Politics as Usual: An interview with Anika

Words by Daniel Jones

Daniel Jones meets the charismatic vocalist at the helm of dark pop reconceptualizations—including of her own material—and uncovers some of the undertones driving the former political journalist’s work. Photo: Obi Blanche

 

At the end of 2010 Annika Henderson, stage name Anika, released her self-titled debut. Heralded by the bloggerati and produced by Geoff Barrow of Portishead, it nevertheless was received, as Henderson herself says, with some confusion. The music press tended to label it a Nico-flavored collection of folk and pop covers, a description which fails to convey her commanding presence, the sense of fiercely dark passion in her singing voice, the beautifully dubbed-out production of the reconceptualized material, or the political undertones present throughout. A political journalist before she was a musician, Henderson’s music (be they covers or originals) often conveys messages about class-based society and capitalism. Her latest release, the Anika EP, more or less follows the same path as her debut, but as I found out when we met, its destination is rebirth.

 

How has the response to the new EP been?

It’s strange how it’s perceived, because with the first album a lot of people were like, “Well, what is this?” and the EP seems to be better received. It’s always hard when you release something, because by the time it comes out you’ve often moved on with your ideas. It felt important to put something out from that stage when we were touring together so much. I don’t know… I’m already on the next stage.

Do you think this acceptance had to do with you being more established, with people having grown used to you and Geoff as a sort of team, or do you think it has more to do with a social shift in musical perception?

I definitely think the music climate has changed since the first album was released. Whereas I think that was confusing for people, now people are saying the EP isn’t as daring as some other current releases. It almost feels like being overtaken. With political post-punk bands like The Savages, for example, I’ve always been happy that they’re so accepted in England, where right now the nostalgia level is stuck in the ‘50s with everyone wearing quaint dresses and obsessing over old BBC recordings. To have a front woman like Jehnny who’s putting across a totally different image and still being lauded… England is strange like that.

It seems strange that it would be less accepted there than in other places; after all, it’s where much of the sound and imagery behind post-punk was born, really.

True, but that doesn’t mean it’ll be accepted another time ‘round. The way people respond to musical resurgences as well as music in general is so different everywhere you go.

What are some shows you’ve seen recently that have really grabbed you?

I saw Psychic TV play recently, and it was one of my favorite shows ever. Genesis is the most emotional lead musician I’ve ever seen. You don’t really see that kind of vulnerability from singers anymore; I was practically weeping through most of the songs. I was also really impressed by The Knife’s new show. My favorite thing about it was the sense of humor in it, I thought that was wicked. Olaf has the best sense of humor too. People can throw things at it and say it was pretentious—

But it wasn’t at all!

No, not at all! It had a lot of substance, and I know how hard they worked on it. The choreography was so well planned out and it was completely poking fun at itself, at the music industry and the idea of live shows. I think my favorite was the solo piano piece, Olaf headbanging in a ginger wig on a big classical piano—but there’s no piano in the track! That’s great.

I loved that it’s making fun of the fans a bit, but not them personally; more like taking the piss out of their expectations.

I loved the cover of Shaking The Habitual as well, it’s so grotesque. I think it’s disgusting, which is what’s great about it.

I was swept up in the spectacle of it all. The music was great, but there was so much depth in what they were saying with the spectacle and the deconstruction of the live performance that I was reeling a bit afterwards.

When people are saying, “Oh well, it wasn’t what I expected” it’s like, “Well, perfect,” because that’s a success for The Knife. That’s the whole point of the album’s title, they’re trying to shake you out of your habits, into something new.

You mentioned that this EP felt like the end of a chapter to you; what will be on the next pages?

There was a stage where I was tempted to go along the same lines but I’m bored by that so it’s hard to say. I’m working on a few different things. There are a lot more different influences from my younger years going into the new stuff. I kind of wanted to close off from my past work a bit, let that settle and concentrate on the new stuff. I don’t want to reveal too much because I’m driven to do things that aren’t overly thought out. I recently read an interview with Grimes, and she was saying how so many people come to her being like, “You should let me produce your album” or “You should make music more like this.” It feels like in the last year so many people have approached me trying to plot out my next move, telling me what they thought I needed to do. I don’t care what I need to be doing.

