French chanteuse and musician Isabelle Antena is a pioneer of bossa nova- and samba-inflected nu-jazz and electropop. She was a founding member of the original 1980s French-Belgian synthpop trio Antena, and in the 1990s led another group, the genre-defying Powaga Sisters to record three releases between 1993-2004. Alongside these projects, she has also carved out a remarkable solo music career in the last thirty years, selling over a million albums and winning fame and musical acclaim across the globe.
From James Nice, founder of LTM (Les Temps Modernes), in Oct 2006:
Electro-samba pioneer turned jazz-pop polymath, Isabelle Antena has quietly sold more than a million albums. From Camino Del Sol (1982) to Toujours du Soleil (2006), her cool latin, bossa, jazz and funk vibes have delighted ears and feet worldwide.
Originally Antena were a trio. In 1981, Pascale Moiroud and Sylvain Fasy left their hometowns of Valence and Clermont in the south of France and headed for Paris, the fabled City of Light. There they met sassy native Isabelle Powaga, and discovered a shared passion for the analog mechanics 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, Antena recorded their first demo early in 1982, and 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 Cr?puscule, a chic boutique label based in Brussels with an impressively 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 famously 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, that left a greater impression - rougher sounding, and true electro-samba!
Abandoning plans to record their first LP with Foxx in London, 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 absolute highlight, run a close second by the exquisite ballad Silly Things. Cr?puscule archivist Frank Brinkhuis nails the timeless appeal of the album precisely: "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 Cr?puscule in-house designer Benoit Hennebert: a still life of the good life, perfectly matching the music."
Despite superficial similarities to then-current 'nu-jazz' acts such as Weekend, Animal Nightlife and even Matt Bianco, Camino del Sol attracted surprisingly little attention on release in September 1982. Instead, the band toured Belgium as part of a singular Cr?puscule package tour with Cabaret Voltaire, 23 Skidoo and The Pale Fountains in October, and crossed the Atlantic to play Danceteria in New York on New Year's Eve. 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 saw them in danger of falling between two stools, at a time when genre was king. It was time to get serious, and seriously commercial.
In 1983 Cr?puscule entered into a short-lived licensing deal with Island Records in the UK, which saw select releases by Paul Haig, Winston Tong, James 'Cuts' Lebon and Antena given enhanced recording and promotional budgets. The new Antena single, Be Pop, appeared in September 1983 and should have been a big dance hit, combining Chic-styled rhythms with a contagious chorus. Their new producer was Martin Hayles, who had already worked with chart stars Orange Juice, and now matched Antena with a team of crack session musicians whose credits included Wham!. However, after the Island single stalled, the first version of Antena fragmented, with Pascale leaving to concentrate on fashion design, and Isabelle and Sylvain electing to carry on as a duo.
A stop-gap single, in the form of a demo version of Life Is Too Short, appeared early in 1984 on Belgian label New Dance, also home to the first Front 242 releases. Thanks to Martin Hayles, in the summer of 1984 Antena signed a deal with Phonogram, who took a second shot at cracking the singles chart with an improved version of Be Pop. At the same time Isabelle and Sylvain moved to London. The second single, a polished Hayles production of "Life Is Too Short", appeared in November, but also failed to make waves, and was all but impossible to buy outside Britain. By this stage Isabelle had more or less disowned their earlier Cr?puscule releases, confiding to the NME in November that:
"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."
Despite the fact that Antena were releasing quality pop records with hip club appeal, the UK singles sold only modestly. It would be another ten years before bands like Saint Etienne, Air and Stereolab would make French pop hip in Britain again, and in the mean time, 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 in 1985 Antena returned to Brussels without a deal. Happily relations with the Cr?puscule label were restored, with the result that a new single, Seaside Week End, appeared at the beginning of 1986, the last new record to be released under the collective name Antena. By now Sylvain Fasy had decided to take a back seat in the band, still contributing to some of the material, but focusing mainly on photography. Thus the album En Cavale was credited to Isabelle Antena alone, and appeared on Cr?puscule in April.
