An interview with Kristen Ellis-Henderson of Antigone Rising.
by Gregg Shapiro
Photo by Katie Ambrose
Kristen Ellis-Henderson has been busy the past couple of years. She and her Antigone Rising bandmates released the studio disc 23 Red in 2011. That same year, Kristen and her wife, Sarah Kate, co-wrote a book, published by Simon & Schuster, about their pregnancies and the birth of their children. The couple also became outspoken marriage equality activists. Most recently, they appeared in a lip-lock on the cover of Time magazine for a story titled “Gay Marriage Already Won.” Ellis-Henderson did all of that, in addition to being the mother of a pair of four-year-olds. Fortunately, she was able to find some time in her busy schedule to talk with me about music, motherhood, and recent events.
Gregg Shapiro: Kristen, in early April 2013, you could be seen kissing your wife, Sarah, on the cover of Time magazine. How did that come about?
Kristen Ellis-Henderson: Sarah and I wrote a book that came out in 2011 called Times Two, the story of how we got pregnant on the exact same day and gave birth to our son and daughter, Thomas and Kate. We got a lot of press when that book came out. We were getting a lot of phone calls from media outlets when New York State was voting again [as it had in 2009] on marriage equality in 2011. We ended up being vocal advocates for marriage equality in 2011, for obvious reasons, and when it passed we ended up getting married, and the Huffington Post followed us. There was a lot of press surrounding our wedding. When the Supreme Court was going to hold the hearings for DOMA and Prop 8, Time magazine was doing this cover story. Somebody at the magazine knew of us and contacted us to see if we’d be interested in coming in to talk about the issues. We didn’t realize it was actually going to be a cover story. We slowly learned there were going to be photos and it was going to be for the cover. That’s basically how it went down.
How has the response to the Time magazine cover been for you?
I have to say I’m totally surprised. It has been a non-issue, practically. We were sort of bracing. In 2009, the first time we talked to the press, there seemed to be a lot more negativity. A lot more people were coming at us with different types of questions, let’s just say. This time around, everyone we talked to was like, We’re so happy, it’s amazing what’s happening, the tides have shifted. This time around, we spoke to Geraldo Rivera, who is pro-equality. Getting ready for some of these interviews, I was expecting to speak to a right-wing-type interviewer, and they’re all in favor—even Bill O’Reilly. It’s been kind of an event that’s a nonevent. I’m really happy about that.
Long before you kissed your wife, Sarah, on the cover of Time, you were probably best known for being in the band Antigone Rising. Did you always know that you wanted to make music?
Yes, definitely. My sister [Cathy] and I formed our first band when I was three. We were always grabbing kids in the neighborhood and creating bands. That was something that Cathy and I did, and she’s still in the band with me to this day.
I’m so glad you mentioned your sister, Cathy. What’s it like being in a band with your sister?
I’ve never not been in a band with my sister. It’s one of those things where you blur the lines of codependency. I don’t know how to be in a band without her. We started doing it together, and we always have. I was just talking about this with someone the other day. We were saying that brothers in bands tend to be kind of a mess. Look at Oasis or the Black Crowes. But sisters in bands [are different]—look at the Bangles or Heart. We love being in a band together.
What’s the secret to Antigone Rising’s staying power?
I think we just do what we do. Somebody gave me this advice a while ago. Julie Gold, the Grammy Award-winning songwriter…
She wrote “From a Distance.”
That’s right. Julie is a mentor. Back in the nineties she was mentoring our band. She said to us, “Never change what you’re doing. Always do what you do, because you want to be authentic and real. Be yourselves. The music industry is such that it will rotate around and you’ll keep coming around again. Don’t worry about chasing whatever is the in thing.” That’s exactly what we’ve always done. Sometimes we may not be what the hip thing is in the music business, but as long as you keep doing what you do, eventually the music industry comes back around and catches up with you again. We’ve never tried to be anything we are not.
Would it be fair to say that the most consistent thing about Antigone Rising has been the country influence?
With that in mind, we all saw how country singer/songwriter Chely Wright was treated after she came out, how her record sales suffered. What is it like, from your perspective, for Antigone Rising being queer in the country music genre?
The biggest difference between us and Chely is that Chely was unquestionably a Nashville-marketed country artist. We were more pop/rock with a Southern/country feel. Our record label, the way we were marketed, would treat country as our secondary market.