What a weird way to react to someone’s art. If you have a vision, why not just make it yourself instead of projecting your ideas onto someone else?

That’s the thing, that’s how a lot of people react. So many reviews found it hard to believe that when we made the first album, we weren’t really thinking about it. All of the reference points they ascribed to me I wasn’t really aware of. It was only after the fact that I started checking all this stuff out and building up a vinyl collection. When I wrote my poems, I’d always recite them in this old-timey, Dylan Thomas BBC voice because I love poetry from that era. That’s one of the reasons I liked working with Geoff. We never discussed what the music was meant to be; we just went in and made something. I never even wanted it to be available to the public, initially. I was just doing it for my own venting. So it was interesting to do a second release because I was much more aware of my audience. But I’m following my own desires, so if the new album ends up being a jungle record then so be it.

What are you working on besides another record?

I recently decided I was getting bored with my current musical setup, so on Saturday I’m planning something new. I asked two of the guys from Kriedler to replace my backing band, with Tyler Pope from LCD Soundsystem [and formerly of !!!] on bass. I told them that I didn’t want to rehearse any of the material; that’s what I hated before. I just want to turn up and do what I do, and be able to trust my musicians to play. So we’re only doing two rehearsals before the show.

You’re deconstructing your old material?

We’re going to completely rip it apart. I’m excited because I’ve been wanting to document the performance and the process behind it, and that’s being investigated as well at the moment. I want them to use their own style. That’s the point of this. It’s such an experiment, and I like setting up these sorts of traps for myself. I like to see what happens.

So much of it will be improvised?

I’ll be directing it in case any of the synth lines get too cheesy or something, but I have confidence in Tyler and the Kriedler boys. I felt that when I was too focused on what my band was doing, I could never focus on what I myself was doing. I felt more like a band manager rather than the singer, and I don’t want to do that. My music lost a lot of its political slant because I felt I couldn’t put the important parts of myself into it. That’s why I stopped for a while, because it got to a point where that side of me was absent from my music, and I started boring myself with my own shows, and I thought, “Hang on, what am I doing this for?” If you don’t like something, you change it and replace what you miss.

With so many highly visible political changes happening in the world, it feels like a very good time for that side of you to resurface.

That’s why I feel like I’m struggling at the moment. There’s so much going on that I think I need to travel and see these things for myself. I used to want to be a documentary journalist.

When I lived in America, I took a lot of sound recordings of the different styles of religion I came across. I lived in Indiana, and there are so many various forms of Christianity there. Everyone I’d meet was so passionate about what they believed in; they would tell me that other versions were wrong, but most were basically arguing the same idea. I was taught by nuns, and one of the things I learned through that was observing religious ceremony, how to look at arguments in different ways, and how to empathize with these ideas even if I don’t align myself with a particular religion. Since i have began to study and align myself closer with certain strains of Buddhism but that’s more of a philosophy. There are definitely a lot of basic morals in Christian thought that I do accept.

You’re more practical than spiritual?

If anything, I prefer it. I was a mathematician before I was a musician. I like things that are logical. There’s so much practical ideology in religion that makes sense, however.

The perception of any religion is usually based on its followers and their actions; it’s often not the teachings that are at fault, rather the inability to be properly taught.

You’ll always have people who twist ideas to their own advantage. I believe in the Buddhist principle of karma, however, because it all comes down to treating people in a certain way. It’s interesting looking at the different sides of anything, really. There’s never a definitive ‘good’ or ‘bad’, even though we’re taught that as children. They just don’t exist. That’s why I wanted to make documentaries, to examine ideas that people think of as clean-cut. When I did my degree I did a lot of research into Islamaphobia, which between 2005-2008 was all over the British media due to the London bombings. There was a lot of casual racism, and it was fascinating to see how people would try to disguise it. There was a comment made by Jack Straw, who was a local MP at the time, saying that if his female Muslim supporters wanted to speak to him about issues that they’d have to remove their veil as a mark of respect.

