Editor’s note: As we’ve done in the past, for the month of January, our features will be focusing on up-and-coming artists, what we call “rated rookies.” These musicians are making what we feel is the cream of a new crop, and we think you will (sooner or later) agree. Enjoy!
There are a few different stories drifting in and out of the hype cloud surrounding Anika. Some say she’s British, some say she’s German. Others say she’s the 20-teens answer to Nico. She is also rumored to have lied about her age to be taken seriously. While these are all interesting things to ponder, none of them actually shed any light on what her self-titled debut is about and what it means for the future of music. Frustrated with trying to fight for attention through the guitar squall of other bands with which she’d worked, Anika teamed up with Geoff Barrow, best known as the musical mastermind behind Portishead, after being introduced through a friend in England. Barrow’s past output has been ranked among the most important music of the past two decades, though to say Anika is riding his coattails would be a disservice. At 23 years old, Anika is wise beyond her years, and in addition to a singer, she is also a DJ and a political journalist and previously booked shows in the UK for many years. Flowing through the album is a river of Lee Perry–influenced dub carrying ’60s girl-group silt along a muddy bed of sturdy folk troubadour lyrics.
We’ve heard plenty of political music in the past decade—MIA, U2, Radiohead—but none of those artists started off as political journalists. Anika and Barrow’s treatment of Dylan’s invective on the military industrial complex, “Masters of War,” is steeped in political history and jarring sincerity— even before an American soldier’s words drift over the acrid dub backbeat. It’s the overall mood of the album that makes the sample sound so haunting, like an echoing diatribe on the shadowy overlords controlling the planet. The cut’s similar to another politically pointed dub hit: “Rock the Casbah.” Anika, like the Clash, pushes political boundaries, but whereas the Clash was eschewing punk nihilism, Anika holds fast to an ideal of personal and political authenticity. The confluence of Barrow’s Beak> and Anika’s vitriolic lyrics and arid vocal delivery swells together directly in such a way to be more than the sum of its parts. You will hear many stories about Anika, surely stemming from the hype around this album and the content within it, but the record stands on its own as a statement of genuine political concern for the state of the world and, just as importantly, a superb grasp of listening needs. I spoke with Anika via Skype while she was in the middle of her workday as a political journalist.
So, give us some background. There’s a million different stories I’ve been getting online, want to straighten it out?
Anika: Yes, lets have a think... I was born in England, but my mum’s German, and I was brought up by just a German mother so it made it that I could speak German before I could speak English. That’s probably where my weird accent comes from, which confuses people. I lived in Germany up until two weeks ago, but I had to move back to do band rehearsals. My family is over there, and it’s sort of an important part of everything.
That clears a lot up.
A: The stories are all lies, just ignore it all.
How did you meet Geoff Barrow?
A: Hmm... is this the point where I tell the same story or do I make it more exciting? I’ll tell you the truth isn’t that exciting. I’ve been a promoter since I was about 14 and I knew quite a few people in that circuit. I was in Cardiff at the time trying to use my lyrics with bands there, but it just didn’t work. So my friend in Bristol, who I used to do graphic design for, he gave me a call one day because he knew how frustrated I was with the bands in Cardiff. He said, “My friend is looking for a singer, do you fancy having a go?” So I thought I might as well. I had stacks of poetry. We played some stuff, and I went home and did a bit of research and eventually spelled “Beak>” right in Google. I was like, “Oh dear.”
So at the outset you weren’t aware of his previous bands?
A: Not as his bands. My friend gave Geoff my number, and he phoned me up and I was in a meeting at work. I was like, “Can you just phone me back in a minute?” I was kind of being quite blase, but I didn’t really know who it was, though I don’t think it would’ve mattered anyway. I could judge him on very genuine terms, so I figured, let’s keep going and it doesn’t really matter.
So you tried your lyrics out with other bands. Do you have a history in music?
A: I’d written quite a lot when I was in Cardiff because I was working stupid hours, like 18 hours a day, and DJing at nights. I’d only get a few hours at home. I’d go home and play guitar and write songs, and I was going through a bit of a crazy patch, which was good. It meant that I could write a lot. I thought, you know, I really want to use this. I want to see if this would really work. In Wales, you get a lot of guitar bands, so I would turn up to sessions with my friends and their guitars would just drown out any form of my lyrics and I was getting really annoyed. I’d turn up and I’d start to say something and the guitars would just drown it out. But the good thing about Beak> is there’s no hierarchy and everyone’s got their right place. You can hear it clearly, and if you took any bit of it out, it wouldn’t work. So it was good to work with them. Even though the stuff we’ve done is under the name Anika, the other components of Beak> are still there.
So you’re not just singing over a Beak> album...
A: No, because I think it changed it all. The stuff we did under the Anika name is different from what Beak> did because I’ve got more of a political background. I’m more familiar with the business side of music as opposed to going to music college or something. I’ve always played instruments and I come from a musical family, but I come from a different background, and I think that comes through.
Tell me about the songwriting process. Was it just a jam session?
A: We would try stuff in the studio. Oh dear, how did this go? We did it in quite a short time, so it wasn’t like going home to rehearse. We’d turn up and go through stuff we’d found on YouTube the night before. We’d run some lyrics and try some basslines and just see which one worked best.
