The sun has come out for pop singer Annie
Branding Annie "the best pop star you've never heard of" feels like a contradiction in terms. After all, a pop star is someone you're supposed to hear of constantly - a globally known show-off whose music infiltrates your brain even when you really don't want it to. Justin Bieber, a teenager with 43 million Twitter followers, is a pop star; so is Katy Perry, who recently announced her new album's release date by having it spray-painted onto the side of a gold 18-wheel lorry.
Over the last decade, though, Annie has quietly established herself as a different kind of pop star. The 35-year-old Norwegian has never scored a conventional "hit single", and her infrequent live shows take place at small clubs, not 10,000-seat arenas. When she signed to a major record label in the mid-noughties, it didn't quite work out. Nevertheless, she's built up a loyal fan base that's happy to wait patiently for her next move, and when she has a new track for people to hear, influential music websites like Pitchfork and Popjustice will always write about it.
When I speak to Annie over the phone from her home in Berlin, I ask if she's happy to be described as a "cult pop star".
The term makes her giggle. "If that's what you want to call me, then I'm definitely happy with that," she replies politely, but doesn't sound entirely convinced. So I try another slightly corny title: "queen of blog-pop". Another giggle. "I have a big following on the blogs, but you know, that's not something I've really planned," she says non-committally. "It's not really that I was planning for this kind of following, or that kind of following, but this is the way it's gone."
If I'm making Annie sound a bit difficult, that's unfair. During our 45-minute phone conversation, she's relaxed, engaged and answers each question thoughtfully in excellent English. She says she doesn't think she attracts a specific type of music fan: the first time she went on tour, the crowd was packed with "cool kids and hipsters", but then the next time, she noticed a lot of gay guys in the audience. During her most recent tour, she says, there was also a sizeable Asian and Hispanic presence. Why are they all so enamoured though? "I don't know. I mean, it's difficult …" she stumbles briefly, before positing a theory. "I do think it's very important as an artist to believe in yourself and believe in what you're doing artistically. I would never release a song that I myself didn't think was good. I would never put a song out just because I thought I needed to. I take the whole thing really seriously and I have to do all of it properly. I do feel like I'm really dedicated."
Annie's definitely hit on something here - her career has been characterised by a remarkable level of quality control. Her 1999 debut single, The Greatest Hit, still sounds fresh today nearly 15 years after it came out. After this Madonna-sampling dance track became popular on the Norwegian and UK club scenes, Annie received several offers for record contracts, but didn't get round to releasing her debut album until 2004. This delay was caused in part by the tragic death of her producer and romantic partner Tore Andreas Kroknes, who had been born with a degenerative heart condition and passed away in April 2001, aged just 23. For a while afterwards, Annie has admitted, she was simply too depressed to think about making music. When it finally arrived, though, her punningly-titled debut album Anniemal was a hit with critics and became a slow-burning international success, eventually selling a very respectable 100,000 copies worldwide. The single Chewing Gum remains the closest Annie has come to scoring a mainstream hit, charting inside Norway's top 10 and at number 25 in the UK.
Annie's momentum continued to build following a successful US tour and in 2007, she signed a deal with Island, a major international record label. A sassy single called I Know UR Girlfriend Hates Me (sic) came out in July 2008, but when it failed to crack the UK top 40, Annie's relationship with Island became increasingly unproductive.
"Everything was a little bit of a mess," she recalls today. "When I was on Island, there were always so many different opinions being put forward, but nobody really seemed to know what they wanted. I knew what I wanted and how I wanted the music to sound, but by the end it felt like I was just standing there on this planet alone."
Annie's second album, Don't Stop, ended up in what filmmakers would call "development hell" and she decided it was time to part ways with Island. The album eventually came out in October 2009 on a small Norwegian independent label and now feels like something of a lost classic. It's a collection of irresistibly catchy but interesting and quirky pop songs recorded with some of the top producers of the time: Xenomania (Girls Aloud, Kylie Minogue), Paul Epworth (Adele, Florence and the Machine) and Richard X (Sugababes, Will Young).
Following the release of Don't Stop, Annie kept a relatively low profile for a few years and concentrated on writing songs for other artists. Left My Heart in Tokyo, which she co-wrote with the Xenomania production team, became a UK top 10 hit for pop duo Mini Viva in 2009.
However, Annie says she's now ready to focus on her own music again, and this month she releases the A&R EP. The title reflects the fact that all five tracks are a collaboration between Annie (A) and one of her regular producers Richard X (R). The duo reconvened at the producer's east London studio this March and ended up writing a song a day together.
The result is a brilliant collection of house-infused electro-pop that feels cohesive but thematically varied: Hold On is a sweet song about friendship and mutual support; Invisible is a thumping break-up number; and Ralph Macchio was inspired by Annie's teenage crush on the 1980s pin-up of the same name. Annie says the song is intended as a "compliment" and Macchio seems to have taken it that way. "Bit of a Cruel Summer-y feel. This just released last week …" the actor tweeted recently, linking through to an online stream of the song. Annie has yet to reveal whether she appreciated the comparison to an old Bananarama hit.
There's plenty more music on its way, apparently, but in typical Annie fashion she doesn't want to be pinned down to a release date. "Quite soon, definitely," is as much as she'll promise me. Before our time on the phone comes to an end, I ask Annie which song or career achievement she feels most proud of.
"I think what I'm most proud of is that I've sort of been able to build up a business on my own," she replies. "I've been able to do what I love the most for quite a long while now, and that makes me really happy. Sometimes it's really hard - I mean, it's not like every day is sunny - but I do feel very privileged to have been able to do that."
Nick Levine is a freelance music journalist based in London.
Updated: August 17, 2013 04:00 AM