A voice from on high

By DANIEL BROCKMAN  |  February 18, 2009

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."

The unifying theme of the new album, if there is one, seems to be a concern with finding dizzying designs beneath the banality of pain. "Epilepsy Is Dancing," he says, "is about a person who has a seizure and has a kind of wild experience, where everything gets really shiny and dazzly. At the time, she is engulfed in what she perceives as chaos; but if you step back a few frames, you start to see the choreography." (This song is, of course, set to a waltz.)

A similar pattern resides in the album opener, the gracefully downtrodden "Her Eyes Are Underneath the Ground." "You know how kids get really upset when they first imagine their parents are going to die? I've talked to so many people who had the exact same thing — that moment where you realize that no one lasts forever. So I was thinking about my own relationship with my parents, but then I thought, 'Wait, maybe this is about my mother singing about her mother.' I'm interested in this idea that I'm an endpoint in a line of life that stretches all the way back to the beginning of creation, that there's an unbroken line of ancestry that's never stopped, and as a creative flight of fancy I could summon the spirits of all who have come before me."

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