It is not until I listened to A.N.J.A.’s upcoming EP that I recalled I had heard her busking one cloudy day in Belfast city centre. Moody and sultry, A.N.J.A.’s voice caught me then as it does with Digital Love Spells, proving that her cherry-red Epiphone Casino guitar is not the only thing striking about her. Originally from Germany, A.N.J.A. started making her own music about four years ago, after reconnecting with a long neglected childhood hobby of playing guitar. “I would sing mainly to myself and hope that no-one would hear,” she self-deprecates, before noting, “even though my mum is a singer in two bands I never thought I could do it myself”.
A.N.J.A. first took to the stage following her move to Belfast 3 years ago and, after participating in the Oh Yeah Centre’s Girls’ Rock School 2017 programme, began to write her own songs. “That first moment singing on stage was an epiphany, I knew then [that music is] what I was born to do and from then everything went super quickly”. She took to busking in the city centre, and then onward to her first bar gigs. Last year she was ready; armed with a full set of original songs, stage-name A.N.J.A. was officially born. In October 2019 she released her single “Black River Falls”.
A.N.J.A. is a musician of the graft, refusing to be intimidated by what she does not yet know. In glorious ‘Fetch the Bolt Cutters’ fashion, she learnt to record from scratch, self-recorded and produced her E.P. and played all the instruments – including bass, rhythm and lead guitar, flute and percussion – herself. She deflects by quickly assuring that “on stage, I [just play] my Epiphone Casino […] for that retro jazzy vibe”.
Her music has been labelled dark psychedelic folk and despite falling into the genre somewhat accidentally, it is easy to see how it came to the forefront. “I love telling stories, I just started writing my own songs [which are all me] and it turns out they sound like psychedelic folk”. If folk music draws from the traditional music of the people passed down through generations, finding meaning in acoustic instrumentals and a contemporary community in genre, the psychedelic adds the almost trance-like atmosphere. With artists such as Vashti Bunyan, Iron & Wine, Aldous Harding and Alela Diane influencing, A.N.J.A., she appears to be in good company; “I love folk music because it’s very intimate, evocative and atmospheric, which is exactly what I would like my music to be”.
As a whole her Digital Love Spells EP is a captivating specimen; each track taking a precise framework of basic guitar which builds atmosphere with clever lyricism and use of almost hypnotic repetition. A.N.J.A.’s old-timey voice is rich and reminiscent of 1960’s surf rock, toying with characters just outside of herself whose tales transport listeners out of Belfast with their bluegrass edge. Whilst there are times these personas feel unlikely to be found on Royal Avenue or frequenting The Sunflower, there is a distinct touch of folklore which roots her to the local. A.N.J.A., playing with the idea of the mystical hidden in plain sight, dips into the realm of magic realism, tying herself to music acts such as The Darkling Air and, the literary genre of Belfast novelist Jan Carson. “Most of my songs are not autobiographical even though they are personal to my own feelings. I invent scenarios and slip into characters and teleport my listeners into fantastical worlds. One time, after a gig, someone said to me that he could ‘see’ my songs and I thought that was just brilliant.”
Listening to A.N.J.A.’s single ‘Deadly Fallen For You (And The Devil Knows)’, it is easy to see what inspired this comment. Her instrumentals – guitar, light snare and keys – although andante in their pacing, languish in the dark seduction of bedroom folk. Breathy sighs match witchy lyrics which are repeated in a ritual “I’m deadly fallen for you / I’m howling nightly at the moon” and conclude each verse with the same “I’m falling for you” like punctuation. This sensual scene melts away with the opening of the next track ‘Between the Midnight Trees’, which is blue-toned and altogether more spooky. The percussive claps and acoustic guitar churn up connotations of a more traditional folk sound, resonating with lyrical themes often found in folklore. This midnight world conjures the shadowy fairytales of the Brothers Grimm where “high spirits need to feed” and “they’ll eat you up in three” or “one day they’ll take you home / you’ll be gone”. The storybook allusion continues with a self referential meta fade out “the song echoes through the night”. It feels altogether quite 70’s and quite alluring, standing well apart from track one, but not unnaturally so. A.N.J.A., it appears, successfully paints whole fantasias in mere minutes.
‘Burning Hearts’ with three four rhythm is a faster, chasing track. It is cinematic in its execution and Tarantino-esque in its furling. The use of flute combines infatuated lyrics “turning and turning and turning / until our hearts are burning” / “should I lose you / I’ll bring you back” with the mystic, just on the right side of threatening. It is this track in particular which rings similar to a more possessive femme fatale First Aid Kit. The track of the set morphs and assumes yet another character. “I draw inspiration from real life events; crime magazines, interesting conversations” A.N.J.A. lists and this fourth track, by name and nature is quite on the nose with its relation to the former.
You can almost imagine a modern day Betty Rizzo from Grease singing this sultry lament, cigarette still hanging from her lip (“jailbird lover let me be your last embrace” / “tell me your sorrows / I’ll take them as my own”). With these as the worse things she could do, there is something of a tragic end to this meandering and conceptual EP. ‘Jailbird Lover’ with its “trapped forever / in eternal loneliness” and “dirty hands” leaves a want for more, which, of course, is exactly how A.N.J.A. likes it.
She conducted a slow drip release; first a single released in April, then a second in June, with the final EP available from August. Humble but ambitious, she divulges her plan for the next while “I would like to gather a following, get my music and stories out there. Obviously the corona-crisis put that on hold which was quite difficult. I want to play loads of gigs in Belfast, hopefully one day soon as a headliner and be known locally. By next year I want to play festivals UK and Ireland wide and then go from there. I don’t have to be the next Lady Gaga”.
With this vision and willingness to learn, her trajectory looks steady and whilst the Gaga title may seem a little way off, relating A.N.J.A. as something close to Belfast’s answer to Stevie Nicks does not seem too far from reality.