Alt-guitarist and edgy singer/songwriter Anna Calvi talks to JOANNE SAVAGE ahead of her Belfast show about drawing inspiration from the passion of flamenco, overcoming her shyness and finding approval from Brian Eno
Beautiful in a bewitching way, all intense gaze, cheekbones, slick hair and fire-engine red lipstick, Anna Calvi is most importantly a guitarist and singer of immense talent and originality, lauded by rock godfather Brian Eno as the “biggest thing since Patti Smith”, her stentorian voice singing of desire and despair with captivating pedal-to-the-metal commitment.
It’s haunting and exciting that the 33-year-old south Londoner is so much of a unique voice and such a serious musician - Calvi has been playing violin since age six, guitar since eight and draws influences from a wide mix that includes PJ Harvey, Maria Callas, Edith Piaf, Ravi Shankar, flamenco and, judging my the way she works her Fender Telecaster, Ennio Morricone and Jimi Hendrix.
Before the cameras zoomed in on her and people gathered in hip places to hear her sing, and before Brian Eno got on the phone to ask if he could work with her, before PJ Harvey’s long-time collaborator Rob Ellis became her co-producer and Chanel’s Karl Lagerfeld photographed her for fashion spreads, she would record and produce music in her attic, trying to overcome a crippling shyness about her own voice; for quite some time the ethereal Calvi had a phobia of allowing others to hear her vocals.
In person Calvi’s voice is quiet, much more high-pitched than expected (she sings in a forceful alto that could tremble glasses) and her manner reserved; off-stage she seems so unlike the brooding temptress who mesmerises the audience in flamenco-inspired dress, strumming on her guitar, her voice rising artfully to crescendos of passionate expression and then tapering off to a whisper for more soothing pieces, like the opening of her debut album Rider to the Sea - a largely instrumental piece of plaintive beauty.
“I was six when I first began to play the violin,” she confides. “Then when I was eight or nine I picked up my dad’s guitar. Both my parents are musical; dad always played guitar and mum plays the flute, so I grew up in a very musical household.
“I have always loved music and it has always been a huge passion of mine, but I didn’t grow up with my heart set on becoming a singer; for a long time I thought I would really like to be a visual artist and really thought long and hard about going to art school.
“I sort of always thought I was more of a guitarist than a singer. I really wasn’t sure if I had the personality to be a singer as I am quite shy. I also wasn’t sure if I could really sing.”
Here I interject to express my astonishment; Anna Calvi wasn’t sure if she could sing? ‘But your voice is utterly incredible’ I exclaim! It’s an instrument of the rarest beauty!
“It actually took me years to have the confidence to sing in front of other people. I gradually gathered confidence in my voice by singing on my own in my room - I had to be sure everybody else was out of the house - and I would sing along to artists I love like Maria Callas and Edith Piaf and Nina Simone. Finding my voice has been without doubt the best thing I have ever done. Overcoming the fear that I had in order to be able to sing is even more meaningful an achievement for me than making any records. It was a personal battle.”
Calvi’s self-titled 2011 debut album was nominated for the hugely prestigious Mercury Prize and for a BRIT Award in the Best British Breakthrough category in 2012, and had critics at NME gushing: “sumptuous, seductive and a bit scary, this velvety debut will stalk your dreams”. Her follow-up, One Breath (2013), also released by Domino, is similarly impressive, a mix of rock-vibes and goth-operatic vocal feats, dark lyrics and heart-stopping interludes of vulnerability and gutsy melodic power as on the title track, when her voice becomes hypnotising, exuding a voodoo-charm. Calvi is entirely herself and sits on the cool margins of the mainstream and commercial, an uncompromising musical virtuoso.
“I was listening to a lot of minimalist classical music when I recorded the second album,” she confides. “People like John Adams and Steve Reich and I like Nick Cave and Tom Waits a lot.”
She is very measured when she talks, gently-spoken. This contrasts with how she describes singing: “You warm up your mouth and open it like a cave and think of the words like bullets.”
I ask Calvi if there is any part of her in real life that is similar to the siren of the stage who sings so powerfully and strums her guitar with such fearless gusto. “My music is a representation and an expression of a part of my personality, but maybe a part that I keep under wraps most of the time.”
Ever the poet, when I ask Calvi how she would describe her music she uses tellingly impressionistic language: “I love the idea that people can paint pictures with words and I often see my own music in terms of sound-painting.”
Anna Calvi plays The Empire, Belfast, February 2.