Run that part about YouTube by me again.
A: We did the album in such a short time that we’d all spend a while in the evenings finding songs that we could mess with. None of us got to rehearse; we’d all write from scratch. So we’d go in and record it there, then leave, and then do another track the next day.
It sounds so fresh, not tentative, but vibrant.
A: I think that’s good—that was the point. If you over-rehearse stuff and you take away all the mistakes, then you rob from it what was genuine.
Are you noticing that the more you play it live the less it sounds like the original moment?
A: Not so much. I was wondering if that would happen, but it’s still quite... It sounds kind of corny, but I put a lot of my energy into a song. I don’t know if I had to do loads of consecutive shows whether I’d be able to manage it or not.
I suppose you’ll find out soon enough, huh?
A: Yeah, because there’s a lot coming up next year. I think it’s a very genuine live set, and a lot of people are surprised it’s different from the record. The whole genuine aspect is still there.
You cover “Masters of War,” which is a protest song about the military industrial complex. This is apropos to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, as made clear by the American soldier sampled in the song. Where did you pull that sample from?
A: Well, Geoff added that at the end. It was one of those things. The reason I liked that song originally is that it blames the people in the background, the puppet masters. It’s why that song is so clever: it looks into the people who are in their mansions handing out the guns instead of blaming the people ordered to use the guns at the front. The thing with the clip at the end is that it blurs that boundary. From my point of view, I know a lot of people in the army and I think they’re very brave people. I don’t want to give them any grief—that wasn’t the intention. The clip hits home the message and it makes it a bit more recent as it was taken from around 2003. Dylan wrote it about something happening decades ago, but what he was writing is still relevant now.
That’s the thing, it speaks to the fact that they’re not mindless drones. They’re well aware of the orders they’ve been given and they have this horrible choice.
A: Right, and (the soldier in the clip) was one of the soldiers himself. I think it’s very important to make the distinction, but also to know that it goes deeper into things than your average U2 song, your average charity war song. This is why we have issues with the war: there’s people in the background that are pushing the pieces on a chessboard and aren’t taking any responsibility or putting their lives at risk, while the soldiers have no choice but to follow orders.
This makes you a de facto protest singer, huh? Do you draw a correlation with the student protests going on in England?
A: Well yeah, that’s the thing. That’s what I’m using the music for—not just to protest the war, but more against the current state of the music industry. When I was booking bands, if I booked someone slightly different that wasn’t in the paper that week or something, no one would come. No one would take risks: the people going to see gigs wouldn’t take risks, the agents wouldn’t take risks, the venues couldn’t afford to take risks, and me as the booking agent, I couldn’t take risks. It seemed like—in England anyway—that a lot of people had lost their passion for music and just started buying what they were told to buy. It was really annoying because there are a lot of good bands out there that are being overlooked. One thing I wanted to do was to put something genuine, some genuine politics, back into music. It doesn’t even need to be some massive cause. If you look back to the ’60s, they’re talking about how their wife cheated on them or they lost their arm in a farming accident and how that affected their politics. Even in hip-hop in the ’80s, people were talking about reality and their actual lives. It’s like, come on, people need to wake up a little bit and use music to bring issues to the forefront and deal with stuff. It doesn’t need to be a massive song about world famine. It can be about the smallest thing like your neighbor constantly doing DIY and waking up early in the morning or something. Anything, it just needs to be real! I mean, our little form of protest through the music has to do with the way it was produced and in terms of the lyrical subject matter.
In terms of the student protests going on at the moment, the problem is I’m the UK correspondent to education and science for a news network, so I kind of have to stay neutral at the moment, at least to some extent in my writing.
The internet is abuzz with how much you sound like Nico. I think the comparisons are shortsighted and kind of lazy. Do you see any validity in that association?
A: I think there’s always a natural process in the beginning when you’re a new artist and music writers try to pick the thing closest to you. Not many people sound like Nico, and so I’ll be the person that’s nearest to it. That’s just the way I sound when I sing. I make a conscious effort not to sound American because I’m not American and a lot of British artists sound American. Not to discredit the Americans, but it’s better to sound genuine. I also didn’t want to sound like a “London” person, and I didn’t really end up sounding that German because I tend to over pronounce my words. I spent a lot of time in Wales, and sometimes when I sing, I think I come across Welsh, but not many people know what a Welsh accent is anyway. When I write my songs, I don’t try to sound a certain way and to sound like anyone else was never intended. In the end, I am really German. I learned German first, so it’s probably in my subconscious and I sound how I sound.
It’s not like it’s a bad thing, like you sound like Britney Spears or something.
A: Right, but people saying it’s a conscious decision to sound like that—it’s not like that. I sound the way I sound, you know? It’s just not very accurate; we’re totally different people and have different sounds.
Do you have plans for the future? Will there be more Anika records?
A: I only really did two of my own songs. I’ve been writing since I was 15 so I have a whole lot more. I write because it’s my release, and I write about all sorts of stuff. I’ve been writing quite a bit lately and I’d like to use more of those songs. I think we sound a bit different now so there will be plenty to go on.