“It almost feels like going into a trance when I sing,” says 28-year-old British rocker Anna Calvi of performing her haunted, atmospheric brand of seductive pop-rock-soul. Calvi’s voice is a powerful one, by turns thick and velvety, and thunderous and operatic, and her command of it all the more remarkable considering that for the first 23 years of her life, Calvi didn’t see herself as a singer at all. “I always wanted to sing, but I didn’t feel I had the right personality for it,” she says. “But I just practiced for hours and hours every day and listened to singers like Nina Simone and EÌdith Piaf. Slowly, I developed my voice.” Growing up in Southwest London, Calvi liked to explore her parents’ vast record collection, which included Italian music and classical composers such as Ravel and Debussy. She began taking violin lessons when she was 6 and began her own musical journey, dis- covering along the way the theatricality of David Bowie and the musicianship of Django Reinhardt, as well as the emotional depth of singers like Simone and Piaf. Her debut album, Anna Calvi (Domino), was released ear- lier this year, and features a cinematic scope befitting those aforementioned influences, as well as others, like Brian Eno, who appears on two tracks. “I see my songs very visually, so it was important for me that the music told the story of the song as much as the lyrics did,” she says. “There is a sense of danger to the record, but also of hope,” says Calvi, who will launch her first U.S. tour as a headliner this summer. “When I’m on stage, it brings out another side of me. But it’s so much me—it’s not like a persona.”
Photo: Anna Calvi at the Jane Hotel in New York, March 2011. Jumpsuit and Belt: Gucci. Cuffs and Ring: Eddie Borgo. Shoes: Tabitha Simmons. Hair Products: Bumble and Bumble Straight. Styling: Vanessa Chow/Creative Exchange Agency. Hair: Rolando Beauchamp for Bumble and Bumble/Community NYC. Makeup: Francelle for Nars Cosmetics/Art + Commerce. Manicure: Jackie Saulsbery for Nars/De Facto Inc. using Nars Body Smoother and Nars Top Coat Polish.
PHOTO COURTESY OF EMMA NATHAN
A not-so-funny thing happened to Anna Calvi on the way to making her live US debut a month ago. The British goth-cabaret-indie-rock artist reagitated an old arm injury, and doctors instructed her to lay off her beloved guitar (she’s been playing since the tender age of 9) for up to a month, which meant having to postpone her first New York shows as well as gigs at South By Southwest in Austin. But disappointing as the news was, that bit of drama was nothing compared to the swirling sturm und drang of Calvi’s songs, ten of which are featured on her justly lauded self-titled debut album, released in March. Tracks like “Suzanne & I,” “Desire,” “The Devil,” and the first single, the rolling “Blackout,” have earned her comparisons to other purveyors of musical melodrama throughout the ages—Scott Walker, PJ Harvey, Edith Piaf, and Nick Cave.
Cave himself is one of Calvi’s A-list endorsers, having taken her on the road with his band Grinderman and given her at least one bit of emerging-artist advice. Ditto Interpol and the Arctic Monkeys, for whom she has also played support; Harvey’s long time collaborator Rob Ellis, who co-produced Calvi’s album; indie heavyweight Domino Records, who signed Calvi at the suggestion of de facto A&R man Bill Ryder-Jones, formerly of The Coral; and the great Brian Eno, who has championed Calvi and famously called her “the greatest thing since Patti Smith.”
That’s some heady praise, and quite a support staff for an artist who only began singing five years ago. But few who have heard her album or seen her live—all bright red lips and flamenco-styled garb, pounding drums, galloping guitar, and harmonium—think it is unwarranted. And the good news? That arm is apparently all better. Calvi began a European tour last week, and will finally play a string of North American shows in May.
JOHN NORRIS: Anna, I was sorry to hear about these postponed shows and your arm injury. I would imagine this is the longest you have gone without holding a guitar in a long time. Is that kind of strange?
ANNA CALVI: It is strange, but it’s kind of nice, because I appreciate even more how much I love playing the guitar and doing what I do, and I just can’t wait to get back out there and play. And I will be soon.
NORRIS: And what you do with the guitar is really quite special and unique. You’ve said before that you want to make a guitar speak in a way that is your own, and in a way people might not be used to hearing it. Is that something that has developed over time?
CALVI: Yeah, definitely. I’ve been playing a long time, and I really feel like I have my own language with it, and it feels like it’s an extension of me, of my body. And it just feels really natural to express myself through it.
NORRIS: By contrast, singing is something you’re relatively new to. You got into it seriously only about five years ago?
CALVI: Yeah, I always really wanted to do it, but I felt I was too shy. And I just made a decision that I was gonna conquer it, or I was gonna give it everything, until I found a way of finding my voice. So I listened to singers that I really loved, like Maria Callas and Nina Simone, and just studied the art of singing, practiced it six hours a day.
NORRIS: On your own?
