It was Mondo New York, a cult documentary about Manhattan’s demimonde, that drew Antony to the East Village in 1990. He was 19 and had been staging plays based on John Waters movies at the University of California at Santa Cruz. Soon Antony was enrolled in the experimental theater program at New York University, where he began turning himself into a historian of the avant-garde, tracing his own artistic lineage back to drag performance artists Jack Smith, German androgyne Klaus Nomi, and the Cockettes, a cross-dressing hippie collective.
But he arrived just as AIDS was decimating the downtown arts scene. That sense of loss found its way into his early works at the Pyramid Club, then the epicenter of the city’s performance-art scene, where he appeared weekly with Blacklips, a troupe he founded with his friend Johanna Constantine. In outrageous, gory shows—sometimes involving offal from nearby butchers—Antony and costars with names like Psychotic Eve and Kabuki Starshine channeled outsize versions of themselves. What made Antony stand out, though—his songs usually closed the shows—was not only his arresting voice, which pierced all the irony, but also the fact that he was utterly sincere. “He was the opposite of camp, which in that scene was a new thing,” recalled Pyramid regular Charles Atlas, an experimental filmmaker who later directed the music video for “You Are My Sister.”
In 1997 he formed Antony and the Johnsons, a loose and rotating backing-band collective, to concentrate on his music. Its eponymous debut album was recorded over two weeks that year and was self-released in 1998. But when the major labels kept passing on him, Antony despaired of ever breaking through what he calls “the sound wall.” Starting around 2002, though, a new generation of musicians such as Devendra Banhart and CocoRosie—part of an emergent genre known as freak folk—paved the way for the acceptance of a new kind of music. “They opened doors in youth culture that were more dreamy, more flexible,” Antony said. This new mood, along with Reed’s advocacy, led to his deal with Rough Trade.
I Am a Bird Now is full of haunting, uplifting chamber songs, with subtle arrangements that deliver an emotional wallop. The cover features Peter Hujar’s 1974 deathbed photograph of Candy Darling—“the Mona Lisa of underground photography,” Antony called it, for its depiction of the cross-dressing Warhol Factory superstar as a vision “suspended between darkness and light, male and female, flesh and ghost.”
Not surprisingly, it has served as a kind of creative touchstone. At the time of the album’s release, Antony had already put his stamp on “Candy Says,” the Velvet Underground song that made Darling infamous. “Ant understands it in his pores, like I wrote it for him,” Reed told me. But while Antony’s version of “Candy Says” is a fairly faithful rendering of the original, his 2007 cover of Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” transforms a rollicking party anthem into a soulful, searing lament for an absent lover. Though Antony has long sung of unfulfilled love and imagined selves—of growing wings or of becoming a spirit or a beautiful woman—on Swanlights, released last fall, he turns his gaze outward to muse on the fragility of the wider world. “Musically, he banks on simplicity put in relief of great complexity,” said composer Nico Muhly, who contributed to the album’s arrangements. “Antony’s is a deliciously acoustic world, almost old-fashioned.”