Again produced by Martin Hayles, and featuring his elite team of session musicians, En Cavale completes Antena's transition from minimalist electro-samba ingenues to smooth pop sophisticates. The album's cosmopolitan dance stylings combine disco ("Be Pop", "Don't Think About It") and latin-jazz ("Play Back"), as well as several blessed-out ballads ("Seaside Weekend", "Ten Minutes"), and delivers on their earlier promise to fuse Astrud Gilberto and Sister Sledge. Indeed the album also includes a smart (if surely ironic) cover of "Easy Street", the Chic-stable classic originally released on the second Sister Sledge album in 1980. Despite the disappointment of the Phonogram adventure it remains an English language album, although the titles of the wasted singles - "Sois Pop" ("Be Pop") and "La vie est trop courte" ("Life Is Too Short") - was now defiantly French.
By the time "Easy Street" was released as a single in May 1986, Isabelle was already recording her next album. Released early the following year, Hoping for Love saw Isabelle step left of the dance-floor, and expand her latin, funk and samba palette to include jazz and acoustic stylings. Like Camino Del Sol it was largely self-produced, and kept the satirical working title La generation bof until the eleventh hour. Hoping For Love was (and is) very much an album of two halves, with side one comprising pop and dance numbers in similar vein to En Cavale, and the flip exploring jazzier avenues with the help of veteran players such as pianist Johnny Hot and hornsman Johnny Dover. Stand-out tracks on the first side include "Laying on the Sofa", the edgy "La t?te contre les murs" and soft Mediterranean ballad "Le Poisson des Mers du Sud", while 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, ahead of Whitney Houston, Sade, Basia and Tracey Thorn. Her subsequent performance of "Time to Work" at the Tokyo Dome between spots by Earth, Wind & Fire and Kool & The Gang remains a career highlight.
Isabelle quickly consolidated this success with On a Warm Summer Night, which remains one of her best-selling albums. Recorded in Brussels in late 1987, the set was produced by Isabelle with Martin Hayles, and reflects both her desire to cut a pure jazz album, and his own uptempo funk leanings. As well as superior originals such as "Je Respire", "Une Journee Banale A New York City" and "Romancia Del Amor" (also released as a single), the album includes a gorgeous bespoke ballad co-written by noted French soundtrack composer Gabriel Yared (Eclat De Nuit), and a radical samba arrangement of Frank Zappa's "Village of the Sun". In Europe it was released as Tous Mes Caprices, and promoted with a Belgian 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 went on to write and record De l'Amour et des Hommes (1988) and Jouez le Cinq (1989) - the latter being re-issued only months later as Intemporelle (1990) - performing live across Europe as well as North America and Japan. Dirk Schoufs left Vaya Con Dios to join forces with Isabelle, bringing with him Vaya drummer Marco De Meersman and Fritz Sundermann, crack jazz guitarist and son of Freddy Sunder. This quartet formed the new creative core for the next Isabelle Antena album, Les Derniers Guerriers Romantique, a conceptual work released in April 1991 and intended as a celebration of the love affair between Isabelle and Dirk. However tragedy struck on May 24 when Dirk died, leaving Isabelle devastated, and only just able to complete tours of Europe and Japan scheduled in June.
Following a year of reflection, Isabelle returned to the studio in 1992 to record one of the best albums of her career, Carpe Diem, released in Japan and France in November. The song Corto prend le large is a heartfelt tribute to Dirk, while the album as a whole represents her personal affirmation of life and music. Recorded by Gilles Martin with friends including De Meersman and Sundermann in the comfort of Studio Caraibes in Brussels, Isabelle produced the album herself, which has rightly come to be regarded as a milestone. The vibe is chiefly cool jazz, latin and bossa, and complements perfectly Isabelle's warm voice and soft, sensual lyrics, never more so than on "Corto prend le large" and E Preciso Perdoar.
