Antena / Isabelle Antena \ Biography
Electro-samba pioneer turned jazz-pop polymath, Isabelle Antena has quietly sold more than a million albums since 1982. From Camino Del Sol to Bossa Super Nova, her cool latin, bossa, jazz and funk vibes have delighted fans around the globe, and remain a staple of hip DJ record boxes from Ibiza to Goa to New York City.
Originally the Antena project was a trio. In 1981 Pascale Moiroud and Sylvain Fasy left their respective hometowns of Valence and Clermont in the south of France and headed for Paris. There they met sassy native Isabelle Powaga and discovered a shared passion for the analog mekanics of Kraftwerk, the latin sounds of Jobim and Gilberto, and an eye for a strong BCBG image. Thus was born Antena.
After a spell busking in Metro stations, the group recorded their first demo early in 1982, then posted out copies to three favoured labels: Ralph, Ze and Les Disques du Crépuscule. At the time the domestic market in France was moribund, and so Antena were delighted to receive an enthusiastic response from Crépuscule, a boutique label based in Brussels with an impressive, eclectic roster that included Tuxedomoon, Paul Haig, Wim Mertens and the Factory Benelux imprint.
In March 1982 Isabelle, Pascale and Sylvain traveled to London to record their first single, produced by former Ultravox frontman John Foxx at his studio, The Garden. Two years earlier, Foxx had set a new standard for minimal electronic music with his solo debut Metamatic, of which Antena were declared fans; now his sparse production style gave a unique edge to their wry version of The Boy From Ipanema, the Brazilian classic recorded by Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto in 1964. However, it was the two self written, self-produced tracks on the flipside, To Climb the Cliff and Unable, which left a greater impression - rougher sounding, but true electro-samba.
After plans to record their first long player with Foxx fell through, Camino Del Sol was cut in Brussels in June and produced by the band themselves. Clocking in at just 18 minutes, the mini-album offers five simple, seductive latin sketches, of which the sublime title track, with its wonderful synth riff halfway, is the highlight, run a close second by exquisite ballad Silly Things. Crépuscule archivist Frank Brinkhuis captures the timeless appeal of the album perfectly. "Antena were the sound of margaritas and a deck of cards, charades and bellini, and impromptu bathing-suit-optional pool parties. All housed in a gorgeous sleeve by the brilliant Crépuscule in-house designer Benoît Hennebert: a still life of the good life, perfectly matching the music."
Despite superficial similarities to then-current 'new jazz' acts such as Weekend, Allez Allez and the Marine Girls, Camino Del Sol attracted surprisingly little attention on release in September 1982. Instead, the band toured Belgium as part of an eclectic Crépuscule package tour with Cabaret Voltaire, 23 Skidoo and Pale Fountains in October, then crossed the Atlantic to play Danceteria in New York on New Year's Eve. Yet despite having discovered a sound all of their own, light years ahead of its time, Antena's exotic combination of indie, electro, pop and samba proved a hard sell in the indie sector. It was time to get serious, and seriously commercial.
In 1983 Crépuscule signed a licensing deal with Island Records, which saw select releases by Paul Haig, Winston Tong, James 'Cuts' Lebon and Antena given larger recording and promotional budgets. The next Antena single, Be Pop, appeared in September 1983 and might have been a sizeable hit, combining Chic-styled rhythms with a contagious chorus. Their new producer was Martin Hayles, who had charted Orange Juice, and now matched Antena with a team of crack session musicians whose credits included Wham. Unfortunately, after the Island single stalled commercially the original Antena trio fragmented, with Pascale leaving to concentrate on fashion design, and Isabelle and Sylvain deciding to carry on as a duo.
A stop-gap single, Life Is Too Short, appeared early in 1984 on small Belgian label New Dance, also home to the first Front 242 releases. Thanks to Martin Hayles, that summer tenacious Antena signed a contract with Phonogram and took a second shot at the chart with an improved version of Be Pop. At the same time Isabelle and Sylvain moved to London. The second single, a more polished Hayles production of Life Is Too Short, appeared in November, but also sold modestly, and proved hard to find outside the UK. By this stage Isabelle had more or less disowned the earlier Crépuscule releases, confiding to NME in November: "We are listening to different types of music now. It seems that everybody else has discovered Getz and Gilberto, and we've moved back to stuff like Chic and Sister Sledge. We could only do stuff like Camino Del Sol for so long. Brussels is very quiet and it suited that kind of rhythm, but when we moved back to Paris, where the pace is so much quicker, the music had to change. But I think you can still see bits of jazz in there. When we first wrote Be Pop it was a jazz tune."
It would be another ten years before St Etienne, Air and Stereolab made French pop hip in Britain again, and in the meantime the years 1984 and 1985 proved a difficult time for Isabelle and Sylvain. "I signed to Phonogram in England and had to go and live in London. It was a rather negative experience. They released two singles, and by that time I was already working with great session musicians like Trevor Murrell, Camelle Hinds and Danny Cummings. But it was not a commercial success. With small companies you can do as you please musically, but there is no money. On a major label, you get tied down by commercial demands. And Frenchies in England - pfft, they don't give a damn."
Sessions for an album were shelved, and by 1985 Antena found themselves back Brussels without a deal. Happily relations with Crépuscule were restored, with the result that a new single, Seaside Weekend, appeared at the beginning of 1986, the last record to be released under the collective name Antena. By now Sylvain Fasy had decided to take a back seat in the group, still contributing some material, but focusing mainly on photography. Thus the album En Cavale ('on the run') was credited to Isabelle Antena alone, and issued through Crépuscule in April.
