"Antigone is considered to be the world's first feminist. She's a Greek legend. She's not a myth, she's a legend. [She] lived," says Kristen Ellis-Henderson, the bass guitarist for Antigone Rising, a four-piece country act coming to the Rathskeller for a show tonight.
When I spoke with Ellis-Henderson, we did talk about her band's two new EPs, Whiskey & Wine, Vol. 1 and 2. And we talked about her band's plan to resist stagnation in a difficult music industry by changing the release model.
But mostly we talked about women. Like, her wife, Sarah Kate Ellis-Henderson, who happens to be the president of GLAAD. And her band, who happen to be all women (all gay women, actually). And all women and girls Antigone Rising wants to inspire with their new foundation Girl Bands Rock. Plus Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, Tegan and Sara, Pink and Carrie Underwood, too. Antigone Rising have strong feelings about women's place in the music industry, and the myriad ways it proves difficult to succeed as an all-female group. There's no easy answers, but Ellis-Henderson is convinced that representation – simply modeling for young girls and boys that being a woman in an all-female band is a possibility – is the most effective way of changing the system from within.
Before we get into the Q&A: There's a reason you might recognize Ellis-Henderson, even if you're not a country music fan. She and her wife Sarah Kate were on the cover of TIME in 2013 (kissing!) as part of a story by David Von Drehle called "Gay Marriage Already Won." Together, they also penned a book, Times Two: Two Women in Love and The Happy Family They Made, about the birth of their two children.
NUVO: Your press release for this tour calls you a “feminist country band.” Tell me what that means.
Kristen Ellis-Henderson: Obviously, we're feminists, so it makes sense, right? It does sort of fly in the face of what some country music sort of represents. It is an interesting thing to be. And all female bands in music, in general. A woman in the music industry is a pretty big anomaly, actually. A fully sustained artist.
Last year, at the MTV Music Awards, when Miley Cyrus was gyrating against Robin Thicke, it just, to me, and to us, really shone a light on what is so wrong with our cultural and with the music industry. It inspired us to start our own foundation called Girl Bands Rock. Because we feel the reason that there aren't more all-female bands, self-sustained, fully-sufficient bands, is because kids don't see it. Kids don't see it on TV. They don't know that they can [do that]. Very often, the case is that if you don't see it, you don't know you can be it. So there's an argument for that – there's never been a female president because we've never seen a female president, you know?
What we're trying to do now, is that when we go out on tour is that we're doing outreach programs in schools and in youth centers. We're really just, more or less, modeling what an all-female band looks like. They're not going to get it on TV, they're not going to get it on mainstream media. What they're going to get is Miley Cyrus doing the most ridiculous things. And then she defends it, because she believes that she is in control, and is empowered. And it's so mind-blowing, how empowered she is, and just how well the machine works. She's arguing that she is empowered, which is preposterous to me, as a mother now.
NUVO: I've discussed the issue of representation in many interviews, including one with Tegan and Sara. Sara said she saw Feist onstage in Canada for the first time and it was a lightbulb moment for her – that a woman could do that, be onstage.
Ellis-Henderson: Right! It never occurred to her that she could do that, because she never saw it. It's so true. There aren't more girl bands because girls don't know that they can be in bands. In the very rare case that you do see one, people do say this, that “girl bands stink, they don't know how to play instruments.” It's just so crazy. There are bands now like Sick of Sara and Hunter Valentine and they're so cool, but they're not allowed to have any mainstream success. I'm really hoping that's changing. They're a little younger than we are now and they're hitting it really hard right now. They're in a different time in their lives. They're good bands, you know? They're as good as any guy bands. I hope that they get some credit for it, and they break through this ceiling.
We were on tour with The Bangles a couple years ago and we were talking to the Peterson sisters. They were like, “What the hell? We were so sure that after we broke and all the success that we had that it would be like floodgates [of all girl bands].” Even The Bangles were saying this! “There was The Go-Go's, and then us, and then we just figured, here we go! It's going to change everything.” But there hasn't been a successful all-female band since The Bangles. We were the closest thing that came to it. We got signed to Atlantic, we were on Lava, stuff happened with VH1. It seemed like we were going to break that way. And somehow the music industry just put the breaks on.