At the Caraibes sessions Isabelle also met producer (and now husband) Denis Moulin, whose personal and professional partnership has since gone from strength to strength. Since Carpe Diem in 1992, Isabelle has released a further ten albums, spanning jazz, funk, latin and pop, as well as writing for and producing other artists. Side projects have included Fragile On The Rocks, Zeta Reticuli and the jazz project, Pause Café. Although as a solo artist Isabelle Antena has often found greater commercial success in Japan and the Far East than in Europe, quietly selling more than a million albums, 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 / Issy Does It (Remixes), and Thievery guested again on the 2006 Antena project Toujours du Soleil. And, completing the Antena trilogy, Bossa Super Nova was released April 12, 2010.
Isabelle remains an artist of genuine integrity, proudly independent, and faithful to the bold philosophy she espoused to the 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."
Isabelle Antena's Discography:
01. Antena - Camino Del Sol (1982)
02. Antena - Be Pop (single, 1983)
03. En Cavale (1984)
04. Antena - Seaside Week End (single, 1986)
05. Hoping for Love (1987)
06. On a Warm Summer Night / Tous Mes Caprices (1987)
07. De l'Amour et des Hommes (1988)
08. Jouez le Cinq (1989)
09. Intemporelle (1990)
10. Les Derniers Guerriers Romantiques (1991)
11. Carpe Diem (1992)
12. Plus Acid Que Jazz (compilation, 1994)
13. A la Belle Etoile (1995)
14. Mediterranean Songs (1997)
15. De l'amour Et Des Hommes, Vol. 2 (1999)
16. Take Me to Paradise (2001)
17. L'Alphabet Du Plaisir (Best Of 1981-2001) (compilation, 2001)
18. Easy Does It / Issy Does It (Remixes) (2005)
19. L'Alphabet Du Plaisir (Best Of 1982-2005) (compilation, 2005)
20. French Riviera (2006)
21. Antena - Toujours du Soleil (2006)
22. Antena - Bossa Super Nova (2010)
Her recent album Easy does it reviewed by All Music Guide Through a combination of DJ attention and reissues on the part of the LTM label, Isabelle Antena found her profile in the U.S. and U.K. higher than ever in the mid-part of the 21st century's first decade. Easy Does It, a bossa nova album straight up, with Antena singing in English, French and Portuguese, was the beneficiary, showing that over time Antena's skillful, lovely singing hadn't lost any of its charm. Backed with a strong band, including her multi-instrumentalist husband Denis Moulin, while tackling clarinet and keyboard parts herself, Antena delivers a combination of reinterpretations and originals that all suggest a perfect, warm late-night setting under a full moon at the best seaside club imaginable. If in comparison to her earliest albums there's none of the immediate genre tweaking and overt adventurousness, this by no means undercuts the appeal of the end result -- perhaps signaled best by how her originals such as "A Rainbow (Can't Forever Be)" and "Fresh" fit in well among the covers and contributions from her musicians. "Nothing to Lose," a song by Claudine Longet from the cult '60s movie The Party (written by Henri Mancini), makes for a perfect album starter, while a cover of Jobim's "So Tinha de Ser Com Voce" is another winner. A nice nod to the past, as explained in Antena's liner notes, occurs with "Your One and Only," which starts with a sample from her own "Musique a 4 & 6" -- another look back includes a version of Take Me to Paradise's "Stars," here performed, as Antena says, "as originally written," with a soaring trumpet start and a great beat to boot. A second disc, titled Issy Does It, features remixes of various album tracks by musicians worldwide -- noted Antena fanatics Thievery Corporation lead things off with a downtempo "Nothing to Lose," but the winner might be Nicola Conte's revamp of "Omerta Bossa," which features a Conte-led bossa band providing a totally new arrangement to the original vocals.