Interview: Annie on Her Long-Awaited Don't Stop, What Really Happened at Island, and DJing with Vinyl in the 21st Century
As pop stars go, Annie is about as star-crossed as they get. Ever since the Norwegian electro-pop artist released her debut single, "The Greatest Hit," back in 1999, Anne Lilia Berge-Strand has had to deal with tragedy after tragedy. The first was both business and personal: in 2001, Berge-Strand and her producer boyfriend, Tore Andreas Kroknes (Erot), were at work on a debut album back when Kroknes died of a heart condition at just 23. It took the heartbroken songwriter another three years to finish her critically lauded debut, Anniemal, and its success netted her a deal at Island Records in 2006. But just one year later, the troubles resumed. Rumors bubbled up about tensions between Annie and her major label; a preliminary copy of her sophomore album, Don't Stop, leaked. More than a year after Don't Stop was supposed to be released, word had Berge-Strand trying to get out of her contract and head to another label to start the process all over again.
But this week, Annie can finally put all that behind her. A reworked version of Don't Stop, featuring contributions from Richard X, Paul Epworth, Brian Higgins (of songwriting team Xenomania), Alex Kapranos, and Girls Aloud came out Tuesday, drawing rave reviews all across England. She's DJing at Tribeca Grand this Saturday, so we called her up to talk about what really happened at Island, the death of pop superstardom, and DJing with vinyl in the 21st century.
I can't believe Don't Stop is finally, actually coming out. You must be thrilled.
Yeah, I'm so, so excited. I'm really, really happy. It's great. It's the best feeling, basically, I can't describe how happy I am.
Plus, it's the album you wanted to make, not something that Island wanted.
Exactly. It's just amazing. You know, I did the cover [art] over again, I went into the studio and recorded more songs, I just feel so much better, so excited.
Yeah, that old cover was not so hot.
No! Not at all! It was awful.
What is that thing you're wearing on the cover now?
[laughs] That's something by this French designer, Jean-Charles de Castalbajac, it's something he made at the beginning of this year. And I saw it in a picture and I immediately thought, "This would be great for Don't Stop!" It's so punchy and great and colorful, and I really loved it.
I know you've probably been asked this about a billion times, but what exactly happened at Island?
It was a very standard, typical major-label situation where I signed up with this guy, Nick Gatfield, and three, maybe four months later, he left to become the boss of EMI UK instead.
And you were kind left there?
Yeah, I was, and it was kind of a tricky situation. Because the new A&R, who also became the boss of Island, didn't really have any control and didn't really get what I was doing. One day he wanted me to do one particular song, and then another day he would say, "Maybe you should do this." And I love to make songs and be in the studio, but when you deliver a song and the person you give it to wants something completely different the next day, it's very difficult to work with. I think that's maybe something a lot of major labels are struggling with. They're so desperate about sales that they're getting confused about what's good.
It's funny, because I think that when you signed to Island, a lot of fans and journalists all expected you to become the next Kylie Minogue or the next Madonna, but with the way the music industry's changing, I sometimes wonder if that kind of fame is even possible anymore.
Exactly. We're never going to get another Michael Jackson, we're never going to get another Madonna. Of course, you're going to have people who do extremely well, but the fact is that people are selling fewer records. You can do really great with live shows, really great with commercials, but it's never going to be like it was in the late '90s, or especially the mid '80s, or the beginning of the '90s.
That mass culture doesn't really exist anymore, but even from year to year, the idea of what's possible for artists continues to change. Have your aspirations changed from when you signed with Island to now?
No, I think, for me, I grew up listening to these artists that are really huge, in a classic, standard-pop way. But the industry has changed so much, and to be honest, I just feel so happy that I can travel the world and that I have so many great fans, and people who are into what I'm doing. I was just in Japan a couple of days ago, and it was just totally amazing. I don't know. It's hard to know what to expect. The way of seeing success, is difficult. As long as I do what I do and someone's interested, I can't hope for anything more than that.
This was a DJ set in Japan, or a live performance?
No, it was a DJ set, but in Japan, they get so excited, and they're just looking at you and screaming and jumping up at the stage, so it felt a bit more like performing, to be honest. [laughs]
While we're on the subject of DJing, then, I was surprised to hear that you spun primarily with vinyl back when you were throwing Pop 'Til You Drop in Bergen. Is that still the case, or have you switched to CDs or something else?
No, I still travel only with vinyl. [laughs] I have some CDs, but I still buy a ton of vinyl and I mostly DJ with it. I love the sound. Of course, it's a bit heavy [laughs], you get back problems, but of course it's all worth it. I love the sound of vinyl, I love to look at vinyl, I love to hold vinyl, I love to play it. It's just so much better. It's very important to have good sound, and the sound on vinyl is normally so much better than CDs or MP3s.
Oh totally. But if you're lugging around all those records, you run the risk of them getting lost.
It happened once, actually, I lost it. I got it back two weeks after, but I was so stressed because I had all this old, old stuff that it would've been hard to get hold of again.
Where do you go to get vinyl these days?
In Berlin, there's a lot of stores that closed, but there's still quite a lot of vinyl-only stores, and I go there two, sometimes three times a week, looking for stuff. Same in the UK, a couple stores are just amazing. When I'm in London, I try to go to those places. Of course, you can get it online, but I still like to go to the shops, pick them up and look at them. It's a nice feeling.
I think it's part of the experience of feeling connected to the record. If your relationship to it begins by finding it in a stack of other records, and looking it over in the store, you're always going to have a stronger attachment to that record than the one you get by clicking your mouse three times, and then a week later, it's at your house in a box.
Definitely. I don't think I could ever just download like 10,000 tracks that I've never heard and then play them out. It would just be wrong.
I feel like it's not uncommon for DJs these days to get some new, semi-exclusive track through their Blackberry, then they'll play it out that night just because they know they're one of a handful of people who has that track. I'd always thought that was ridiculous.
It's all about music, but on the other hand, when you see a DJ who's really playing, who knows what he's playing, it's important. I've been to quite a lot of parties, and I always feel that you can hear that, when someone loves what they're playing, as opposed to playing it because they think...
...It's what the kids want to hear.
So give us a sneak preview, then. What can your fans expect you to play on Thursday? What's in your bag?
Okay, okay, you don't need to name tracks. Just a general idea.
I think it's going to be quite eclectic. I have a couple of older, New Wave things, but I was buying quite a lot of records in Tokyo. It's going to be a combination of things, and I'm even going to play some of my own stuff.