Interview: Annie

July 22, 2013

The Norwegian pop star returns to the top

Annie's debut album came out nine years ago, when I was in high school, and more so than just about any other album, if I'm being honest, it has shaped my impression of what makes pop music good. Cheerful but more importantly bittersweet, Annie's is nightclub music also suited for home listening. Her sophomore album, Don't Stop, in 2009, was somewhat marred by label troubles and leaks, and so her triumphant 2013 return, the A&R EP, recorded exclusively with producer Richard X, is all the more delightful. (To be released July 29th on Richard's label, Pleasure Masters, the EP's title is a cheeky dig at the major label system and a celebration of doing it yourself.) We spoke on the phone the Norwegian singer's adopted home in Berlin.

I have a really vivid memory of driving to a hockey game and listening to Anniemal with my mom and telling her, “Now this is good music.” Oh, that’s really nice. What did your mom think about it?

She didn’t turn it off, which is a good sign. What sport do you think is the best analog for your music? I don’t know. I sort of think that it’s good for badminton. Tennis is really hard, but badminton is a little more relaxed. But it can get very exciting too.

So where have you been these past few years? Well, I’ve been a little bit around. I’m still having an apartment in Berlin, so I’ve been there quite a lot. I’ve been writing a lot of music. I also still have family and a lot of friends in Norway, so I try to go back there occasionally and spend some time there. Then I’ve been travelling a bit around.

I always imagined that you've stayed in Berlin because it's better for DJs. Do you still DJ often? Well, I do DJ quite a lot, and it's such a good city for parties and it’s fun to play there, but it wasn’t the main reason I moved to Berlin. I was touring so much, and I felt that Bergen [her hometown in Norway] was such a small city and really expensive, so I had to get out of there for a while. It was just sort of the thing where I needed to get out and felt like, ok, let’s try Berlin. Now I’ve been there for a while, and I think it’s a good city, but I’m thinking I should go somewhere else. I don’t think I’m gonna live there forever.

You recorded the A&R EP in London, at Richard X's studio. Did it help you to get out of town? I’m always inspired by a lot of English pop music, so I guess it sort of makes sense for me to go to London and work there, even though there’s a lot of good things happening in Berlin and a lot of other places in Europe. For me, I could probably go anywhere, but I really wanted to do some more work with Richard X and he’s there. I definitely had to be there for a while. I wanted to do the whole EP with him.

You’ve worked with Richard a bunch before, what is it that he brings out in you? He’s a really funny guy. I feel like I know him really well, and I also don’t know him. I think that’s a good combination. It’s not like we hang out very much, but when we’re in the studio we talk about everything. He’s very creative, and he has a lot of ideas about lyrics. He’s quite mad, and I like that. Mad in a good way, he has lots of ideas. When we did "Anthonio," we were like smelling all this really weird perfume for hours. We were working on the lyrics from our sense of smell, and I think that’s the kind of thing I can do with Richard that I couldn’t do with a lot of producers.

Did you do any unusual writing exercises for the new EP? We started talking about old stuff. I used to be such a New Kids on the Block fan, so we were sort of going back in time and talking about your first love of a pop star or film star. I was really thinking about Ralph Macchio, who was there and disappeared. All the rumors that he was dead, I thought that was quite inspiring. We started working on a track about Ralph.

So “Ralph Macchio” is really about Ralph Macchio? Yeah, I would have either been writing about Ralph Macchio or Joe McIntyre. I just think Ralph is sort of mysterious. He left and suddenly everybody said he was dead, that was quite a mystery. I started thinking, like, what happened to Ralph? I think he’s 53 years old but he looks like he just turned 28. He didn’t change that much. He’s a mysterious guy.

Is that your usual writing process? It sort of depends. Very often, I’ll just come up with melodies out of nothing. Maybe just walking outside, in nature or around lots of people, and suddenly I’ll hear a sound and get an idea for something. It’s really strange. I like to write with no music, just recording on the phone or my iPad. I’ll start with the melody out of nothing, then I’ll write the lyrics. Maybe then I’ll go home and find some beats that are close to what I want and start to record that on Ableton Live or Logic. I’ll do the bass afterwards, and it’ll sound okay but maybe not amazing. I always like to work with somebody on the beats. Usually it starts with a melody. Melody and then words.

So the EP is going out on Richard's label, basically just the two of you making it and putting it out. Would you be able to do a full album the same way, or would you need to be in a proper label structure? Of course the whole record business has changed a lot and there’s so many other possibilities for thinking and working than a couple of years back. I could record with a bigger label, but it’s gotta be something that you really feel dedicated to. It’s so important for me to work with people I feel comfortable with. With all these major labels, it’s very many cooks in the kitchen, and a lot of people working that don’t really know what they’re doing, and I think that’s problematic. It’s easier now doing it this way.

You have a label, too. Why didn't you release it there? Richard is probably much better at doing a label than myself, to be honest. We did "Anthonio" on his label as well, and I was really happy with everything. I loved the sleeve, I loved everything. It was all good, so why not? I could do it on my label, but when he asked to do it on his, I said, Richard is amazing and a great guy so this makes sense.

Over the years, you've been fairly consistent with your collaborators. Does that say something about you that you have this core group? I think it’s definitely very important when you have a song to know—not necessarily where it will end up—but what you want it to be. What it should sound like, and what you want to do with it. When I write a song, I always think of a specific producer. It’s easy for me to hear that something would or wouldn’t work with this or that producer. I guess I’m quite specific, and it’s important for me to know from the beginning what I think will suit the song.

"Why you started what you’re doing—that’s what's important."

The EP's cover art and some of the drums really evokes ’90s or late ’80s house and rave. Is that something you feel or were a part of? I wasn’t actually old enough to get into the raves, but I remember. I’m from Europe, so obviously there were a lot of raves happening. I saw the posters and was like, Wow, I wish I could get in there. I saw the aesthetics and parts of it from videos on MTV, and I thought it looked really cool. I started listening to rave tracks, even though I was listening to a lot of other stuff too. I went to a couple of raves with a fake ID and thought it was really interesting and a bit scary. A lot of my friends weren’t into it. It was basically me alone, and maybe one friend. It was like going to a black metal gig where you’re not allowed to go. I think that was sort of appealing to me.

What were you like at that age? I was quite shy, even though I was really curious and wanted to do everything that I wasn’t allowed. I was trying to get into a lot of parties, even though you had to be 18 and this was happening while I was 15 and 16. It’s really something that older girls and guys did, and I thought it looked so cool and they looked so cool. I started listening to a lot of that, but also I started listening to a lot of rock music and was curious to find out about both. When I went to the rave, I stayed there until early morning and it was really special.

Music media has changed so much since you first started—and maybe because of you, in some ways, in terms of artists like Sky Ferreira and Charli XCX being celebrated by indie sites. What advice do you have for people making pop music in the indie world? It’s so easy to get caught up in what everybody wants, and what you think the media is saying you need to do. It’s very easy to forget what made you into an artist and what message you want to get out in your music. It’s very important not to lose that aspect, because very often it’s the reason you actually got interesting in the first place. That’s why people were listening to you and not another artist. It’s very easy to suddenly, when you’ve been releasing records, to think, “Oh shit, what should I do next?” and get lost in what other people want, instead of what’s inside you. I’ve been there too, thinking “What should I do?” Just go back to the studio, or wherever you work, and do something really good that you believe in. Why you started what you’re doing—that’s what's important.

Interview: Annie