NUVO: When you said that, I immediately started searching my brain for a successful contemporary all-female band. I remember when Beyonce was touring a couple years ago and did her Superbowl show with an all-female backing band. It was very cool, but I think it was just a feature on that tour.
Ellis-Henderson: Exactly. It was her backing band. They were a band, but still. But even just to put that image into the minds of young boys and young girls that are watching is awesome. But that's true. They're not a band, and that's the worst part about it. It's the kitsch. And that shouldn't be. It shouldn't be such a novelty. And those girls were crushing it, that backup band was amazing. And Beyonce is psychotic. In the music industry there are amazingly powerful women artists, but there are way more disasters, though. The Beyonces are few and far between.
I think Pink is amazing. But even still, these aren't women that are coming out and writing their songs. Pink is writing her songs, but [she's not] coming out, playing guitar. Don't get me wrong, Pink is literally catapulting around arenas, so what she's doing is phenomenal. But when you think about it, it's what she has to be doing to be phenomenal, as a woman in the music industry. She can't just get up there and play her guitar like Ed Sheeran. If Pink came out strumming an acoustic guitar, singing the songs that she sings – and they're phenomenal songs – would she even be noticed? Would they bother? No. She's been one of the slowest builds, I think, in pop music. And she's been so good for so many years, and she's finally doing arena tours in the United States this past album. Over in Australia, she's huge, but in the United States, she's just a really slow burn. How is that even possible? She literally had to figure out how to be an acrobat. It's insane what the music industry does to women. Freakin' Pink has to slither up and down her silks at the Grammys. And it's magical to watch, but …
Even Katy Perry, who I really love, sort of demeans herself at every turn. And while she does it in sort of a really cute, self-deprecating way that's lovable, it's this weird thing she has to do to be successful.
NUVO: What about Taylor Swift? She came out with just her acoustic guitar and her songs that she wrote herself. She's morphing into a pop act, but I still think she's separate from the Katy Perrys, Beyonce, Lady Gagas –
Ellis-Henderson: Yeah, but she's trying to be them, right? Now she wants to be them. Taylor Swift is such a great example, if she wasn't now doing what she's doing. I have no idea what it's like to be at that level of success. I do know that whatever level you're at, you always feel like you're one second away from losing your foothold.
I do remember when we were touring with Rob Thomas, he couldn't get over to Top 40 radio; Sheryl Crow is the same thing. We were managed by the same manager, and that was her frustration. She could get radio play, but she couldn't make it over to the Top 40s. They're sweating shit like that, and you're thinking, “I would die to be Rob Thomas or Sheryl Crow. I'm sweating to get on a tour with them, and they're sweating. The music business is an industry where you sweat. I'm sure Taylor Swift is thinking, “I need to change it up. I need to do something different.” She's probably seeing these artists doing arena tours, and she wants to make sure she can keep up or grow, or whatever it is. And there's probably some record label guy behind it all, some part of the machine saying, “More, more more.” … Taylor Swift is such a interesting example. I find as a rule, the women in country music are much more relatable to me, at least.
NUVO: The Miranda Lamberts and Carrie Underwoods of the world?
Ellis-Henderson: Totally. Carrie Underwood, what a voice on that girl. But when you think about it, both of those girls you just named have careers in the music industry because they won a TV show [singing contest]. That is so eff'd up. That is crazy. When you turn on the radio now, it's all kids from American Idol, or Nashville Star. Isn't that crazy? It hurts my brain.
Tegan and Sara, that's a perfect example. They used to open for us. They're so talented, and so real. They're the real deal, and they make me feel like there's hope. But even so, they're not in my face that way Miley Cyrus is. I hear about them, see them on big tours now, but they're not on the MTV Music Awards-big yet. I hope they get there. I feel like they're just a heartbeat from there.
NUVO: Indiana is the in midst of a fight for marriage equality. Is there a difference for you, as an out artist and an advocate going to an Indiana, or a North Carolina, or a Vermont or California?
Ellis-Henderson: I find as an out artist that when we do go to these states that are turning down the ballots, where equality doesn't exist … before there was equality in certain states, the whole country you just felt like a minority. You were a minority. Now that we have equality in certain states, I feel like when I go to states that don't have equality, I feel like it's more hostile. It's not like anything is happening to me in that state, not like anyone is throwing eggs at me onstage. I just feel less equal. I do. I can't stop myself. North Carolina just had a vote, and we were headed to North Carolina literally right around the time that equality was turned down. I just felt like, I don't want to go to North Carolina. What are we doing?