Again produced by Martin Hayles, En Cavale completed Antena's transition from minimalist electro ingenues to smooth pop sophisticates. The album's cosmopolitan dance stylings covered disco (Be Pop, Don't Think About It), latin-jazz (Play Back) and chilled-out ballads (Seaside Weekend), and delivered on their earlier promise to fuse Astrud Gilberto and Chic. The album also included a smart cover of Easy Street, the Rogers/Edwards song originally recorded by Sister Sledge in 1980. Oddly, Despite the disappointment of their British adventure, TWI 610 remained an English language album, although the titles of the wasted singles - Sois Pop and La Vie est Trop Courte - was now defiantly French.
By the time Easy Street was issued as a single in May 1986 Isabelle was aleady busy recording her next album. Released early the following year, Hoping For Love saw Isabelle step left of the dancefloor, expanding her latin, funk and samba palette to include jazz and acoustic stylings. Largely self-produced, the album retained the satirical working title La Generation Bof until the eleventh hour. Hoping For Love was very much an album of two halves, the first side consisting of pop and dance numbers in similar vein to En Cavale, and the second exploring jazzier avenues with the help of veteran players such as pianist Johnny Hot and hornsman Johnny Dover. Stand-out tracks include Laying on the Sofa, edgy La Tête contre les murs and tender Mediterranean ballad Le Poisson des mers du sud; side two works best as a single suite.
Hoping For Love took Isabelle to Japan for the first time, where in 1987 she was voted best international female singer at the prestigious Tokyo Music Festival, finishing ahead of Whitney Houston, Sade, Basia and Tracey Thorn. A subsequent performance of Time to Work at the Tokyo Dome between spots by Earth Wind and Fire and Kool and the Gang marked a career highlight. Where Britain had resisted Antena's charms, Japan swooned.
Isabelle quickly consolidated this success with On a Warm Summer Night, which numbers among her bestselling albums. Recorded in Brussels in late 1987, the set was co-produced with Martin Hayles, and reflects both Isabelle's desire to make a pure jazz album, and Hayle's uptempo funk leanings. As well as superior originals such as Je Respire, Un Journée Banale â New York City and Romancia del Amor (also a single), the album included a bespoke ballad co-written by noted French soundtrack composer Gabriel Yared (Eclat de Nuit), and a radical samba arrangement of Village of the Sun by Frank Zappa. In Europe it was released as Tous Mes Caprices, and promoted with a tour supporting Vaya Con Dios, whose bass player Dirk Schoufs would go on to collaborate with Isabelle as a writer and musician, and become her second husband.
Always a prolific writer, Isabelle recorded De L'Amour et des Hommes (1988) and Intemporelle (aka Jouez le Cinq) (1990) in quick succession, and performed live across Europe as well as North America and Japan. Dirk Schoufs left Vaya Con Dios to join forces with Isabelle, bring with him Vaya drummer Marco De Meersman and Fritz Sundermann, crack jazz guitarist and son of Freddy Sunder. This quartet became creative core for Les Derniers Guerriers Romantiques, a conceptual work released in April 1991 and intended as a celebration of the love affair between Isabelle and Dirk. Tragedy struck on 24 May when Dirk died, leaving Isabelle devastated, and hard pressed to complete tours of Europe and Japan scheduled in June.
After a year of reflection, Isabelle returned to the studio in 1992 to record one of best albums of her career, Carpe Diem. The song Corto payed heartfelt tribute to Dirk, while the album as a whole represented her personal affirmation of life and music. Produced by Isabelle with help from Gilles Martin, the predominant vibe was cool jazz, latin and bossa. The sessions at Studio Caraibes in Brussels also introduced Isabelle to Denis Moulin, son of Telex man Marc, who would later become her musical and personal partner.
Since Carpe Diem Isabelle has released another dozen albums, spanning jazz, funk, latin and pop, as well as writing for and producing other artists. Her own side projects include Fragile on the Rocks, The Powaga Sisters, Zeta Reticuli and jazz project Pause Cafe. Although as a solo artist Isabelle Antena has often found greater commercial success in Japan and the Far East than in Europe, more recently the rest of the world has been catching up. In 1996 the track Antena opened the first ESL compilation by Thievery Corporation, and since then Isabelle has worked with many hip young DJs and producers including Buscemi, Nicola Conte and Yukihiro Fukutomi. Along with Thievery Corporation, all worked on her essential 2005 bossa mix double album Easy Does It, and Thievery guested again on the 2006 Antena comeback project Toujours du Soleil. A third Antena album, Bossa Super Nova, was issued in 2010, along with a longform archive DVD, Transmissions, and the Crépuscule reunion project After Twilight, curated by Isabelle.
Isabelle remains an artist of great integrity - proudly independent, and faithful to the bold philosophy she espoused to NME back in 1984. "The fact that we have had to struggle quite a lot to get to even where we are now is not important. I think there is always a value in people whose music is not mainstream. I know that in another time people were blaming Debussy and Ravel because they were playing different things to the mainstream. What is hard to listen to today might be easier to listen to tomorrow. The good thing about music is that anything is possible."
Official Antena website www.isabellaantena.com.