But where is his respect for those women?

Exactly. Obviously as a female Muslim, you don’t want to remove your veil for a man you don’t know. So people were writing in to the paper saying things like, “Well, I ride a motorcycle and I take off my helmet when I see Straw…”

What an absolutely daft comparison!

After the 2005 London bombings, if a person entered a bus with a beard and a backpack, people would run off and ten+ years before, during the IRA bombings, the same thing would happen if someone Irish got on a bus. It’s the same old prejudice.

It’s been interesting to watch how political music, I mean even Top 40 music, has become more and more political in ways that you didn’t really see even ten years ago.

That’s the thing; there was an era when high-profile musicians were so worried about their position that they wouldn’t take any sort of risk or get involved with political issues. Now it’s a lot more overt, even with this recent Texas abortion bill. The amount of big-label musicians who were tweeting their support for the senator who filibustered it for 11 hours…

Wendy Davis.

Yeah, it was wonderful to see. It’s not a particularly risky way to show support, but it’s good to see that people are taking a stance on an important issue. Especially having lived in the US in 2008, when so many people were supporting Sarah Palin during the election. I knew a lot of well-educated women in Indiana who supported her and I’d just be like, “Why?” I think her views are horrendous. When Hillary Clinton dropped out of the race, a lot of women also started supporting Palin simply because she was a woman.

Even though her views are ultimately so anti-women? That’s weird.

It’s that whole personalization of politics; “Oh, there’s another woman in the race.” Obviously I support female politicians, but I don’t really consider Palin a female. I think she’s just crazy.

“I don’t really consider Palin a female,” is one of the best quotes I’ve heard in ages.

I think it’s because I can’t identify with her on any level.

But you can’t look at a politician from the perspective of their sex—or if you can, I’m not sure you should.

Not at all, but it’s funny because often women in positions of power will strip away their femininity as a way of competing with the men. It’s not always a conscious decision but you do feel that it can be used against you. When I was working as a promoter, I used to lie about my age when I was booking bands, or use a gender-neutral signature in emails, because I was 21 and dealing with like £20,000. If they knew I was a young girl, a lot of bands and bookers wouldn’t take you seriously. As a woman going into politics, I’m sure it isn’t easy. There’s a German politician, Dr. Kristina Schröder, who’s in charge of education policy. I don’t agree with all of her views, but I saw her speak to a room full of investors, and I thought she had a lot of confidence and strength. As a woman going into politics I’m sure it isn’t easy. There’s a German politician, Ursula von der Leyen, who campaigned a lot about bridging the gap between young people and the workplace, something I think is desperately lacking in the UK and one of the reasons I left. I don’t agree with all of her views, but I saw her speak to a room full of investors, and I thought she had a lot of confidence and strength. That’s why it was so good to see Wendy Davis and her strength. To speak for 11 hours on one subject shows so much skill and intelligence.

You don’t see that so often in politics.

In English politics, you don’t see a lot of specialized intelligence. You’ll get a guy who one day is in charge of health, and then the next day they’ll move him to education. How can he really know the field he’s working in?

It’s the same system you see in large chain stores, where employees can transfer from automotive to housewares and be totally ignorant of the customer’s needs for any given query. It’s Wal-Mart politics.

Even as a journalist, when I was reporting on Austrian and German education policy, they moved me to Eastern Europe and I suddenly had to relearn everything without really having a complete picture. So it was reassuring to see someone speak knowledgeably about a specific area of expertise. For so long specialists were deeply valued; now everyone wants to do everything but the result is paper-thin. Everyone with Photoshop is a graphic designer; everyone who studies English lit is a journalist. It’s a façade. The public education system in England encourages you to become a jack-of-all-trades, not to specialize. They got rid of so many practical courses, the bits where you actually learn something properly. People don’t go into the wilderness to apprentice and learn something for years anymore. It’s just gone. People wonder why standards have gone down; look at the education system and see.~

 

Anika’s Anika EP is out now on Stones Throw. Anika plays Foreign Affairs on Saturday, July 6th. Read Max Dax’s interview with Anika here.