Antony & the Johnsons Tap Bjork for 'Swanlights'
Antony & the Johnsons Tap Bjork for 'Swanlights'

Antony Hegarty, the otherworldly leader of chamber pop collective Antony & the Johnsons, released the emotionally draining album "The Crying Light" last year but is already prepared to release an expansive follow-up. "Swanlights," due Oct. 6 on Secretly Canadian, features a duet with Björk (who previously tapped Hegarty for 2007 album "Volta") as well as a 144-page supplemental book full of the singer's artwork, photography and writing.

Antony & the Johnsons feat. Björk, "Flétta"

The release was preceded by "Thank You for Your Love," an EP of covers including John Lennon's "Imagine" and Bob Dylan's "Pressing On," as well as a smile-inducing title track that will also appear on the full-length. Hegarty spoke to Billboard about covering a Beatle, making disco music and what he hopes to accomplish with his new multimedia release.

This is the second time in a row you've released a five-song EP a few months before a full-length. Do you see these releases as previews of your albums?

["Thank You for Your Love"] really is more like a single, but then you end up putting a few extra songs on it since you're releasing it on a CD. With the last EP, it very much held the central theme of the record. There isn't necessarily one theme song for this record, so I just wanted to put forth something open-hearted.

What inspired the Bob Dylan and John Lennon covers?

The Dylan cover I had recorded at the same time as the cover of "Knocking on Heaven's Door" for [2007 film "I'm Not There"], and I didn't know the song, but once I got into it, I thought it turned out pretty. And "Imagine" was an audacious choice, since it's sort of hallowed ground. But I changed it to the first person to give it a different resonance. It's obviously not an improvement, but in a way, it foreshadows the themes of this album, which are about changing ecology and grappling with a sense of hopelessness about the future.

Why was the break between "Swanlights" and last year's "The Crying Light" so much shorter than the four-year hiatus following 2005's "I Am a Bird Now"?

Well, some of this material was recorded at the same time as "The Crying Light." Even after we finished "Crying Light," I stayed in the studio and was mixing other tracks that would lead to this piece. In a way, it's a companion piece, but it's very different. It didn't seem like a long time to hold off on releasing these songs separately, because I have a long gestation process. I could write a song 10 years before I release it, which is more often the case.

What lead to the decision to release an art book with "Swanlights"?

I've always been visually engaged and enjoyed delving into my notebooks in the privacy of my own process. This is the first time I'm putting forward my visual ideas in such a defined way. I certainly had a lot of insecurity about doing it but I've kind of gotten over it . . . and the work feels authentic to me. I want the opportunity to pursue my creative muse in a bunch of different mediums. It's a luxurious position to be in.

How did the song "Flétta" come together with Björk?

We recorded the song in Jamaica at the same time we recorded the "Volta" stuff. She rented a big piano, came in and improvised some vocals, and I stayed up all night and edited them into a structure. It's exciting to watch her in the studio, because she's uninhibited when she's in her environment. Also, singing next to her live is really challenging, because she's such an expansive singer, and I always felt like I was just trying to keep up.

You've guested on electronic and disco projects for acts like Hercules & Love Affair and Oneohtrix Point Never. Do you ever see yourself exploring these areas on your own?

It's funny -- it's easier for me to imagine doing theater under the name Antony & the Johnsons than doing a disco record. I think I would want to be true to some kind of acoustic parameter in it. Johnsons for me is also about making work in a community. As far as [a solo album], I'd consider anything, but I don't know what the future holds.

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