Norwegian would
Pop kisses, heartbreak, and a din of buzz around "Heartbeat" – Annie lands in SF.

By Jimmy Draper

WHEN IT COMES to music's success stories of 2005, it's hard to imagine one more surprising than that of Anne Lilia Berge Strand.

A 27-year-old from Bergen, Norway, the pop singer and DJ known simply as "Annie" first gained attention on the Internet after releasing her debut, Anniemal (Big Beat/Atlantic), in Europe last fall. But while it's not uncommon to garner buzz via the MP3 blogosphere – MIA and the Arcade Fire, for instance, became recent causes célèbres thanks to the Web – Annie's online support is so baffling because it comes primarily from indie rock critics and fans who normally turn up their noses at such unabashedly bubbly pop. Yet for months now, their blogs, bulletin boards, and fan sites have created the sort of hype that no publicity can buy. Even the elitist, notoriously rockist Web zine Pitchfork approved, naming her import-only "Heartbeat" the best single of 2004.

For pop lovers, however, Annie's praise can seem a bit backhanded. While her champions seem genuinely smitten with her infectious, disco-lite reveries and Madonna-indebted confections, many of them treat her as a rare example of a good pop performer. To them, Anniemal is the exception proving the rule that commercial pop is a vapid, entirely artless genre.

So what does Annie think of the snooty folks who adore her but derisively snort at the mention of, say, Kylie Minogue?

"Maybe they like Kylie secretly," she playfully suggests before erupting into a fit of laughter. "Like, maybe they buy her record but say it's for their little sister, and then listen to it themselves at their home."

Speaking over the phone from a tour stop in Rome, Annie says she's flattered but ultimately bemused that typically pop-phobic listeners have embraced Anniemal. "I don't know," she continues, "maybe they like my album because in the beginning I was releasing a lot of my own 12-inch singles and stuff like that? Maybe it's a bit because I was writing it myself so it just seems to people that my music is more honest than other pop music? But in a way, that shouldn't really matter – it's all music!"

Rated X

For Annie, whose songs incorporate underground and mainstream elements, such inclusiveness has always been essential. In 1999 she wrote her first single, "Greatest Hit," with her boyfriend-producer Tore "Erot" Kroknes. When the track – an effervescent, dance-floor delight built around a sample of Madonna's "Everybody" – became a club sensation as far away as the UK, the couple quickly set about writing a proper album. Momentum ground to a halt in early 2001, however, when Kroknes passed away from a heart defect, and Annie, too depressed to continue, quit making music.

Nearly two years later, however, she returned to songwriting and began work on Anniemal. "I needed to do something," she recalls. "It just felt natural to start to write music again. I was like, 'I really need to finish this album – even more than before.' "

The first track she completed was "Kiss Me," a collaboration with Finnish musician Timo Kaukolampi. Soon other producers were on board, including fellow Norwegians Röyksopp and Richard X, the famed Brit responsible for genius singles by the likes of Rachel Stevens and the Sugababes. In fact, X was so taken with "Greatest Hit" that it was he who first approached Annie, asking her to lend vocals to his 2003 album, Richard X Presents His X-Factor Vol. I (Astralwerks). He returned the favor by contributing "Chewing Gum" and "Me Plus One" – both penned with Hannah Robinson, of the phenomenally successful production team Xenomania (Minogue, Girls Aloud) – to Anniemal.

Given all the hands in the pot, Annie (who cowrote all but the two X and Robinson tracks) was relieved the result turned out so cohesively. "I was worried the songs would sound too different because I was working in five or six different studios," she admits. "But even though, like, Richard X and Timo are completely different producers, it somehow sounded like a real album. That's what I'm most happy with."

Fickle lovers

Finally released in the United States on June 7, Anniemal establishes Annie as the latest in a long line of impressive Scandinavian pop exports. From ABBA and a-ha to Ace of Base and Alcazar – not to mention legendary hitmaker Max Martin – the region has long been responsible for some of the world's most enjoyable mainstream pop. American audiences are increasingly less receptive to that style of music, however, which makes Annie's popularity here even more unexpected. "To me, it's just strange my album got interest in the US at all, because it sounds very European," she says. "But it's very exciting."

Throughout Anniemal, which often evokes Minogue's Body Language (Capitol, 2004), the wispy-voiced Annie looks to the dance floor as a place where love can blossom or fade in the course of a single song. "Heartbeat" and "Greatest Hit" are euphoric celebrations of romance both new and familiar, while the Tom Tom Club-esque "Chewing Gum" is a love-'em-and-leave-'em ditty cheekily comparing men to sticks of bubblegum that quickly lose their flavor. Elsewhere, she gets melancholy over love's fleeting nature, as in "No Easy Love," and waxes nostalgic in the wistful "My Best Friend."

They're songs that Annie says she's excited to perform at her San Francisco debut this week, which will also feature her spinning records alongside Kaukolampi. (A return visit, with a full backing band, is planned for September.) She's also interested to see who shows up – after all, the indie world that's shown so much unexpected support is notorious for turning its back once artists start to find a wider audience. In fact, as she continues to gain popularity around the world, she's noticed a bit of a backlash has already begun.

"I just met these people who are like, 'Well, we used to like you before, but now you are mainstream!' " she says, clearly amused. "Some people just want to like you if you sell, like, two records. They want to be the first one who loves it. But if you do more than that, then they're like, 'Nah! It's not interesting no more!' But for me it's good to sell records because I have been working really long for this."
Annie performs Fri/1, Mighty, 119 Utah, SF. Call for time and price. (415) 626-7001.

Some girls

If you're enamored with Annie's fizzy pop perfection, these three similarly classy ladies should float your boat as well. Their albums aren't available domestically, but the imports are well worth their hefty price tags – further proof that those on the far side of the Atlantic make infinitely better pop than their counterparts in the States.

Fans of stylish British pop need look no further than former S Clubber Rachel Stevens, whose albums brim with irresistible gems like "Some Girls," producer Richard X's brilliant party-gal paean to champagne and zip-up boots; and "So Good," an electro-thumping anthem worthy of early Madonna. And like the young Ciccone, Stevens doesn't mind her rep as a disposable pop tart: She recently justified her prefab persona by noting, amazingly, there were many "great bands from the past who didn't write their own music, like the Beatles." Take that, music snobs!

Alexis Strum's dance pop is so breezily understated that both Stevens and Kylie Minogue have covered her songs – on Negotiate with Love and Body Language, respectively. So although her Xenomania-produced, 2003 debut never saw the light of day, it's not for lack of should-be hits: Web leaks like "Addicted" and the poignant masterpiece "Nothing Good about This Goodbye" are must-hear MP3s that'll tide you over till this summer's release of Cocoon (Mercury).

Dubbed an "unapproachable duchess" by the European press, Sophie Ellis-Bextor crafts the sort of icy-cool disco that might've resulted had Debbie Harry ever fancied herself a Pet Shop Boy. On shimmering, tastefully restrained songs like "Nowhere Without You" and "Another Day," off Shoot from the Hip (Polydor, 2003), the former vocalist of the Audience – like Stevens, Strum, and Annie – oozes smarts and sex appeal with an effortlessness that most American pop starlets can only dream of.

JD

To purchase the music featured in this article, visit iTunes:

Annie, Anniemal (Big Beat/Atlantic) Anniemal