Back in the '90s, I remember marching on Washington. We weren't marching for marriage equality. That didn't even occur to my brain. I was never getting married! We were there just to exist. Just to not be killed. We just wanted to not be hated. That was all we were marching for, to not be totally hated by our families, or be outcasts anymore. Two million people showed up in DC, in 1993. It wouldn't have even occurred to us to think [about marriage equality]. But we were there, angry and ready to fight, and we wanted something. And if anyone had said, you should be fighting for marriage equality, I would have said, “What does that even mean?” It's one of those things that's like a huge mind-blowing concept. But once you put the idea in our head, in all of our heads, that yeah, why do I think this is okay? To pay taxes to live in a country that doesn't believe in who I am? Now, when I go to a state when it doesn't exist, or where they're fighting against it, it makes me feel like I can't be there. Why are we coming here? But the fans want to see you. It's so disheartening, to think that exists.
Back in 2009, when my wife and I were writing our book, it was coming up in the New York state senate for marriage equality in New York. And during the writing of the book, it failed. It was rejected. I remembered how we were feeling. We had just had the babies and all that. We were thinking, it's one thing when it didn't exist anywhere. But now we know that it's come to a vote in our state and our state voted it down. It's like, I don't know if I can stay here. We were so upset by that in 2009. So when it came back in 2011, we definitely agreed, if it didn't pass, we were leaving. We were moving to Connecticut. All of our friends were so upset. They were like, “You're not going to move! You're not moving.” But we were absolutely going to. In my brain, especially now that we have kids that were 2-years-old, I couldn't possibly stay in a place where I would have to explain to them that there moms are equal in the state that they pay taxes in. It was just so wrong in my brain. Intuitively I couldn't do it. So we were going to move to Connecticut. But I'm so glad we didn't have to, because that would have been a pain in the neck. I didn't really want to move, but I felt like I really would have had to. I feel that way now, when I see these initiatives coming up in states and being turned down.
NUVO: Tell me about the decision to release two EPs in a year instead of one full album.
Ellis-Henderson: So, the music industry is obviously a disaster. It always has been, I've always found it to be that way since we've been in it. You cannot keep up, you've just got to keep reinventing it and finding new ways to be creative and to keep your fans engaged with what you're doing. We hadn't put a record out in about two years, so we really needed to put out something new. Our initial idea was to just start putting out one song at a time, and put out one a month, and at the end of six months, turn it into an EP that you can sell at shows. For the most part, we find that our fans are downloading. They very rarely order CDs online now, but at live shows, they love to buy CDs, have you sign it, meet you after the show.
But because we hadn't put new product out in a few years, we decided instead to put the five-song EP out first, and then, instead of saying we're “releasing a single,” saying that we're celebrating each song on the album. We're trying to make videos for each song, do alternate mixes, or interesting versions, just to keep the fans engaged. So we're doing five songs in March, and five songs that we're going to release in October. The real strategy behind it is that, I think, that any artist in this day and age that disappears from their fans news feeds for any amount of time … people will forget all about you.
Certainly don't disappear for two and a half years making a new album, which is typically what most artists do. You make an album, then go and tour in support of the album. So you spend six months to a year writing the album, then six months to a year recording the album, then six months to a year touring the album. And now you're three years … by the time you get another album out. You might as well be dead. Everybody thinks, whatever happened to Britney Spears? Why, because it's been six months since she did anything? So we just realized that our strategy is to don't disappear. And to keep it interesting, with a constant stream of content. I think that it's really tricky for most artists. If you're an artist who doesn't also have a bit of a business mind, which is common, you [can disappear]. If you think of the artists that we're losing because they're not creatively thinking in this way, we're probably missing a lot of good music. But you've got to keep up with the Joneses if you want to stay alive in this business.
… Our business, I know what our bank account looks like. I know what our taxes look like every year. We're doing fine, we're staying the same, not drowning or dying. Our fans are making sure of it. We're doing the crowd-funding thing, and I think that works amazingly well. Because you get to cut out this middle man, the record label, who takes a huge cut. And you get to make all the choices. It's kind of amazing, you know. You don't have to worry about anyone telling us what to wear, or not to be out. You have a lot more freedom that way.
This interview has been condensed and edited.