April 15-22, 2004

Turning Point
Androgynous creature of song Antony makes beautiful music at St. Ann's for the Whitney Biennial, by Kurt B. Reighley

When I moved to New York [in 1990], my dream was to be a transvestite chanteuse at 3am nightclubs, bathed in blue light like Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet," recalls the singularly named Antony. Fortunately, the androgynous singer's gifts have won him warm praise, not bruises from Dennis Hopper. Since first appearing with cabaret ensemble Blacklips at the Pyramid in the early '90s, Antony, who is in his early thirties, has recorded with Lou Reed, appeared in Steve Buscemi's 2000 film Animal Factory, and, with his chamber ensemble the Johnsons, been invited to perform everywhere from Joe's Pub to Germany's upcoming Biennale Bonn.

This weekend, Antony and the Johnsons grace another biennial-the current Whitney Museum's-as they present Turning, a collaboration with video artist and filmmaker Charles Atlas (famous for work with Merce Cunningham and Michael Clark). While the band showcases material from its forthcoming second album, I Am a Bird Now, Atlas will process and project live images of 13 unique beauties-including "transgender models and beautiful women artists,' explains Antony-which will be rotating slowly on a dais behind the band. The concept of presenting alternative models of beauty from an ever-changing standpoint dovetails neatly with Antony's aesthetic these days. "It's funny, because [participating in] the Whitney Biennial makes you feel like you've got to show the finished work," he confesses. "But actually, I'm in a very transitional phase right now."

Antony's muse has always been mercurial. Bearing virtually no trace of age or gender, his haunting voice is imbued with the wrenching sorrow and transcendent joy of the blues, yet he eschews histrionics in favor of a pure, unadorned singing style that owes more to early music practice. "Singers like him aren't born very often," remarks Sierra Casady of eccentric indie-folk duo CocoRosie, with whom Antony has recorded and performed. "He will be legendary, like Nina Simone."

While his 2000 debut, Antony and the Johnsons, and 2001 single, "I Fell in Love with a Dead Boy," both had an almost unnerving air of the otherworldly, the new songs walk on terra firma. The arrangements are more stripped-down, with fewer strings and woodwinds and a focus on voice and piano. "I'm shifting from that baroque sound to something more intimate," the artist says. "This material is much more emotionally vulnerable than my first record."

One of the best examples is "You are My Sister," a quiet number with the gravity of a spiritual. On the album, the song is a duet with Boy George, whom Antony met while assisting on the musical Taboo. "I cried for 24 hours after he left," Antony says of the session. "Because George was the first reflection of myself I saw in the world, when I was a kid. I saw him and thought, Okay, that's what we do when we're like this: We become singers."

Punctuated by jabs of brass and a disquieting lyric reminiscent of the Crystals' "He Hit Me (and It Felt Like a Kiss)," "Fistful of Love" begins with a spoken intro by Reed, one of his most fervent patrons. "Lou is such a paradox, because he's so hard-core, yet so emotionally vulnerable," Antony says. "And he has an interest in an androgynous emotionality. He adores Jimmy Scott, and he took me under his wing."

Reed first tapped Antony to sing "Perfect Day" on his 2003 album, The Raven, then brought him along on subsequent American and European tours. In concert, he gave Antony a spotlight moment (preserved on Reed's new live double disc, Animal Serenade), in which he performed a six-minute rendition of "Candy Says." It was a perfect choice. Blacklips once dedicated an entire evening to cross-dressing Warhol superstar Candy Darling, and Peter Hujar's unforgettable 1973 photograph Candy Darling on Her Deathbed will grace the cover of I Am a Bird Now.

"I'm really excited about what'e going on culturally right now," Antony says. "This is the first time in my life where I wake up and go, 'Oh, I'm alive during the right time!'" He cites Devendra Banhart, CocoRosie and ambient composer William Basinski as among the artists who are helping him usher in a new zeitgeist-"I'm naming it the Time of Flourishing Beauty."