A voice from on high

The second coming of Antony and the Johnsons
By DANIEL BROCKMAN  |  February 18, 2009

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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."

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