Is Anika a band or an individual? Both, really. Its frontwoman is Annika Henderson, a 20-something journalist and nightlife promoter from Cardiff, Wales; the main force behind the group is Geoff Barrow, best known as a founding member of Bristol's trip-hop icons Portishead. The quartet is rounded out with the other members of Beak>, Barrow's post-punk-influenced side project.
Their self-titled debut is no less confounding. Between the band's skeletal, shambling arrangements and Henderson's affected and disengaged air, it can be easy to miss the fact that seven of the album's eight songs are covers. And not just any covers: Along with '60s chestnuts from Lynn Ripley and Ray Davis, they also tackle Yoko Ono's “Yang Yang” and even Bob Dylan's “Masters of War.”
Sixties bubblegum and sooty post-punk are the poles around which the record revolves. The same could be said for Henderson's delivery, which falls somewhere between Nico and the Slits' Ari Up. An unusual vocal style isn't the only thing Henderson shares with them: Like both singers, she was born in Germany.
eMusic's Philip Sherburne caught up with Henderson to try to unravel the mystery.
On balancing day jobs:
Who am I, what do I do? I don't know. I studied politics and journalism at university, so I'm predominantly a political journalist, and that's my day job. But then I've always written music, and I've always been involved in the music industry — more as a hobby, sort of on the side, but it's always dragged me back in. I was working as a promoter for two years in Cardiff and set up a record label and used to book for festivals and things like that. So it's been an interesting few years.
On auditioning for Geoff Barrow:
My friend in Cardiff who ran this venue that I used to do the design for said he had a friend who was looking for a vocalist. So I went along to this audition in Bristol; I got picked up from the station by my friend and we went to the studio. I hadn't had time to look into who these people were or anything yet. I'd been pretty busy at the time — my job in Cardiff was crazy. So I turned up with my stacks of paper and they just started jamming and stuff, and I just tried all my rambling political poetry over the top. It worked really well. So I said, “OK, I'll come back.” And then I looked up who they were when I got to Cardiff, and I was a bit embarrassed!
On recording the album in 12 days:
It wasn't actually in 12 days in a row. But we wouldn't prepare anything. We'd look at a load of songs on YouTube, or find a load of songs that we could mess with, go into the studio and kind of present them to the others and say, “Look at this one, how about this one?” And we'd say, “Yeah, let's try that.” And then I'd print out the lyrics and we'd go in and Billy would try to figure out the bass line, and then I'd start trying to figure out how to, well, sing — and I use the term loosely. How to do my part. That's why a lot of it is so raw, and people sometimes have a bit of an issue with this: “Does she not realize she's sometimes out of tune?” But you know, that's because what you're hearing half the time is my first take. But that was kind of the point, you know?
On style over substance:
We're in an age where it's always about how technically good a singer is rather than the subject matter of the song, just because we're part of the whole X-Factor generation. I don't know what you've got over there in America, but with all those reality music shows, it's all about whether they're an amazing singer. That's great, that's part of music's purpose or function, but does that discredit then the punk movement? Does that discredit all the '80s minimal wave stuff? If you look back at all that sort of stuff, it was more about what they were saying. Bob Dylan wasn't necessarily the most exciting singer, but that doesn't mean he wasn't very important to music, in the same way as Patti Smith or whoever — that's what we were trying to remind people. It was a lot about making a stand and bringing it back to what it used to be and use music for other purposes outside of escapism.
On her singing style and stage presence:
It was just kind of the way it came out in the end. At the time, I was really fed up with the music scene in England and I wanted to shake people up a little bit more — maybe intimidate them slightly? I think sometimes people give too much now. Even live shows, they've got some crazy outfit on, jumping around onstage. People got confused with our live show. I don't really move, I just kind of stare at people and make them feel uncomfortable. People are like, “Why didn't you even say thank you?” I'm like, yeah, I dunno, it wouldn't be appropriate. I don't really move much, and I wear a quite plain sort of outfit, it's a bit '60s-esque, I suppose. But people are shocked, because they're so used to an overload, a visual show — in the same way now that people watch TV whilst on their computer whilst on their phone whilst doing whatever, eating.
On retro and “wrong” music:
I DJ '60s and a bit of late '50s, or I DJ an '80s set, late '70s/'80s — that's what I still do now. I've got loads of no wave or punk, new wave stuff, as well as '60s. I've always loved the '60s for the stories they tell. But going back to the late '70s, early '80s, punk and minimal stuff and whatever, and a lot of that is quite wrong as well. With the way it's sung, it's not always perfect, but it kind of works.
On choosing to cover Bob Dylan's “Masters of War”:
The reason I liked it was because the reasoning behind it is so sound. It's a kind of timeless argument, but it's also the kind of argument that's got really strong backing to it. It's not one of those songs where he's just blaming the soldiers, he's saying it's the people that sit in the big mansions that send the people out [to fight], they're the ones that are to blame. It's very well thought-out in the way that he does it. It's a really good one to revive, because it puts forward a well thought argument.
So many people say, “I'm against the war,” but one thing that I like about the song is that it differentiates between the soldiers and the people actually handing out the weapons while the death count goes up. I don't want the argument to fall at the feet of those who are at war now — I do not envy their job at all. It's a very difficult job. I think it's unfair to then bring up the argument with these people. People do it for different reasons, and I think a lot of them don't have a choice. In the end they're just pawns the game; they're not the people making the decisions. That's what I like about the song. Even Jimi Hendrix used to be renowned for sticking up for the actual soldiers. I think that's a really valid argument.
On choosing to cover Yoko Ono's “Yang Yang”:
I just liked the way it sounded. I always say “yang yang,” or whatever. That's just the German — I do it by accident. The Germans pronounce their A's as U's. I tried it out, and the band just laughed at me — they could not understand me. I know it's quite a feminist track and all this sort of thing, but honestly, the reason I picked it was I just really liked the way it sounded. That's because I've always learned lots of different languages, and I enjoy words and the way they sound.
I've lived in Wales for a while, and Wales is a funny place, they've got a very strange accent. Obviously you're not familiar with the Welsh accent, but the way I say stuff in the songs is actually quite Welsh. People think it's German, but it's kind of a little bit Welsh as well.
On recording the follow-up record:
We're recording at the moment. I've been writing lots of new songs. So we're gonna hopefully fit in some of my ones this time. I think people might be ready for mine now. The thing is, if we came straight in with my songs, I think people would have found the whole thing a bit confusing and a little bit too threatening. If you're used to listening to easy-listening folk and stuff, and then suddenly someone comes in who's got a weird singing style and really political lyrics, I think they'd be scared.