Three Imaginary Girls

Seattle's Indie-Pop Press – Music Reviews, Film Reviews, and Big Fun

Photo by Nina Merikallio

It’s been five years between LPs for Norwegian pop star Annie, who just released her highly-anticipated album Don’t Stop earlier this month. Annie, or Anne Lilia Berge Strand as it likely says on her photo ID, has finally released a successor to her brilliant debut album. It’s a collection of insanely catchy pop songs made with some of Europe’s best producers, including Richard X (who worked with Annie on her debut, as well), Paul Epworth, Timo Kaukolampi and Xenomania, who are arguably the hottest songwriting and production team in Europe right now.

Her first album was 2004’s Anniemal, released with considerable buzz from online music writers floating around it. The (mostly) indie rock taste-making website Pitchfork labeled her fantastic single “Heartbeat” as the best of 2004, besting Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” and Britney Spears’ “Toxic”, amongst others – yes, 2004 was a very good year for pop. Although there was a consider time between Anniemal and Don’t Stop, Annie hasn’t been completely silent between ’04 and ’09, releasing a handful of singles, including “Crush”, “Anthonio”, “I Know Ur Girlfriend Hates Me” and “Two of Hearts”, a cover of the 1980s Stacy Q hit. She also released a DJ Kicks mix album with two original songs in 2005 and moved from Bergen, Norway to Berlin. Going forward to 2009, the road to getting Don’t Stop in record stores and on iPods was a bumpy one, to say the least.

Don’t Stop was originally set to be released in 2008 by Island Records (a division of Universal Music Group) but delays and a change in A&R forced Annie to leave Island and take her music with her (which she was able to retain the rights to and owned the masters). She formed her own label called Totally Records and released Don’t Stop through a partnership with a smaller Norwegian label called Smalltown Supersound. Of the contrast between working with a major and now independent label she told me in a telephone interview from her hotel room in New York during her brief US DJ tour, “With Island, there were too many people involved. That can be good, of course, but in my case what happened was a change in A&R and [her A&R rep] didn’t have any opinions and everyone else had so many. It really was quite difficult. Now I’m running my own record label and working with Smalltown Supersound and now there’s only one other person involved.”

She ended up writing a few hundred songs for the album, pared down to the eleven that made the final version of Don’t Stop, telling me, “I have so many songs, especially compared with the first one, where I only wrote something like thirteen songs. I sat down and wrote something like four hundred songs, loads of songs. It was very different having all of those songs.” A use for one of those songs was “Left My Heart in Tokyo”, which was the debut single and a top 10 UK hit in September for Mini Viva, an English pop duo that Xenomania has produced.

One of the songs from Don’t Stop that has music writers talking right now is “I Don’t Like Your Band” and, as the title implies, combines nearly everything I believe about pop music into a three and a half minute song. It’s a dazzling pop number with a bouncy production from Paul Epworth underneath of Annie’s breathy vocals excoriating a potential partner who has run into one of her deal breakers. It isn’t all hopeless for him, though, as she advises late in the song, “gotta ditch your influences and start it all again; buy yourself a sequencer and let the games begin.” She insists, though, that the song is fiction and is not about anyone in particular; she told me, “the reason why I wrote it, actually, is because I was watching some really bad TV and more and more music videos kept coming on and it was only really terrible bands. It was quite annoying because I remember as a child watching TV and there was so much great music and it was really inspiring. These days there isn’t much music in general [on TV] and when there is music, it’s often not very good.”

Another song that has been getting a lot of attention is “My Love is Better”, produced by Xenomania’s Brian Higgins. It features a cameo from Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos playing guitar – but the (almost) guests who have gained the most attention for that song is the popular British girl group Girls Aloud. Some tabloid reports suggested some unused vocals were apropriated without permission but that didn’t appear to be true as Annie explained, “they were in the studio recording [their UK top 10 hit] ‘Can’t Speak French’ and I was in another studio recording “My Love is Better” and we needed some background vocals and Brian suggested I ask Girls Aloud and they wanted to do it; they really liked the song and were really happy to do it.” Sounds easy enough, but she elaborates, “Then, of course, Island or someone from the record label, told their manager and their management was concerned that the records would come out at the same time so they were like ‘oh no, we can’t do this after all.’ It was a lot of label politics. The Girls thought it was fun and I thought it was fun but the labels disagreed.” Bottom line: “My Love is Better” is on Don’t Stop, but Girls Aloud aren’t.

One song that was set to be on the 2008 edition of Don’t Stop but was left off of the final version was the great single “I Know Ur Girlfriend Hates Me”. It was my favorite song of 2008 and with its addictive chorus and smooth production from Richard X, seemed like an obvious candidate for inclusion on Don’t Stop 2.0, but as Annie tells it, it’s another example of being mishandled by Island: “It was released as a small single but I was a little disappointed how they handled it. It was only supposed to be released as a 7” with about 300-500 copies but they became overly excited when a lot of journalists started writing about it. I don’t know; it was just done in the wrong way. I didn’t know that [is what they would do] and then I went out in the streets in London and there’s billboards with a picture of [me, saying I have] a new single out. It looked good but it’s a shame because it wasn’t supposed to be like that.” She also added that she also wanted “to refresh the album and do something new for the fans who already heard ‘I Know Ur Girlfriend Hates Me’ and it is on the [also recently-released All Night] EP, so if they really want it, they can get it.”

Fortunately, they will. Annie has built a large enough fan base throughout the world that promoting her album internationally isn’t a luxury but a necessity. She just completed a brief US tour where she DJed some nights in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Miami but plans on returning stateside to tour the US in March and April, hopefully, she said, including a stop here in Seattle.

What has made both Don’t Stop and Anniemal (and the singles in between) so irresistible is the manner in which Annie describes basic human instincts of love, longing, lust and desire and tells those stories in a way that is both simple and sophisticated at the same time while having so many hooks that the gratification is immediate. That isn’t new: it’s exactly what good pop should, and does, do. Take her very best song, “Heartbeat”. It is a tale of two would-be lovers meeting for the first time on the dance floor. The melody builds around the harmony while the light-as-air vocals and catchy chorus mesh together and it forms a cohesive song that is the next best thing to meeting someone for the first time and sharing an intense mutual attraction.

Memories like that, which are captured in a perfect pop song, are timeless and it means that if it matters to one person, that song matters overall. The star-crossed lovers who found each other in the lyrics to “Heartbeat” didn’t care about how long they were single prior to meeting each other, but that they found each other. Similarly, when I had gotten my review copy of Don’t Stop, the time I waited after Anniemal (which I never grew tired of) ceased to be remembered – or at least dwelled upon. The pop landscape changed and there were a lot of great European artists to emerge since Anniemal was released, like Lykke Li, Sally Shapiro, Little Boots, La Roux and Lily Allen, but having a new album from Annie, and one that is as good as Don’t Stop is, felt like whatever the wait was, it was worth it.

{Photo by Nina Merikallio.}