For seekers of the way, there are certain paths that keep calling—no matter how improbable they seem. Athena’s return to music is an odyssey of wandering and weaving, every lesson of which is evident in her synthesis of vintage soul and progressive Americana, as a songwriter and singer.
Born in the States to an Indian father and a Filipina mother, medical residents who had $32 and not a winter coat between them upon their East Coast arrival, Athena was destined to have a foot in two worlds, and a tenacious penchant for defying the odds. At three years old, in the mid-state valley town of Binghamton, NY, she started taking Yamaha piano lessons with her big sister. At five, they’d joined the children’s chorus in the Tri-Cities Opera Company. Then school chorus, church choir, jazz band, symphonic band, youth orchestra—singing and playing clarinet, bass clarinet, alto sax, drums.
Music was a critical form of expression for a tiny girl with a huge heart who feared she would never truly belong in any one tribe or place. Writing poetry, traveling the world, exploring multiple religions—all of this helped her see at a young age how perspectives could change according to where, when and how you lived. As the political drive behind hip-hop and the psychedelic philosophy of the 60's and 70's started to expand her consciousness, her beliefs as a rebellious first-generation American kid so often clashed with her parents'. Her adolescent years in Binghamton felt increasingly restrictive and alienating. So Athena took off for The Hotchkiss School, and started a whole new leg of her journey.
Being at boarding school gave Athena a singular opportunity to redefine herself and start making more autonomous choices. Musically, she started playing less classical piano and more classic/jam rock in the nine-piece band “Noodie With Weapons”. Her favorite English teacher and advisor predicted that Athena would be a "serious poet" by her 40s. The school’s fairly conservative environment pushed Athena to find an authentic voice in the counterculture, to sharpen her ability to realize her dreams despite the odds being against her.
Many of those odds, she admits, were her own fears and insecurities about never being the best, never walking a straight line. But she had enough irrepressible gumption and audacity to make her own way at Vassar College. She was the first student to do an independent Anthropological research program in Havana, Cuba. When she returned, she became a leader in Vassar’s revered fieldwork program with long-term inmates at Greenhaven Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison. Those two experiences taught her that the real story is often obscured by a well-worn story, and she set out to speak the truth through the megaphone of radio.
She secured a position as an intern on the Washington Desk at National Public Radio in 1998. That was the start of an eight-year career in journalism that spanned some of the most significant events in recent history, including Bill Clinton's impeachment, the 2000 elections, the September 11th attacks, the invasion of Iraq, the clergy sex abuse scandal and legalized gay marriage in Massachusetts.
Being at NPR enlivened Athena’s love of sound and narrative, the intimacy and power of the human voice, and the magic of sound production. She also became a regular fixture as a singer and performer for in-house NPR shows and around the DC area. But by the time she worked her way up to being a full-time reporter in Boston, music took a far back seat while her radio career took the wheel.
It was a change of career and location that brought her back to music. Athena's health had suffered during her time reporting on-air, and she'd used Chinese medicine to survive that time. She got her Masters in Acupuncture and Oriental medicine in 2011.
But a few years later when her family had to move to Singapore for her husband's work, she was prohibited from practicing acupuncture, and she took on playing and writing as much music as possible. She quickly formed strong connections in the music scene there - an amazing mix of talented locals and expats. Athena realized music could no longer be relegated to a distant pastime; it changed who she was, how she was living and how her purpose would manifest in the world. Her writing began to reflect the integration of her greatest influences: the frank emotionality and compelling grooves of soul music, and the simplicity and accessibility of Americana and bluegrass music. The bridging of those worlds creates a perfect semblance of Athena's distinctive style.
Upon her return to the states, she joined the Nashville Songwriters Association and ASCAP, and she made two critical partnerships: with Senior Engineer and Producer Alex Allinson at the renowned Bridge Sound and Stage studios, and Boston Music Award-winning bass player and producer Matthew Girard. Both producers encouraged Athena to develop her solo acoustic tracks into a more fleshed-out sound, and the seeds of her debut record took root.
Athena expanded her performing presence, at Boston-area institutions such as The Middle East and The Lilypad, and also at women’s empowerment and social justice events like the Domestic Violence Services Network annual memorial service for the state’s domestic violence victims, and the Inaugural Gala for the burgeoning entrepreneurial organization The Lady Project.
She also won scholarships to songwriting and artist development programs with folk-urban guitar legend Patti Larkin, and celebrity vocal coach and new business mentor Cari Cole. Athena landed her first co-write on the Billboard bluegrass chart-topping album "Laws of Gravity", the latest from Grammy-nominated newgrass virtuosos The Infamous Stringdusters.
Athena releases her debut EP this winter. "This record came out of a fierce exploration of all of the textures, all the insane places we inhabit when we're no longer standing on predictability, on other people's expectations or approval - when we take the leap into creating life that's authentic, and bold, and seemingly impossible. I'm finally owning that my journey has a lot to do with surrendering the struggle, and getting into flow with divine guidance—with a purpose that's larger than me," says Athena. "My aspiration is that whoever listens to this record pulls back their own veils, and opens those doors where dreams have been knocking and won't go away. When we share what's real for us, we give each other the courage to dance outside the box."
Next up for Athena is the release of her psychedelic electronica EP “Drunk with Honey”, a collaboration with producers Chris Mandra, an old NPR friend and electronica mastermind, and world music innovator N’dinga Gaba. That record is due out in Spring 2018. Meanwhile, Athena plans to continue writing with the Stringdusters and other breakout artists, developing her own music, and evolving her life in service and joy. “It’s such a vulnerable space, but I have to tell people how possible it is to travel from a fear of heights to totally soaring,” Athena says. “My story only counts if it lights a fire in the next unexpecting soul.”