Nature Boy

Photo: Don Felix Cervantes/Courtesy of Girlie Action

The singer Antony suggests we meet at the Dia gallery on Wooster Street in Soho, and it feels like an all-too-appropriate locale. The musician–performance artist is very much a lower-Manhattan fixture: In 1990, he studied the work of downtown drag godfather Jack Smith at NYU; by 1992, he was mounting shows with a performance collective at the East Village club Pyramid.But Antony, who arrives dressed in a green cable-knit sweater, blue crushed-velvet jacket and pants, and tan moccasinlike shoes, carrying a vintage airline bag slung over his shoulder, is a very different character from what his downtown résumé would suggest. These days, he’s much more absorbed in the natural world than in the performance scene, and the Dia piece he’s invited me to see makes that point dramatically: Walter De Maria’s The New York Earth Room, which uses 3,600 square feet of prime Soho loft space to store 280,000 pounds of dirt. “It’s nature taking over,” Antony whispers, then adds, “I just think it’s the greatest. And with the way real estate is right now, the fact that this is still here is … glorious!”

The New York Earth Room is also an ideal metaphor for Antony’s music, particularly his just-released album, I Am a Bird Now, a profoundly emotional, uncynical brand of songwriting that showcases Antony’s obsession with nature. The release includes songs about loneliness and aging (“Hope There’s Someone”), friendships that become familial (“You Are My Sister”), and the album’s most persistent theme, shattering the boundaries between sexes (“Bird Girl,” “For Today I Am a Boy”), all backed by music that ranges in influence from Stax soul to Weill/Weimar-era cabaret.

But what makes Antony such a potent artist—Lou Reed, Boy George, and Rufus Wainwright are fans, and all sing on I Am a Bird Now—is his voice. It’s a warbling tenor that can hit almost falsettolike highs and rumbling, extraordinarily soulful lows. (Reed says that Antony is “a magnificent singer, an heir to the wondrous Jimmy Scott.”)

Antony spent his adolescence in San Jose, California, alternately obsessing over Soft Cell vocalist Mark Almond (whom he refers to as “my real mother”) and black American musicians—Billie Holiday, Otis Redding, and, especially, Nina Simone, whose catalogue he can riff on with scholarly expertise.

Yet Antony wasn’t satisfied with a life devoted only to fandom. “When I was a kid, you searched through magazines to find one scrap of information from a faraway land that might represent you,” Antony explains, “and then you go to that land and try and find out what happened. That’s how I got to New York City.”

In New York, Antony enrolled in NYU’s Experimental Theater Wing, but found the city’s club scene much more interesting. “It was a funny time for clubs in the early nineties,” Antony says. “There was this last gasp of eighties-ness and fabulousness and decadence.” After an extended stay at the Limelight in Chelsea, Antony moved his solo show to a Williamsburg club called Arcadia in 1996. By 1998, Antony had put a band of his own together, and later he was performing regularly at the Knitting Factory and Joe’s Pub.

Now the praise of the art world and rock icons like Reed is translating into a significant audience for Antony. But even as he’s hitting his commercial stride, he’s most excited about a new generation of musicians like the Animal Collective, Joanna Newsom, and Devendra Banhart (who appears on I Am a Bird Now), who have adopted the obsession with the spirit world and nature that Antony began exploring in the nineties. “Everyone’s calling the spirit,” he says. “My role has been a bridge between eras. I hope that I can be a bridge to a new era.”

I Am a Bird Now
Antony and the Johnsons.
Secretly Canadian. February 1.

Nature Boy