Universal appeal

As 2012’s designated US arts envoys, rockers Antigone Rising will be spreading their message at shows, workshops.

Antigone rising 390 (photo credit: Anthony Saint James))
Antigone rising 390
(photo credit: Anthony Saint James))
The US State Department may not be making much headway in solving the Iranian nuclear threat or the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate, but in the role of concert tour promoters, they’re doing just fine.
The US Embassy in Tel Aviv, as part of the State Department’s Cultural Envoy program, is hosting a full slate of shows and workshops this week featuring the talents of the all-female New York-based country-rockers Antigone Rising – 2012’s designated US arts envoys.
And they’ve been chosen for good reason. The New York-based quartet is the missing link that connects the quintessential Americana sounds of the Dixie Chicks, Sheryl Crow and Martina McBride with the spunky pop rock of 1980s all-female bands like The Bangles and The Go Gos. The results, according to the Allmusic.com’s assessment of their latest album 23 Red is “decidedly smooth adult pop” that’s “almost old-fashioned in its celebration of songcraft.”
“We all come together with different influences,” says guitarist Kathy Henderson who, together with her bass-playing sister Kristen, founded Antigone Rising in the early 1990s in Greenwich Village. “Mine is a more classic American rock influence; Kristen comes from the folk side, and Nini [guitarist and lead vocalist Nini Camps] has that country feel with a bit of Latin thrown in. It results in an interesting mix with lots of different flavors.”
Henderson was speaking from New York a couple days before the band, rounded out by drummer Dena Tauriello, was slated to fly to Israel for the first time for a jam-packed week of shows and workshops in Israeli and Palestinian cities. The public is invited to free shows on Tuesday night in Jerusalem at Beit Massia; on Wednesday in Zoran at Heichal Hatarbut Kadima; and on Thursday in Tel Aviv at the Rothschild 12 club.
In addition, the band will be giving free shows on Saturday in Bethlehem; Sunday in Ramallah; and Monday in east Jerusalem, as well as performing for Jewish and Arab high school students at Kaye College in Beersheba and conducting workshops at Beit Issie Shapiro, the Tabita school in Jaffa, and the Ni’lin village in the West Bank.
According to Henderson, the band doesn’t feel any apprehension over figurative potential explosions inherent in stepping into the region’s political minefields “We play music, and our music is universal, representing love and peace,” she says. “And if we can bring those elements to anybody, we will do it, regardless of any conflict that is going on. We’re really excited about the performances and the workshops. They allow us to interact with people and get to know them. The interactive element is really rewarding, and we’re really excited about that prospect. People get so involved with learning about different aspects of music and writing songs, it really charges them up.”
Antigone Rising has been charging up audiences ever since exploding into the American spotlight in 2005, after becoming the first band signed to Starbucks Hear Music (Lava Records). They had already picked up a substantial grassroots following a number of albums released on independent labels and financed through fan donations, as well as relentless touring. But thanks to the in-store promotion provided by Starbucks, as well as the novelty of offering a self-contained female musical unit, their EP “From the Ground Up” sold more than 450,000 in its first year.
“There’s something really cool and fun about women playing together,” says Henderson. “Kristen and I have always had bands since junior high school with the people closest to us – our friends. It wasn’t intentional playing with just women, even though groups like The Bangles and The Go Gos were a big inspiration to us. But as we grew and evolved, we realized there was something special about playing with other women,” she says.
“It’s amazing to me there aren’t more self-contained women bands,” she continues. “We’ve played with and become quite close with The Bangles, and it’s something we’ve talked about. They were trail blazers in the 1980s, and 30 years later, there’s still just a handful of female bands. That’s pretty mind blowing.”
Despite the exposure and success afforded them by the Starbucks deal, by last year the band was back to doing things the indie way. 23 Red was made through $40,000 of fan donations, released on their own Rising Shine label and distributed via Joan Jett’s Blackheart Records.
“The industry began changing around five years ago when downloading took over and the labels weren’t quite sure how they were going to sustain themselves. They were never artist-friendly to begin with, and they became even more unfriendly,” says Henderson.“Because you can do global marketing and distribution via the Internet and social networking, it became a natural decision for us to do it on our own. And it’s become quite enjoyable and liberating not having that middle man dictating what you can or can’t do.”
Henderson might have been referring to drawing attention to one of the band’s most ardent fan bases – the gay and lesbian community – and their ongoing musical messages of gender equality and women’s empowerment. While the band has always had a large following in the LGBT community, it became more public last year when Henderson’s sister Kristen published her memoirs for Simon & Schuster entitled Times Two.
The book chronicles the journey she and her partner, Sarah Ellis, took to start a family – the two of them eventually getting pregnant on exactly the same day and giving birth to their son and daughter, respectively “The book has been really successful and has opened a lot of people’s eyes to the struggles that go on with gay and lesbian couples who want to have children together,” says Henderson, adding that adopting a high profile on the potentially divisive subject has not alienated the group among the more conservative country music fans.
“Of course, there are people who have some strong opinions on this; but for the most part, it hasn’t had any negative effect on us. I think people tend to look past it and and enjoy the band for the music,” she says.
On the other side of the spectrum, Henderson explains that the group, since its inception, has attracted a sizable gay following and embraces it.
“It’s a segment of the population that has always been drawn to us, and it’s a natural audience for us,” she says, adding that the band’s performance in Tel Aviv at Rothschild 12 is geared toward the LGBT community.
The Jerusalem show will also feature social issues content.
The evening, entitled Spotlight on Women, will include the Theater Company Jerusalem performing Ancient Loves, called “a collection of evocative love stories from ancient Jewish sources about women who choose to live outside the consensus in their relationships with men.” There will also be a warm-up performance by the all-women Israeli rock band Tarantina.
Henderson and the rest of Antigone Rising will likely be in their element. But first and foremost for the guitarist and her sister – ahead of labels and causes – is the music.
“I can’t think of a time in my life when we didn’t have a band, and I can’t imagine not having a band. It’s not an extension of us anymore – it is us,” she says.
It looks like the US State Department has picked a winner this time.