Artist interview

Interview with Antony Hegarty: “I think the art world is where I belong”

The musician explains why he is performing in the stage production The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic

With his dishabille elegance and a singing voice that registers between haunting and blissful, Antony Hegarty, known simply as Antony, commands attention whether performing with his band as Antony and the Johnsons, or just walking into a room. Born in England, he grew up in San Francisco and in 1990 arrived in New York, where he has lived ever since. After a decade in experimental theatre, four albums, and collaborations with musicians as diverse as Lou Reed, Rufus Wainwright and Björk, the vocalist, now 40, is one of the principals in director Robert Wilson’s stage production of The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic, singing three of the nine songs he wrote for the score. As a visual artist, he has recently published Swanlights, a 150-page book of drawings, writings and collages accompanied by a new CD, and completed Turning, a concert documentary he made with the American film-maker Charles Atlas of a 2006 tour with the Johnsons.

The Art Newspaper: How did you get involved with The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic?

Marina’s been grooming me to be part of this piece since we met. She saw me performing five years ago in a Rufus Wainwright show at Carnegie Hall. We struck a great rapport, and she really wanted me to do music for the production.

Did you sit with her during The Artist Is Present, her 60-day performance at the Museum of Modern Art last year?

I went several times. It was impressive. I thought it was a political piece, a protest, in the gentlest possible way. It reminded me of the Buddhists who sit on fire. The stillness of it is itself a protest.

There’s a stillness to your performances as well?

It’s something I contrive to do but it’s a natural path I’ve taken in my search for presence and a sense of intention. It’s also a way of seeing. It can be a very receptive stance, even for a performer—there’s a lot of power in listening.

Can you describe the process of making the show with Robert Wilson?

Marina presented her autobiography to Bob in a series of workshops in the form of index cards and stories. She’s a magnificent storyteller—she can relate the most dire stories about her life and still have everyone rolling on the floor. She explained that her job was to present the raw materials but she wanted the production to be the director’s vision and not hers. I was brought in to observe and contribute any thoughts I had.

Had you worked with Wilson before?

No, and I had no idea how to participate in a round-table with him. Eventually I wrote a bunch of poems about Marina based on our friendship. I took the same liberty she was giving to Bob, imagining what she was thinking or feeling, and wrote eight or nine songs based on certain imagery in her work and what I imagined to be her point of view.

And you’re appearing in the show as well?

I'm reluctantly performing—Marina insisted. I forced them to take the word “opera” out of the publicity for the show because I write little folk songs, basically, not opera. But I think they’re using that word to describe Bob’s work. It’s epic and has a sprawling sense of space and time, where most of my things implode within pedestrian time —the time it takes to eat a meal, do the laundry, walk to the store. Their transformations occur over hours. That’s very different from my three- or four-minute folk songs.

You consider yourself a folk musician?

I write in a popular-music format. I’ve never done a 17-hour song, or a 60-day song. I’m sure it could be done. Probably religious people do it all the time, for the same reason Bob and Marina do, because it’s a path to transcendence.

You write in a popular format and sing the vocal on Blind, the Hercules and Love Affair dancefloor hit. Yet your greatest following seems to be in the art world?

I think the art world is where I belong. I’m very preoccupied with aesthetics.

So what attracts you to theatre?

When people step into a theatre, I think they are eager to step out of their pedestrian lives, to have them transformed and become open to the greater possibilities of life. There’s only so much we can do on the treadmill or in front of a computer. We all have this white hole full of dreams inside us and we can fall into it anytime.

When did you know you could sing?

When I was 12, though up to that point my main interest was drawing. Then I started to idolise singers like Boy George and Marc Almond, and people in a lot of make-up—seeing that reflection of myself in pop culture drew me towards music. I assumed that if you were the kind of person I was—a feminine boy, a transgender kid, fighting the conventions of society at large—you went into music. As a kid like that, you express yourself the way a baby cries. It’s primal, but it pushes you to find a voice.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 225 June 2011