What’s Gender Got to Do With It?

Soulful tones might chart one artist’s distinctive path to mainstream recognition

Leigh Bowery. Nina Simone. Klaus Nomi. Mabel Mercer. Brian Ferry. Ella Fitzgerald.

It’s impossible to read anything about the Johnsons’ plaintive front man Antony without first engaging in this poker game of superlatives.

My personal favorite is a hybrid one writer concocts between Evel Knievel and Maria Callas. I’m guilty of it myself. Antony’s able to laugh over what he considers an oldie, but goodie: Lotte Lenya.

“That was one of the first and I always loved it,” he said. “Craig Hensala from the Downtown Arts Festival said I sounded like [her]. It was pretty cool, but he was referencing the Brechtian quality that the early shows had. I don’t see that in much evidence in my shows now, expect maybe in the banter.”

What is it about this Brit-born, California-reared singer that turns writers’ prose so purple? Perhaps it’s Antony’s candor, how he strips away any artifice before stepping out onto the stage. Once there, taking the microphone isn’t singing as much as it’s dallying along the gender binary’s razor edge. His own self-description in that regard, by the way, is hard to get bead on, as is Antony’s age, even his race if you close your eyes during his soulful singing.

“I might be fooling myself,” Antony said. “But I always thought it was kind of punk for me to be this vulnerable.”

Vulnerable? Don’t let the moping fool you. Antony is a rock star. And if he’s not going to cop to it, just ask a Johnson.

There’s Johanna Constantine, whom Antony met when he was a 17-year-old college student and now calls “a dangerous miracle.”

“I was a make-up-wearing mute and she was this creature with green hair,” Antony recalled. “We became friends and aesthetic partners almost immediately.”

With renowned video artist Charles Atlas, Antony combined forces for a sold-out string of dates in April at the St. Ann’s Warehouse in Dumbo. The evening was entitled “Turning” and turned out to be one of the more successful performance pieces presented as part of the 2004 Whitney Biennial.

“Charlie’s one of my best friends,” Antony said. “We’ve been hanging out since we met in nightclubs in the early 90s. We’re having fun. We’re laughing. We’re pretty much keeping to our sides of the fence. I had the initial seed idea for the project, but it was based on a prototype that he set up in a short film he made with Johanna so it’s really collaboration conceptually. Then I’m doing the music and he’s doing the film.”

That translated into Antony and his band on one side of the stage performing both old and new music while a giant microwave rotisserie opposite them held 13 “beauties” for each of the 13 songs Antony and the Johnsons performed that evening. Atlas shot the “beauties” and projected them larger than life on a backdrop simply doing what the evening promised: turning. Models ranged from Giselle to fluorescent-skinned “Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black” singer Kembra Pfahler to downtown trannies like Honey Dijon and Harry. Antony took the stage in a long black wig and placed his handbag down at the bottom of the mike stand for an evening that so expertly conflated biological females with their transgendered counterparts that it was impossible to miss his aesthetic point.

His backup band takes their name from legendary African American pier tranny activist Marsha P. Johnson, who drowned in the Hudson River in 1992. The Johnsons probably have more in common with a baroque chamber orchestra than with The Spiders from Mars of David Bowie fame. The band’s 2000 debut, “Antony and the Johnsons,” and 2001 single, “I Fell in Love with a Dead Boy,” are all swirling strings and orchestral woodwinds. The onstage accompaniment of cellos, violins, and even Tokyo-born hermaphrodite and doctor of mathematics Julia Yasuda is not uncharacteristic for Antony, but the new material has slimmed down to a reassertion of piano and voice, as reflected in the lyrics. (Old lyric: “It’s true I always wanted love to be filled with pain and bruises.” New lyric: “I am a bird girl and the bird girls go to heaven.”)

Not only has Antony completed his successful Whitney gig, but he’s also added to his growing film resumé with the NewFest run of French director Sebastien Lifshitz’s latest film, “Wild Side.” An ongoing collaboration that sprang from his cover of Lou Reed’s classic “Perfect Day” has taken Antony on the road as a backup singer on Reed’s international tour for his last album “The Raven.” Antony’s six-minute rendition of another Reed classic, “Candy Says,” is soon to be immortalized on Reed’s upcoming double live CD “Animal Serenade.”

“Lou found me through Hal Willner,” Antony said. “Hal gave Lou a CD of mine for him to hear some singers to choose for his ‘Raven’ album. He liked it so he asked me to come in and try out.”

Antony returns the favor on June 26 when he “and a cavalcade of Johnsons including Joan Wasser and Max Moston” join Catpower, Jane Siberry, and other special guests for Willner’s Neil Young Project that’s part of Prospect Park’s “Celebrate Brooklyn.”

“I continue to get so much from my friendship with him,” Antony said of Reed. “He’s such a great teacher and a fascinating man. He’s been such a fantastic advocate for me. I just couldn’t really have asked for more, you know? It’s such a cool thing. He’s so bulletproof and he just gives me the best advice. My work is so personal. When I get some pig with a machine gun coming at me and I’m there in a petticoat bearing my soul, I can talk to Lou about it. He bared his Wonder Woman bracelets to fields of bullets after releasing ‘Metal Machine Music.’ He has so much wisdom.”

Antony himself is taking the longer view these days.

“I feel like the zeitgeist is moving a lot more of the vital culture forward right now,” he explained. “Things were happening in vacuums, but then they weren’t going any further. There weren’t any greater tides bringing that stuff to the front of culture. So much work was being made in basements and wasn’t going any further. I feel like right now a lot of those vital arts are being drawn forward. Even in a more grassroots way, kids are really thinking and talking to one another and exchanging information at a really rapid fire pace. I feel like electro-clash was the dying cry of that cynical culture and now we’re into something that’s really interesting. This is a culturally flourishing time.”

His recent work still hews to personal inspirations.

“At the end of the 90s, when I was doing my first album and we were first putting together Johnsons, that baroque aesthetic had more interest for me,” Antony explained. “It held my attention. Now it doesn’t. I like something rougher and more intimate. I think the album is moving away from a more theatrical quality and towards a more intimate quality. That’s the big change. It’s a dialogue between different archetypes. It’s like a family inside a person talking to each other: the child, mom, dad, sister, brother. It’s revolves around a childhood gender crisis so it’s very personal work.”

As for the Johnsons?

“At this point I’m feeling like it’s a loose garment,” Antony said. “I’m trying to wear it that way.”

And the change in sound?

“There’s always been an open door policy,” he explained. “It just shifts. It’s seasonal. People follow the seasons. Right now I’m interested in working on the new record. The Biennial put pressure, real or imagined, to be in a really presentational mode and right now I feel very transitional. I’m finishing this album, which has been a long couple of years in the making.”

Antony is planning a summer release of “I Am A Bird Now,” with a deathbed cover of Warhol’s superstar, Candy Darling.

“I’m also on the verge,” Antony said. “I’m interested in a soul direction. I think for my next record I’m going to make a soul record. I want more rhythm. I’m hungry for more rhythm. I’m interested in ecstatic singing. I’ve always pushed the sad singing to ecstatic, but I’m interested in ecstatic form and singers who know original vocabulary like that. Otis Redding. There’s a kind of jubilation in his singing that appeals to me and I’m drawn to it. Sometimes I want to push it into a jubilant expression and I see that that comes from rhythm. I find myself experiencing that when I’m playing with certain drummers. It’s physical. It’s primal almost.”

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