CALVI: Yeah, I get really obsessed with things, and that’s kind of what happened with singing. Because I always imagined that being a singer must be the most amazing feeling, to be able to express yourself with your voice. And now I’m at a point where I do feel comfortable being a singer. And it’s even more fulfilling and amazing than I could have hoped.
NORRIS: The songs took about a year and a half to write and record, working at your parents’ place. This was through much of ’09?
CALVI: I’m really bad with dates, but yeah.
NORRIS: Did the songs come quickly? Or were some of them older songs you’d had for some time?
CALVI: No, they were all new. I suppose I’d just gotten to a point with my singing where I thought, “Well, I can do this now.” And I’d seen other bands fall into the trap of trying to write for other people and trying to write with commercial motives in mind, and I just thought it’s such a deadly thing to do as an artist. When I started the album, I thought, “I’m just going to make music that makes me creatively happy and really not worry if no one ever hears it, but just to stick to my vision of what I ideally would like to make.”
NORRIS: “The Attic Sessions,” which you also did in 2009, was a series of performances released online, covers that you worked up. There was Elvis Presley’s “Surrender,” TV on the Radio’s “Wolf Like Me,” among others. How did those come about?
CALVI: It was just in between recording, and I chose those songs because they had affected me and improved me as an artist and really moved me. Like the Elvis song “Surrender” was because I just learned to much about singing from learning that song. It was really important to my growth as a singer. Just to hear him sing, because he had an attitude where every single note was really important. Every syllable was sung with such conviction. And that was a real turning point for me, in terms of just giving every bit of yourself, just being present in every single word. So because of that I wanted to cover it. And I suppose I had that kind of a relationship with each of those songs.
NORRIS: And likewise, a more recent cover, you put out a version of Edith Piaf’s “Jezebel” last fall, months before your album. Talk about that decision—an interesting approach—to release a song before the album that is not part of the album. I assume you’re a Piaf fan?
CALVI: Yeah, big fan. I just felt like the album was an entity unto itself, I didn’t want to take something away before someone had heard the whole work. I’m kind of an old-fashioned believer in albums. And yeah the same thing happened with that song. I just loved it when I first heard it, I just found it really powerful, and I just felt compelled to record my own version.
NORRIS: I have not seen you live yet, but I have seen video of the live shows, and it’s quite dramatic and passionate. Do you feel like you are embodying a character when you’re out there?
CALVI: No, but it is a different side of me, definitely. I just feel like I can be stronger and more fierce when I’m playing music, because it just feels so natural. And it’s such an easy way for me to express myself. It just gives me this extra strength and that’s what comes out on stage. But it really feels like the most “me” that I ever am.
NORRIS: A lot of these women that you get compared to as a performer—talk about dramatic. I was watching something you did that even reminded me of Diamanda Galas, who’s basically a human tornado. Do you feel like people are taken aback when they meet you and discover you’re not this larger-than-life person?
CALVI: Yeah, but I really like the fact that I don’t feel I need to live up to who I am onstage, because it would be impossible and it would be exhausting. I don’t know how some people do that.
NORRIS: Maybe the single thing that is the most discussed about Anna Calvi in the past few months is Brian Eno and the way in which he has championed you. Was that something that completely took you by surprise, the level of enthusiasm he had for you and your music?
CALVI: Yeah a complete surprise. I got a call from my management saying “What do you think about Brian Eno?” And I said “I love him, why?” And they said, “‘Cause he really loves you.” And it kind of went from there, we met up a couple of times, and he’s just been really supportive, and he ended up singing some backing vocals on the album, which was really fun. Yeah, I just feel incredibly lucky to have support from him.
NORRIS: As I understand it, the very first song you wrote as a kid was when you imagined yourself in the Spiders from Mars—that’s how big a Bowie fan you were? That’s quite an endorsement.
CALVI: Yeah, it was.
NORRIS: But no plans to work with Eno, moving forward?
CALVI: Well I’d love to work with him in some capacity.
NORRIS: Of course, he has said, “She doesn’t need my help, I’m just a fan,” or something like that?
CALVI: Yeah, he did.
NORRIS: And finally it was through Eno that you ended up going out on the road with Nick Cave and Grinderman.
CALVI: Yeah. And I was a huge fan of Nick’s, so that was really incredible.
NORRIS: And I understand that the one piece of advice Nick gave you was to start working on that second record now—don’t wait to do it. Have you taken that advice to heart? Can you write all the time?
CALVI: I think it’s good advice, and yeah, I am working and writing. Well, it’s kind of hard at the moment with one hand, but I’m doing my best.
NORRIS: Do you have to sit and focus on that, or do ideas come to you all the time, when you’re out doing who knows what?
CALVI: Yeah I’m a bit of a dreamer, I’m kind of always lost in my own imagination, so I find it quite easy to go other places in my mind and create stuff.
ANNA CALVI IS OUT NOW. CALVI WILL BE TOURING EUROPE AND THE UNITED STATES THROUGHOUT THE SPRING AND SUMMER. FOR MORE INFORMATION, VISIT HER WEBSITE.