Norway’s Breakout Indie-Pop Star of 2004 Takes Aim at the American Mainstream
The Material Mom might be wise to sit up and listen, as there is probably no other female singer/songwriter as acutely tapped into the elder diva’s essence as Annie. Like the groundbreaking work of ’80s-era Madonna, Anne Lilia Berge Strand specializes in cotton-candy dance-lite confections, strong on hooks but light on vocal and lyrical complexity. However, unlike so many current musical tastemakers, posers, and musicians falling all over themselves to fetishize disco and new wave, Annie takes an unironic stance, delivering pure—sometimes maddeningly elemental—pop, bursting with an exhilarating jolt of starry-eyed bliss.
Much to her chagrin, Annie has also been dubbed the Norwegian Kylie, as in Australian pop star Kylie Minogue. The comparison doesn’t do justice to Annie’s capabilities. Late last year, on the strength of her import-only debut, Annie spanked the too-cool-for-school set with her frothy blend of electro, disco, and pop, earning a glowing review on Pitchforkmedia.com, which named “Heartbeat” the No. 1 single of the year, deeming it the “perfect pop song.” Pitchfork also proclaimed another single, “Chewing Gum,” “painfully addictive” and recognized it one of 2004’s standout pop tunes.
“I’m very much devoted to what I’m doing,” Annie states unequivocally in a Björk-ish lilt, on the phone from her London-based manager’s office. “I write my own lyrics and melodies. It took me three years to make this album, and with many of these other pop people, I think you can see through them—see that they are not very involved in the music. I would never put my name on a record if I wasn’t as involved as I am.”
Growing up in the central Norwegian port city of Bergen, Annie sang in her church choir, and though her father passed away from cancer when she was just 7, Annie has clear memories of watching him play the organ at church every Sunday. “I sometimes came with him to the church and sat by his side while he was practicing,” she explains. “I remember him playing a hilariously big church organ that made this big, vibrating sound—whaaaaaaah—and I’d think, Wow!”
On her own, Annie reveled in the imported sounds of Michael Jackson, the Human League, and New Kids on the Block. “My favorite song was ‘Hanging Tough,’ and I was very much in love with Joey McIntyre,” she admits with a shy giggle. “My cat is named Joey—for Joey McIntyre, but also for Joey Ramone. He’s a half-pop and half-rock cat. I have very eclectic tastes.”
In the late ’90s Annie opened a successful club in her hometown called Pop Til You Drop: “You know the Ramones’ song, ‘Bop Til You Drop’? It’s after that. I kind of stole it.” She also hooked up with a locally respected DJ/producer named Tore Andreas Kroknes (DJ Erot). The two crafted songs together and fell in love; Kroknes’ mastery of beats and samples and Annie’s gift for recognizing infectious melodies made them a perfect match. Together they wrote “The Greatest Hit,” a catchy dance tune that sampled Madonna’s “Everybody”; released in 1999, it became an underground club hit.
As Annie began work on her own album, Kroknes, who was born with a heart defect, became gravely ill. Eighteen months and many operations later, Kroknes died at age 23 in April 2001. “It was quite a struggle,” Annie says with a sigh, clearly weary of describing this passage in her life. “I was so tired after that, because he was sick for so long, and I didn’t do anything for a while—no music for about six months. But then it felt natural to keep on going and start writing again.”
Bergen is an unlikely musical hub, home to artists as varied as electro-folk masters Kings of Convenience, singer/songwriter Sondre Lerche, and the electronic wizards in Röyksopp, who produced three tracks on Anniemal. In fact, a rumor persists that the duo passed up the lucrative opportunity of remixing a Britney Spears songs in favor of working with Annie. “Well, I would like to think that’s true, but I don’t think that’s the reason,” Annie responds, laughing off the suggestion with genuine modesty. “Bergen is a very small city. If you’re doing music, it’s weirder that you don’t meet at some point.” Another old friend, Timo Kaukolampi of the Finnish electronica outfit Op:l Bastards, knew Annie from her time as a nightclub impresario and lent a hand in production as well. British knob twiddler Richard X also contributed, writing and producing “Chewing Gum.”
Whether or not fickle American audiences—currently hooked on arch punk and new-wave throwbacks—warm to a singer/songwriter who champions the delights of guileless bubblegum pop remains to be seen. Regardless, Annie is already looking ahead to her next move. “I’ve started to write a lot of new tracks,” she says. “I’m very inspired these days, not only by electronica but rock as well, like Death From Above 1979, Franz Ferdinand, and LCD Soundsystem.” She’d love to work with Scissor Sisters, of course, but also names Beck as an artist with whose style she is particularly enamored. “I think he’s wonderful,” she says. “I don’t know if it’s possible—but if I could, he would be my first choice to work with on my new album.”
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