Annika Henderson—aka Anika—stumbled into the sort of industry break that most aspiring musicians would kill for. She was working as a club promoter and marketer in Cardiff, Wales, when she received a call from a friend who had a friend looking for a "weird singer" for his band.
"I didn't realize [the friend] was Geoff 'Portishead' Barrow until we recorded the fourth session," Anika recalls. "He handed me a Beak> CD [the debut album by Barrow's new krautrock-centric project] and said I should have a listen to what they normally do. I hadn't managed to find the band on MySpace yet, mainly due to their rebellious symbol in the name. So I googled them, which informed me that the kind, bearded man I had been working with was in fact a complete legend. It also informed me that Billy [Fuller] had worked with Robert Plant and that Matt [Williams] was a genius... They were all very laid-back and the only guidance Geoff gave me was, 'Don't practice so much. Do it the way you did it before when you didn't think about it.' That was nice and took any threat of pressure off."
The sessions with Beak> went so well, Barrow decided to cut a whole other full-length with the vocalist, whose deadpan delivery and timbre register somewhere between Nico and the Slits' Ari Up. Like those artists, Anika is an alluring Teutonic blonde who issues some rather unsettling sounds. There's something severe yet untutoredly charming about Anika's voice, which thrives amid the stark, warped dub-pop songs on her 2010 self-titled debut album for Stones Throw Records.
Anika and Beak> recorded Anika's nine tracks live in 12 days. Two strident originals written with Barrow—"Officer Officer" and "No One's There"—are outnumbered by six covers, the highlights of which are two versions of Bob Dylan's ever-relevant "Masters of War," which lend the original an end-time, PiL-like edge, and an otherworldly, skanking rendition of Yoko Ono's "Yang Yang." She also puts a minimalistically quirky spin on Twinkle's "Terry," Greta Ann's "Sadness Hides the Sun," and the Kinks' "I Go to Sleep."
Anika says there's no common thread that runs through the songs she covered. She chose "Masters of War" "because it approached political songwriting in an intelligent way, Yoko Ono because I liked the way it sounded when I spoke the words, [and] sweet '60s songs because I could twist them and make them evil."
She says her taste for the dark side derives in part from her love of horror films. While suffering from insomnia in her late teens, Anika immersed herself in the genre, devouring films like Peeping Tom, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Rosemary's Baby, Cat People, and the Hammer Horror series. An interest in classic literature, poetry, historical novels, and biographies further shaped her. D. H. Lawrence is a particular favorite. "He most famously offended people with his graphic descriptions in Lady Chatterley's Lover," Anika says, "which in today's context seems laughable. I think it's a great demonstration of how an artist should challenge the status quo and what is considered normal and acceptable to the consumer. It is easy to go along a safe path and not challenge, but all the more gutsy to risk vilification and rub people the wrong way."
Although it's very early in her musical career, Anika seems poised to enjoy a similar agenda of against-the-grain agitating. Her list of favorite vocalists—Billie Holiday, PJ Harvey, Lauryn Hill, Edith Piaf, Janis Joplin, Patti Smith—suggests a rebellious spirit that's conducive to artistic success, if not frequent chart appearances.
Before her musical activities bloomed, Anika was a freelance political journalist for various British publications. "I mainly reported on science and education policy reform, with a focus on higher education," she says. "It's an area that greatly concerns me and one that needs to be drastically addressed by the West, otherwise it will soon find itself lagging far behind. The same applies to funding of the arts in the West. I think the importance of the arts to any economy is invaluable; the fruits just take a little longer to ripen. There's far too much short-term thinking and panicking going on in the West, with regards to fiscal policy and policy as a whole."
Finally, one wonders if Anika has received any feedback from legends like Dylan, Ono, and Ray Davies. "Not yet. I'm waiting for Yoko Ono to turn up on my doorstep in a black leather catsuit and a beret, with a sniper rifle in her hand. Luckily, she promotes peace."