Listening to Antony Hegarty's voice makes you feel closer to God.
His words aren't particularly spiritual, and his songs definitely aren't the sort that lend any machismo empowerment. It's just that his voice is as strange as it is gorgeous-an inimitable crossroads at which Nina Simone and Thom Yorke meet.
As Lou Reed has said, "When I first heard [Antony], I knew I was in the presence of an angel."
And that's it. To hear him sing is like hearing a prayer, a supplication not intended for mortal ears. It's challenging at first, often fragile, haunting yet satiating.
Above all, it's one of a kind.
"That is the great risk and the great boon of doing this," explains Antony, who goes by his first name when performing with his band, the Johnsons. "There is that rare experience the performer gets to enjoy, which, in a way, is like having your spirit witnessed by people. And, sometimes, appreciated."
That risk has paid off. Over the past year, Antony has amassed new fans and is being lauded by most major music publications as a startling new talent. While hardly unprecedented, he's done it all without major radio or video airplay. A vindication of sorts came recently when his second album, I Am a Bird Now, won the coveted Mercury Music Prize in England, beating out such favorites as Bloc Party, M.I.A. and even Coldplay.
I Am a Bird Now is an intimate and almost operatic affair. While not a concept album per se, songs like "My Lady Story" and "For Today I am a Boy" seem centered around thoughts of transformation. Antony sees it as more of a "song cycle that leads you back to the beginning," an inner conversation between what he calls a "family of archetypes" in his mind.
That dialogue started early. Growing up in both Britain and the Bay Area, he was fascinated by New York's underground gay and transgender art scene. Musically, he sought to emulate heroes like Boy George after seeing him on the cover of Culture Club's Kissing to be Clever (a dream was realized when George appeared on the Bird song, "You Are My Sister"). Those influences shaped both his sound and his drag-queen image, although he's not so sure he's ready to be so widely embraced.
"As a kid or teenager I was sent to the margins," he explains. "Later on it became a willful point of identity where I lived there and dwelled there in my work. To find that all these people from all walks of life, all parts of the world, could find reference in that has really blown my mind and opened my eyes."
One of those people was Reed, who recruited Antony to help him reinterpret his song "Perfect Day" for the album, The Raven. After joining Reed's touring band, Antony consistently made jaws drop when performing the Velvet Underground classic, "Candy Says." The song, appropriately, is an evocative portrait of Candy Darling-one of Andy Warhol's friends and one of Antony's biggest inspirations.
Antony now has a unique approach for his own tours, often going out of his way to play out-of-the-way places where he feels the mood will be captured just right. In San Diego, he'll perform at the San Diego Woman's Club, a venue not known for hosting national touring acts.
He seems to realize his style of baroque- and cabaret-influenced music isn't for everyone, and tries to place himself among those who'll get something out of the shared experience.
"[This tour] is more like an after-hours nightclub performance," he says. "Not like dinner-table nightclub. More like crowds of drunks and perverts.
"Well... maybe not perverts."
Antony & the Johnsons play with CocoRosie at the San Diego Woman's Club on Sept. 23. $18-$20. www.casbahtickets.com.