Keeping Up With the Johnsons

What does an androgynous New York City cabaret singer have in common with the burgeoning freak-folk movement?

One thing Nina Simone didn't like (except for having no sugar in her bowl, natch) was being called a jazz singer. (Famously, Sonny Rollins once said that if Simone was a jazz singer, then he didn't understand jazz.) If she were white, one figures, she would have been the female Sinatra, or another John Lennon, or heck, even Maria Callas. But Simone was black and had a deep voice so, whether she liked it or not, she was “jazz.”

This trick works both ways. Imagine a white man with the voice of an angel — not unlike Nina Simone's, really — backed up by piano, cello, or any other nonmetal instrument, singing gloomy love songs about all the dualities of life in the tradition of a smoky Cotton Club chanteuse. If this person were black, he would be in the jazz section. But this person, who is named Antony — just Antony — is white, looks like Jimmy Somerville from the Bronski Beat, and has worked with Lou Reed, Devendra Banhart, Boy George, and Rufus Wainwright for his latest release, I Am a Bird Now. In our limited scope of classifications, where Lenny Kravitz gets shoved into the soul section and Squarepusher is “techno,” where do you put a transsexual experimental-theater dropout who sings like a eunuch at a Cocteau Twins funeral?

The answer is, you put his goddamn records out and hope he's got an audience. As it turns out, either in spite or because of his eccentricities, Antony has just that.

For those of us who are believers, Antony & the Johnsons are the latest bright spot on whatever this new movement is that has been dubbed “freak folk” or “people with cartoon voices playing chamber instruments,” which includes Joanna Newsom and Banhart. (The Johnsons, incidentally, consist of accomplished Manhattan musicians ranging from cellists to pianists to percussionists.) By just being themselves, these artists have single-handedly created a whole new genre.

So how did we get here? Well, each musical movement bounces off its predecessor, usually in a completely different direction. Fifties and early '60s bubblegum pop gave way to the music of the anti-war movement, which then gave way to disco, which was steamrolled by gun-toting album rockers, who were themselves spat on by punks. The '90s were acerbic and dark, with influential bands like Nirvana and Jane's Addiction singing deep songs with nonsensical lyrics in an effort to hide their vulnerability. Communication was cloaked in pop-culture allusion and sarcasm. Rock bands of the late '90s and early '00s — e.g., the Strokes, Interpol, etc. — assimilated that penchant for expressing alienation and disillusionment through irony and flippancy, but were not remotely earnest.

And so the pendulum swings. We are now moving in the opposite direction: sincerity. Welcome to the age of innocent openness.

“Anne Frank is one of my heroes,” says Antony over the phone from a Chicago hotel room, speaking of innocents. Antony has lived all over the world and spent some of his childhood in Amsterdam, the place of Frank's hiding. “Children relate to the child,” he says plainly. “Plus, at least philosophically, she's had some really beautiful points of clarity.”

Maybe he's drawn to her story because he has had to come to grips with so much of himself growing up, realizing he was gay, that he liked to dress up like a girl, that he didn't want to manage a Payless for a living.

Antony was raised by an engineer father and a photographer mother. They lived in Europe during his childhood, but when he was 11 his family moved to none other than the South Bay.

“In many ways,” he says, “San Jose made me who I am today.”

Hmm … not something you'd expect to hear from a guy who wears eyeliner. But Antony managed to find the freaks there, the goths and the punks and everyone in between, and he grew into his adulthood with like-minded misfits. He went to college in Santa Cruz, where various professors saw the unconventional artist in him and told him to go east and rest his head on the pillow of New York's experimental underbelly. In 10 years, Antony has gone from being a transplanted South Bay punk to the star of a sold-out residency at the sleek Greenwich Village cabaret Joe's Pub; he's played everywhere from the Sydney Opera House to Carnegie Hall, and has dazzled the jaded eyes and ears of Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson, and countless others with his offbeat artistic expression.

How Antony expresses himself has been compared not only to Nina Simone, but also to Little Jimmy Scott, and Boy George. Though he insists he is a tenor, his voice swings delicately between higher octaves, and to virgin ears it's hard to tell if the beautiful singer pouring from the speaker is a man or a woman. His lyrics are simple but searing, the quaking vibrato in his voice injecting straightforward lines like “Hope there's someone to take care of me/ When I die/ Will I go” straight into your heart. Then there is his look, soft and willowy, tall and imposing, and yes, androgynous.

“I remember when I was 7 years old,” he says, “we moved to Holland, and I felt like the world around me turned into a color world. I got to pursue creative impulses, and grow my hair, and put on a little makeup and jewelry, and walk around in my clogs and my bell-bottoms, and make finger puppets, and run around and sing, and all the birds were tweeting.”

Not surprisingly, his songs travel from the experience of childhood to the comfort of finding one's gender identity, but that's not to say that the message is entirely little birds tweeting. There is a sadness to the music of Antony & the Johnsons; the singer used to try to move his audiences to tears in the same way that Diamanda Galas moved hers to rage. Reed, who has taken Antony under his wing, even inviting him to join him on tour, has described his protégé's way of transforming the emotions of his audience as “beautiful.”

“I've been thinking about simplicity, and how simple it is to be free creatively,” explains the chanteuse. “How easily can I listen, how little can I get in my own way? How can I enjoy this moment of getting to choose how I want to express myself?”

Indeed, it's the sincerity in his words and music that really carries over. One can speculate that it's that sincerity that prompted Banhart to select Antony's musical version of Edgar Allan Poe's “The Lake” to close out his seminal, genre-defining compilation, Golden Apples of the Sun, a collection that finds Antony in the company of peers like Newsom, Banhart, Iron & Wine, Little Wings, Vetiver, and others. Though the connection among Antony's androgynous cabaret, Iron & Wine's earthy folk, and Newsom's otherworldly harp songs may not leap at you at first, it's clear that these artists have discovered one. Whether you choose to give it a name or not — whether you want to call it jazz or folk or whatever — it's there.

“It's such an inspiring time right now,” says Antony, “and I feel really lucky to be a part of it. It's not just New York; there's amazing things coming from California right now. … I have a lot of work that I want to do. I'm very excited about the future.”

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