TAS Interview: Anna Calvi
The decidedly dramatic Anna Calvi launches her long-overdue North American tour later this month, arriving at New York's Bowery Ballroom on May 25. Back in March, Calvi was forced to cancel her New York debut and a string of UK dates after injuring her arm and hand.
The British chanteuse's bluesy, near-operatic vocals, bruising guitar and lusty flair for flamenco has made her a fast-rising star in the UK, with a flurry of comparisons (too easy and likely unfair) to PJ Harvey; coincidentally, Harvey's longtime drummer, Rob Ellis, produced Calvi's self-titled debut, out now on Domino Records.
The Alternate Side caught up with the intriguing Calvi via email earlier this week and asked her about her inspirations, her unique vision and her very impressive advocate, Brian Eno:
TAS: You're unafraid to be emotional, bold and extremely theatrical on your debut album and in your live shows. Has theatre been one of your many influences?
Anna Calvi: Theatre hasn’t been a major influence. Expressing myself through music is such a natural thing for me to do, so it enables me to get in touch with a very strong and fearless part of my personality. I don’t feel I become a different person on stage, it is in fact quite the contrary; I feel my at my most honest when I am performing music.
TAS: You exude great confidence and artistic grace (and nerve) on stage - was that natural for you?
Anna: My confidence has naturally grown as my ability as a musician has grown, over many years of playing music. My speaking voice is very different from my singing voice!
TAS: The recording of this album was extremely emotional - you worked with producer Rob Ellis - what was most difficult about the three year stretch of its evolution? What did you learn about the process ... and yourself as a songwriter and/or vocalist? Most memorable day in the studio?
Anna: It took about yeo years to write and record the album. I love being in the studio, because it allows you to be very imaginative. It was hard sometimes because I’m a perfectionist. I had many memorable days in the studio. Recording “Morning Light” was a great experience - we tracked it completely live, which was a lot of fun.
TAS: There's something so bold and cinematic about the sweep of songs like "Desire" or "Love Won't Be Leaving."
Anna: I see music very visually. I really want to take the listener into another world for the space of a song. It is important that the music tells the story of the song as much as the lyrics do. I get inspired by beautifully shot films. This is why I’m such a fan of Wong Kar Wai.
TAS: Brian Eno has championed you. Has he given you any advice?
Anna: I’m very happy when I hear that someone is a fan of what I do. Obviously getting support from Brian Eno is a very big deal for me, as he is such an amazing artist. Brian hasn’t given me advice as such, but he has given me a wealth of encouragement which I really treasure.
TAS: Are you cautious of the excitement over your debut album, especially given your upcoming tour of the States where you're not as well known yet?
Anna: I don’t feel cautious. Not everyone will like what I do, but that’s fine. Music is subjective.
TAS: You follow in a long line of ferocious, emotive singers, like Edith Piaf, Beth Gibbons, Polly Harvey and Nick Cave. Is there a particular album or singer who inspired a seismic shift in how you listened to music?
Anna: Maria Callas has had a huge affect on me, as a singer. I love how committed she is to every single note she sings. There is so much passion in her voice. When I first heard her sing Verdi’s Otello it really changed how I approached singing. I realized what it meant to really engage emotionally as a singer.
TAS: Who are some of your great violin and guitar influences? As an instrumentalist, when did you begin exploring become a vocalist?
Anna: My favorite guitarists are Hendrix and Django Reinhardt. I used to really enjoy listening to the violinist Stéphane Grappelli when I was younger. I started singing about 5 years ago. I always wanted to sing but I didn’t feel I had the right personality for it, as I’m quite shy. I decided to get over my fear, and practiced for hours and hours every day, listening to singers I loved like Nina Simone and Edith Piaf, until finally I found my voice.
TAS: You have a passion for flamenco. What it is about the style that suits you?
Anna: The passion, drama and romance of flamenco music is expressed so perfectly in the outfits flamenco dancers wear. I find this very inspiring. I dress as a male flamenco dancer when I perform.
TAS: "Blackout" feels very different from the bulk of the album - it almost swings to a straight pop track (as produced by Phil Spector). What was the evolution of that song?
Anna: I just wanted to tell the story of the song through the music. I see the song as a film, where every overdub the listener hears is giving clues to what is happening in the story.
TAS: What would a perfect day be like for you? Where would you go, how would you begin the day ... and what would you do till night?
Anna: I would hang out with some friends, play some music, maybe see a film.
TAS: As far as your album, what song do you feel currently mirrors who you are - or hope to be - in an intriguing way as an artist and why?
Anna: I don’t like to pick out one particular song from the album, because I don’t want to influence the listener’s interpretation of my music. The whole album is an expression of who I am as an artist.
Anna Calvi's North American Tour
5/23 Philadelphia, PA Johnny Brenda’s
5/25 New York, NY Bowery Ballroom
5/27 Toronto, ON El Mocambo
5/28 Chicago, IL Schuba’s Tavern
5/29 Minneapolis, MN Triple Rock Social Club
6/1 Seattle, WA The Crocodile
6/2 Vancouver, BC Biltmore Cabaret
6/5 San Francisco, CA Café Du Nord
6/7 Los Angeles, CA Troubadour