Soapbox Prophets
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Soapbox Prophets

Band Rock Blues


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"Silver Lining"

City Sounds: Soapbox Prophets blindsided by silver lining

Des Moines rockers to unveil splendid debut CD, 'Stranger Than Strange,' after inconspicuous beginning

By Michael Swanger

Stranger things have happened. But considering that lead singer/rhythm guitarist Karen Harrison didn't start playing music until three years ago, after her husband's death, that bassist Deb Daniels would somehow find herself backing the widow of her former bandmate, and that veteran guitarist James Biehn had sworn off playing with another band, not even the founding members of the Soapbox Prophets could have predicted that after forming a year ago they would be issuing their splendid debut album, "Stranger Than Strange," this weekend,

"It's hard to put into words," says Harrison. "But if I would have bet someone this is what I would be doing, I would have lost that bet."

On Saturday, the Des Moines-based rock band hosts two CD release shows at the House of Bricks. But rest assured, these concerts are more than just a marketing ploy, for they represent a milestone for a band with inconspicuous origins.

If there's any truth to the adage "there's a silver lining in every dark cloud," then that certainly applies to the Soapbox Prophets who were born out of the untimely and tragic death of Leon "Skip" Harrison in 2001.

Leader of the Accidental Sisters, a local band that grew to regional acclaim through energetic live shows and albums, he died at the age of 37 from a rare infection, leaving behind his wife of six years and several unpublished songs. And though the story would end there for most local musicians, his wife, Karen Harrison, was determined to carry on in his memory.

After about a year's worth of encouragement by Daniels, Harrison started writing her own songs and taking guitar lessons from Biehn, formerly of the McKenzies and Hyde Park. The two women built a repertoire that included original material and tunes by Skip Harrison, casually jamming with Biehn and drummer Mark Grimm in 2004. A year later, they formed the Soapbox Prophets, a no-frills rock 'n' roll band fueled by Harrison's gutsy vocals and heartfelt songs, Biehn's gritty guitar playing and a group effort to keep Skip Harrison's artistry alive.

"The band wouldn't exist without Skip," says Biehn. "It just grew out of the music. Karen picked up the guitar not too long ago and has become quite the guitarist and songwriter. It's pretty incredible."

Harrison says it's ironic that she's playing the role of lead singer/rhythm guitarist/principal songwriter in a band like that of her late husband, but she feels the need to preserve his legacy.

"I've felt this incredible drive to do this," Harrison says. "My husband was my best friend and one of the most incredible songwriters. I didn't want his music to die."

What nobody predicted, including Harrison, was her penchant for writing songs. She says before her husband died she had never even written a poem, but songs, inexplicably, now flow from her. The 39-year-old songwriter says writing them is therapeutic, helping her cope with her husband's death.

"It's been a big part of the healing process for me," she says. "It's what's in my heart and my soul."

Matters of the soul are important to the Soapbox Prophets. After leaving Hyde Park, Biehn says he wasn't thinking about joining another group. Instead, the 29-year-old guitarist says he wanted to focus on the 60 or so guitar students he teaches and try his hand as hired gun for studio projects. Then he found Harrison and Daniels and was instantly drawn to the musical chemistry they shared.

"It was clear when we first got together that everyone was on the same page music wise," he says.

That much is clear when you listen to "Stranger Than Strange," which includes four songs written by Harrison and six by her late husband, all of which were produced by Tom Tatman at Catamount Studios in Cedar Falls. The intensity of Harrison's deep, dark vocals on sweat-soaked rockers like "Make It Out," "Wichita," "Rattail" and "If I Was A Driver" leaves other local female rockers in the dust. But the coming-out party doesn't end there because her sincerity on tender, soulful tunes like "Shoot Me Down" and "The Red Dress" is indicative of the virtuosity and flexibility of the Soapbox Prophets.

"Having a singer like Karen allows you to do a lot of different things," Biehn says. "Not too many groups have that option."

The Soapbox Prophets are hoping their new independent album will help land them a deal with a record company and garner them some regional touring after having built a steady grassroots following at home. Though they recently parted with Grimm and are bringing new drummer Ian Shepherd up to speed, the band says they continue to coalesce, and they are ready to share their music with a broader base of fans.

"Our goal is to get on the road so people can hear what we're doing," Biehn says. Harrison concur - Michael Swanger- Cityview


"Stranger Than Strange" full-length LP. We have 2 tracks from this album that are played on our local market radio station. The songs are : Wichita and The Red Dress.



STRANGER THAN STRANGE-Album title or perfect description of the events that led to this band's inception? That's for someone else to decide; this band's job is to play. Soapbox Prophets are a four-piece outfit from the heartland (Des Moines, Iowa to be specific.) The music? Straight-up rock and roll-no frills, no apologies.

The bands story starts with another band, actually-Des Moines Accidental Sisters and their fearless leader, Leon Skip Harrison. The Accidental Sisters played around the Midwest for a number of years, garnering media attention and getting a reputation for their sweat-soaked live shows while releasing a handful of albums. But when Skip unexpectedly passed away, the band found itself without direction or a leader.

The story could end there, but thankfully it doesn't. Enter Karen Harrison, Skip's wife and a skilled singer/songwriter in her own right. After some gentle nudging she started to put together a repertoire of material, using her songs as well as Skip's. Drummer Joe McIlhon, formerly of Towncrier, John Parrish from the band The Stallion,& lead guitarist James Biehn, formerly of Des Moines bands the McKenzies and Hyde Park, all came together with the common goal of creating and playing original music.

Borrowing from every great era of rock and roll, this band combines barroom swagger with a lyrical style that relies heavily on imagination and vision. This results in a style of music that is timeless and organic; not a "here today, gone tomorrow" excuse to market to the masses before their 15 minutes are up. This approach has allowed them the opportunities to share the stage with bands such as Big Head Todd and the Monsters, King's X, and Cracker.

So, sit back and hold on; it's going to be a hell of a ride.