We did spend a lot of time in Nashville. It’s an incredibly different atmosphere in Nashville as far as acceptance and equality goes. I think it’s gotten a lot better, but I can tell you, without naming names, when we were down in Nashville, certain people didn’t want to go out to dinner with us, in public, because it might draw into question their sexuality. That’s what goes on in Nashville.
I think what Chely did is huge. That is not an easy town to come out in. We had a foundation; we had already been playing all over the country. To be quite honest, it’s our gay following. We would pull into markets all the way across the country, so far away from home—there was no money being spent to promote, we didn’t have a record label—and the room we are playing in, say in Colorado, would have seventy-five to eighty people there. There’d be all these lesbians who heard about us from their friends from all over the country. You can’t really put a price tag on that kind of stuff. We always had a very strong gay following. So for us, coming out wasn’t that hard.
Antigone Rising has undergone some personnel changes since the release of From the Ground Up. What makes this particular lineup work so well?
Right now, the lineup is my sister and me and Dena [Tauriello], our drummer who’s been with the band forever, and Nini Camps is the lead singer. She’s an old friend of mine. We’ve been friends for like twenty years. She’s a songwriter, and she and I started writing songs together before this lineup change happened. So a lot of the songs that I was already bringing in to the band were co-writes with Nini. It was a very natural progression.
About five years ago, Nini’s life and mine started tracking the same. She and her partner Brooke were getting ready to start a family, [and] they were getting ready to move out of the city. Our lives started making a lot of sense, the way our schedules were. We live in the same town now. She lives here in Seacliff with her wife. She’s got a three-year-old son named Marco who’s best friends with my kids who are four years old. It just works that easily—it’s like a natural fit.
Nini’s got a studio in her house where we work. We’re a little bit older and we’re a little more set in how we want to do things. We’re not so much into the drama or controversy. We just want to play music and have a good time. It’s like a family for real now. Not that it wasn’t before, but there was a lot more at stake back in the days of From the Ground Up, with Starbucks and all these players involved.
The latest Antigone Rising single, “That Was the Whiskey,” was co-written with singer/songwriter Lori McKenna. Can you please say something about the role that collaboration plays in Antigone Rising’s songwriting process?
I find as a rule that when you collaborate, you’re able to go places you wouldn’t even think of yourself. Nini and I do most of the collaborating. We’ve written a few songs with Lori. She has such a great melodic sense. “That Was the Whiskey” was written based on a night that we had spent together with Lori.
We did the 30A Songwriters Festival in Florida with Lori. We were headlining that night in a big, crowded, dirty drinking bar. It was the final show of that day’s festival, so everyone from the festival was there. And it was Nini’s birthday. Lori was at the show. I guess Jägermeister was one of the sponsors of the festival, and these Jägermeister girls, in their trucker hats, were coming up to the stage and handing us shots. The crowd was up on each other’s shoulders. It was a raunchy show. Lori, who is a singer-songwriter who usually sits on the stage with her guitar, was so blown away after the show. She thought it was amazing to watch, all these bodies surfing around and all these shots going on. She was really inspired by the show [laughs], which was kind of a drunken-mess show. But it was fun.
So we sat down to write with Lori. That song was inspired by that show that night. It was an easy thing. It was based on a night that we had all spent together.
Will “That Was the Whiskey” be included on the next Antigone Rising disc, and if so, when will that be coming out?
What we’re going to do, I think, is release a five-song EP. We’re trying to navigate our way through the industry right now [to see] where the music business is at. It seems that there’s no point in doing a ten-song CD when people are just downloading the songs they like, for the most part. We are in the process of finishing the five-song, and we’ll press it onto a disc if people want a hard copy, or it can be downloaded as a five-song package. We’re hoping that by sometime in June we’ll have it ready, and “Whiskey” will definitely be a part of that.
Speaking of June, Antigone Rising has been booked to play Pridefests during the 2013 season. Have you been part of the Pridefest circuit before?
Yes, we’ve done a bunch of different Prides all over the country. We’re doing Northampton Pride, and we’ve done New York City Pride and Atlanta Pride a couple of times.
What’s the best thing about playing a Pridefest?
It’s hard to even put into words. It’s so intense, it’s so powerful. There’s something about playing to a group of gay and lesbian audience members who are all there for the same reason. It’s great. I love to do that.
Gregg Shapiro also writes the GrooveOut column in this issue of OutSmart.