhaps it’s partly the idea that people are drawn toward the ideas that they most need to learn. Maybe some people who are putting out what you might perceive to be the most spiritual work are the ones who are actually hungriest for something spiritual, or most in need of it. People who are more settled or more naturally centered in this experience of life may not have to push out so hard. To me, it’s just more information.
CA That’s a better place to be with it, I think. It’s probably just leftovers from my adolescence that I can’t get rid of—for me things have to be what they are. I am fascinated by masks and artificiality and I am addicted to irony, but as you know, my heart is drawn to essences.
Do you still write on your forehead?
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee