With a voice that flutters between a high, quavering vibrato and a lower register with all the richness of a soul singer, Antony Hegarty of Antony and the Johnsons possesses what is arguably the most distinctive, ravishing instrument in popular music. Like his idols Nina Simone and Boy George, he doesn’t hold back: Eschewing camp dramatics, he favors an unadorned singing style steeped in both sorrow and transcendent joy. Lou Reed vividly remembered the first time he experienced Antony’s multioctave palette on I Fell in Love With a Dead Boy, an EP that his producer brought to him while the two were casting vocalists for Reed’s 2003 album, The Raven. “I heard about 15 seconds of it and said, ‘Oh, my God, we’ve got to find him,’” Reed told me. “He was amazing. And it turned out he was about 10 blocks away. Who knew?”
Reed immediately tapped Antony to sing on The Raven and invited him along on a world tour, then tirelessly championed the British-born singer until Rough Trade finally signed him in 2005. Nine months later, Antony’s breakthrough album, I Am a Bird Now (featuring Reed, Boy George, and Rufus Wainwright, among others), snagged Britain’s most prestigious music award, the Mercury Prize; collaborations with Björk, Laurie Anderson, and Marianne Faithfull followed.
“Ant can do things that very few people can do,” Reed said. “He can break your heart, hold your attention. It’s such emotional singing. The only other person I’ve been around who could do that is [legendary jazz singer] Jimmy Scott, and we all bow at the altar of Jimmy Scott. But Ant can get up there with Jimmy. You don’t find this kind of combination of intensity, range, perfect pitch, writing skill, delicacy, and power.”
“You know, Lou is not somebody who is easily tender,” performance artist Marina Abramović, who is close to both men, pointed out, “and with Antony he just melts. He’s very protective of him.” Abramović was at Carnegie Hall at a 2006 Christmas concert by Wainwright when Antony launched into “Snowy Angel.” “I literally stood up from the seat and started crying,” she recalled. “The voice was like something out of this world, but also it was how he was moving himself—the strange, spastic hand movements, the way he was possessed by the music and his body could not fight it.” Soon after, she invited him to sing at her 60th-birthday party at the Guggenheim Museum, and even over the din of 450 dining guests his voice commanded the atrium. Soon “there was complete silence,” recalled Abramović. “The next day the artists, the trustees…everyone there was Googling him.”