Stones Throw's Anika, more than just a 'weird singer'
Anika’s self-titled debut found the 24-year-old steel-voiced singer sleepless, forecasting the end of the world and damning the military-industrial complex. It was as heavy as a howitzer and equally foreboding.
Not bad for a first act that effectively answered a question that no one had thought to ask: What would Nico sound like backed by Public Image Ltd., covering Yoko Ono, the Kinks, the Pretenders and Bob Dylan. The singer born Annika Henderson in Britain is backed by BEAK>, the post-punk funk band founded by Portishead principle Geoff Barrow, on her Stones Throw-released “Anika,” which was one of the most stark, bleak records of 2010.
If its operating room-gray overtones seemed intended to score an alternate cut of “The Hurt Locker,” consider it a reflection of Henderson’s inherent political angst. The artist was schooled as a journalist at Cardiff University in Wales, and she recorded the album during a dyspeptic stint between working for a music promoter in Bristol, England, and writing about education reform in Berlin.
Her out came when she received a vague invitation to perform with a band looking for a “weird singer.” She was unaware that said outfit was Barrow’s new project, and it wasn’t until her third session with BEAK> that she realized he was the sonic architect for one of the best bands of the '90s.
Accordingly, the music boasts few marks of pre-meditation. Barrow gravitates toward walloping, wobbling bass and industrial atmosphere. Born to a German mother, Henderson phrases syllables with precise Teutonic reserve, as severe and numbing as a Bavarian winter. It’s black-and-white battering-ram dub about afflictions both personal and political.
On Saturday, Henderson headlines at the Echoplex, alongside fellow fusionists Blank Blue and a VJ set from Stones Throw potentate Peanut Butter Wolf. In advance of her first Los Angeles live performance, Pop & Hiss spoke with Henderson about the circumstances and opinions that girded her debut. Before the questions, here's a premiere of her new video, “Terry.”
Were you always enamored with both music and journalism, and if so, was there one that you gravitated toward more than the other?
It’s always been both. I started working when I was young at a music festival in Germany that my aunts and uncles had helped create. I'd translate between the English and German bands, and had a video camera that I would do interviews with.
As I grew older, I became more interested in political journalism, especially after I went to university. I was always interested in seeing and telling both sides of the story. Maybe it had to do with growing up in England and being of German descent. I don't know. I consider myself a bit of voyeur. I really love documentary journalism.
Had you been making music before you got the call to audition for BEAK>?
I’d always been writing songs, but I didn’t quite think of it as an audition. After university, I'd been working in Cardiff with a promoter and venue manager. I figured I'd give it a year in the music industry, but I quickly became frustrated for a variety of reasons. I wasn't happy with the way people in England were consuming and writing about music. So I wrote a lot throughout that year. I'd been working 18 hours a day, so my one escape was to write lyrics and songs with my terrible acoustic guitar about how pissed off I was.
I ended up singing a few times with a rock band with loud guitars that drowned out my lyrics. A friend of mine knew about it and called me up to tell me about a band looking for a weird singer, and he thought it might work out between us. And pretty immediately it did. I didn't want to do anything traditional that gravitated to the same formula,and neither did [Barrow.] I never thought the record would get released. At first, I thought I was just doing stuff to voice my opnion.
Why do you think the bond between you and the band was so immediate?
[Barrow] always had the same issues with the industry that I did. I'd been struggling in Cardiff at my job, and a week before I got the call from him, I had handed in my notice. I decided that I wanted to keep music as a hobby, not a career. I had so much anger at the industry and the way bands were being promoted, over-styled and marketed in England. So I decided to take the job as a journalist in Berlin.
After we recorded the album, it took me a year and half to finally listen back to it. I didn't really do that until after I got the call from [Barrow] to OK the artwork. That's part of the reason why the live show is different from the record. I'm just singing from memory. It's the same way that we approached the covers. We listened to the tracks once and recorded it in no more than three takes. It was all off instinct.
You chose artists with notable political overtones. How important was that to you?
It was important for me to say what I was going against in a stark and simplistic way. I wanted to revise political songs from respected artists because I felt like no one of my generation was really addressing the political situation that we're in.
Admittedly, a lot of my friends at university would speak about politics, but once I graduated, the conversations about politics tended to be less frequent. A lot of my music friends would love Dylan, but run away from discussing politics, and they'd think I was odd for wanting to do so.
Beyond the artists you covered, what other musicians had a sizable impact on your music tastes growing up?
When I was younger, I'd listen to very different types of music. I had a brother who was into hip-hop, drum and bass, and dubstep. My mom was into Janis Joplin. She was a bit of an old-school biker, hippie. I guess my favorites were Billie Holiday, Joplin and PJ Harvey — people who have some meaning behind what they’re saying. The people who use their music to voice their ideas, not in a brainwashing way, but in the way that [Holiday] brought the injustices of lynching to the forefront of mainstream music. I never want my music to shy away from articulating what I believe in.
-- Jeff Weiss
Photo courtesy Stones Throw