ANTONY AND THE JOHNSONS at the Drake (1050 Queen West), Wednesday (February 16) at 7 and 10 pm, $15. www.rootmeansquare.ca. Rating: NNNNN
Listening to music by nyc-based performer Antony (just Antony) is an immediate, heart-crushingly disorienting experience.
In songs like For Today I Am A Boy and Bird Girl, from his gorgeous new I Am A Bird Now (Secretly Canadian), Antony messes with gender boundaries in ways both intellectually thrilling and emotionally powerful.
The soft-spoken crooner admits over the phone that ever since he was a very young child he's been fascinated by ambiguity.
"The only word that's suited me since I was a kid was androgyny. I'm more interested in an alchemy that transcends boxes and creates a whole new category. There's a symbolic divinity in it."
Antony confesses that he's inspired by the idea of the divine child - no, not drag queen Divine, although he paid tribute to her on his self-titled full-length debut. He's referring to Carl Jung's idea of the divine child archetype, a so-called "alchemical hermaphrodite" who represents one's hidden genius.
But, he quickly adds, "all this highfalutin language doesn't do anything to relate to the real, pedestrian experience of transgendered people on a day-to-day basis."
So don't be fooled by the heady content. The intense wallop of Antony's work is, at its root, a primal gut-punch of pure emotion. It has a lot to do with his voice, a haunting, tremulous instrument that's landed him film roles (including a gig serenading prisoners in Steve Buscemi's Animal Factory), a spot backing Lou Reed on tour and loads of fans and collaborators, many of whom - Reed, Rufus Wainwright, Boy George, Devendra Banhart - appear on I Am A Bird Now.
The voice sometimes sounds like that of an ancient gospel diva who's been kicked to the ground too often; other times it evokes an eerie tragic heroine in an opera or a campy torch siren. And, as I learned while standing in a packed crowd of dead-silent admirers during last year's CMJ, you can't help but do a double take when you see the tall, broad-shouldered, pasty-faced fella with the otherworldly pipes in concert.
While Antony did time in a death-rock band when he was a young pup at a performing arts school in California and stepped out in drag as a character called Fiona Blue in the NYC drag bar scene of the early 90s, his unique vocal stylings have more to do with his lifelong obsession with what he calls "black music."
"When you think of Nina Simone singing Young Gifted And Black, or Donny Hathaway or Otis Redding - I think those people invented a style of singing that was accepted in the West as an entirely new form. It didn't just raise the bar, it changed the bar. It's one of America's greatest legacies."
That's not to say Antony doesn't put his own distinct spin on the sound. Fistful Of Love, the centrepiece of I Am A Bird Now, is a reflection of years listening to Otis Redding, his so-called "blatant rip-off of that Stax sound," packed with a killer brass section, Lou Reed's oddly heartfelt spoken-word intro, and, if you listen closely, an underbelly of MBV-style chainsaw guitars.
Oh, and if you look really deep, it has subtle undertones of S&M.
"When I wrote that one in the 90s, I was way more preoccupied by those themes," Antony sighs, "but I didn't want to perform it because it seemed too crass. I've had to come back and approach it as though it's just about loving someone who hurts you.
"I can't tell you how bored I am by S&M now, although my catalogue would suggest otherwise. Sure, I worship J. T. LeRoy's book The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, but that doesn't have the artifice of 'I'll whip you and then you'll tickle my testicles.' Fetishism itself is such a yawn, but those dynamics are in any relationship, even the kindest ones. Kindness and honesty are the most rewarding."
Between his strong opinions, his transgressiveness music and his claim that he adores organizing collectives of people, you'd think Antony would be all over throwing himself into politics, right?
"I have a big body but a very small brain, like a brontosaurus," he laughs. "And I have a second brain in my tail. I can't do politics. I just walk around and, like, eat plankton and stuff."