MESSAGE AFTER THE TONE: "The point when someone finds their own voice is when they make a connection to their own story, or to their own spirit — then all the style and stuff falls away."
No matter how processed, auto-tuned, or vocoded, the voice is what our ears seek out in a song. We listen for the words, but more fundamentally, we listen for light and shade, something recognizable and relatable but also alien and new. That goes a long way toward explaining the rise of Antony Hegarty and his band, Antony and the Johnsons. When he was plucked from obscurity (first by David Tibet of '80s experimental-musical collective Current 93, then more significantly by poet of cool Lou Reed), the world was introduced to a singular, simmering warble that encompassed all manners of conflicting tones and images, both quiveringly sensitive and devastatingly powerful.
Whereas many pop vocalists project "power" with their voice through melismatic prowess, Hegarty's voice emerges though something like a process of elimination. It doesn't sound macho, it doesn't sound feminine, it doesn't sound precious, and it doesn't revel in its lofty highs and basso profundo lows. It's just . . . unique, bowing to no previous pop conventions.
Hegarty's career has been a quest to hone and refine this instrument, and on his latest album, The Crying Light (Secretly Canadian), it's as if the raw power of his voice had enveloped his music. "I've been thinking about negative space in terms of music, and it's been really inspiring," he tells me on a conference-call interview during a rare break in preparations for his upcoming tour (which hits the Berklee Performance Center this Sunday). "The concept of the songs on this album is that there's a solitary voice, and I tried to just include what I felt was really essential, to whittle out everything else. It's kind of like when I was in drawing class when I was younger and the teacher would instruct us to draw the negative space: 'Don't draw the form, draw the space around the form!' "
Hegarty discovered that his real voice would reveal itself only once he had carved away everything extraneous. "The point when someone finds their own voice is when they make a connection to their own story, or to their own spirit — then all the style and stuff falls away. What people respond to is the spirit inside the voice." For Hegarty, forging this connection required not just accepting himself as transgender but using that realization as a springboard to explore the very nature of a voice, and its evocative possibilities.
"It's a priority for me to express that I'm transgender, and I've done that. I think someone like Boy George did his thing 25 years ago, and now the world has evolved and we're more able to articulate what we're going through. But the thing about carrying a flag for anything is that I don't claim to represent the interests or the voice of all transgender people — it's staggeringly diverse. That said, I have more in common with a transgender person in Iraq than an American soldier, just because our experiences are so specific."
Hegarty's perspective first found an international audience with the breakthrough success of 2005's I Am a Bird Now (Secretly Canadian) — a record that won him a Mercury Prize and established his reputation as the owner of an otherworldly voice. But where, the world wondered, could this voice have come from?
"I grew up in England until I was 11. Over there, everyone sings in public, in the assembly, in the church choir, etc. When I moved to America, the kids were all too embarrassed to sing, but I'd already caught the bug. I learned to sing by copying all my favorite singers: Boy George, Marc Almond, Alison Moyet, Kate Bush, Otis Redding, Nina Simone. With each one of those singers I learned something new about how to sing."
One thing he learned is that, even though musicians have long toyed with androgyny and gender confusion in pop music, he possessed a unique talent for creating majesty out of his profoundly innocent and sincere confusions — something that resulted in the Bird standout "For Today I Am a Boy." Perhaps it's due to the lack of sly knowingness or camp in his delivery, but Hegarty is able to offer lines like "One day I'll grow up, I'll know a womb within me/One day I'll grow up, feel it full and pure/But for today I am a child, for today I am a boy" with unfathomable depth and no detectable irony.
The Crying Light, however, finds him shifting his focus from gender and identity politics toward the intersection of nature and human emotions. "I've been really interested in trees!" he says. "I have so much more in common with a tree than with a lot of other things. It must really hurt to be a tree, it must ache to always be inside that bark, always growing so painfully, so slowly. But everyone always walks by a tree and goes, 'Oh, isn't it beautiful! Oh, doesn't she look fantastic!' People have this expectation that life is always supposed to be happy, that it isn't supposed to hurt; but it is supposed to hurt, it is supposed to be painful! I imagine that this is what it's like for all living things."