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Last Updated: Wednesday, 7 September 2005, 00:51 GMT 01:51 UK
Mercury winner asserts UK roots
By Ian Youngs
BBC News entertainment reporter

Antony and the Johnsons
Antony Hegarty was born in the UK and has a British passport
The lead singer of Mercury Music Prize winners Antony and the Johnsons has dismissed claims he is an American artist taking a British award.

"Everyone's certainly entitled to that opinion, but I actually am British," Antony Hegarty told BBC News.

The 34-year-old singer was born in Chichester, West Sussex, but has lived in the US for more than 20 years.

When the shortlist came out, favourites the Kaiser Chiefs said he was American and "got in on a technicality".

His inclusion raised eyebrows among others who said he should be classed as a US artist and pointed out the winning album, I Am A Bird Now, was made in New York.

Antony and the Johnsons
The band have become critical darlings around the world
The Mercury Prize rewards the best British or Irish album of the last 12 months.

But Hegarty has a British passport and says he was heavily influenced by English artists like Boy George and Marc Almond - even when he was living in the US.

"My thing is really mixed up because I've been moving around my whole life, so I take a lot of inspiration from really soulful singers, and there are a lot of those in Great Britain," he said.

The singer's heartfelt, haunting songs have forced critics to take notice but defied categorisation.

He has been compared to artists from Nina Simone to Inuit throat singers while Boy George, Lou Reed and Rufus Wainwright put in guest performances on the album.

Hegarty follows in the torch song tradition - singing sentimental songs, often about unrequited love.

An androgynous giant with gothic black hair, college dress sense and mid-Atlantic accent, Hegarty's emotional music is mirrored in his demeanour.

It really means a lot, because it's really an aesthetic award
Antony Hegarty
Both laughter and torment are never far from the surface and, facing the media on Tuesday, he seemed awkward in the spotlight but at the same time open and amiable.

"I just feel so honoured, I feel really delighted," he said after picking up the trophy and 20,000 cheque.

"I could never have imagined I would be singled out - and that makes me a little uncomfortable to be honest. But really it's been such a fantastic night."

He was happy to talk about his friendship with Lou Reed, his admiration for Boy George or doing cartwheels to Kate Bush at the age of seven.

"That was the beginning of an illustrious and exciting relationship with English music," he said.

Antony and the Johnsons album cover
The winning album was released in the UK in February
But his brow furrowed when the question of nationality was raised.

Asked how he felt to win the Mercury as an American artist, he responded: "It's interesting you would call me an American artist... as I said, I just feel really pleased to be a part of it."

When he has been previously asked whether he felt American, he has said: "I do in the fact that I'm an immigrant."

He added he would not live in the US if New York did not exist because "it's an immigrant city and I love it so much".

Hegarty has been a fixture on the New York arts scene for more than a decade and said he has never aimed for any awards.

"It hasn't really been a matter of me setting my eyes on a prize," he said.

"I've just been involved with things at every step of my life.

"I'm not 22, I'm 34, and I've had a long adult life in the arts and this is just an amazing new phase that I hadn't really anticipated."

'Vote of confidence'

The Mercury was a "wonderful arts award", he added.

"It really means a lot, because it's really an aesthetic award more than the success of the economy of your work.

"So it really was a vote of confidence and it meant so much to me, especially with that group of artists that are gathered here tonight."

He was up against "so many wonderful people, such a diverse array of creative ideas and work", he said.

As for the 20,000, he joked it may go towards clothes. "I know I look a bit rough," he said.

But he had already lost the cheque. "I don't know where it went, someone took it. I think it was the Kaiser Chiefs," he said with a smile.


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