‘Locked away in a basement, making an album in isolation, you do start going a bit crazy. So a lot of material came out of that – how to survive the making of this monster that took over three years of my life.’
Anna Calvi smiles sweetly. She does that a lot. She doesn’t seem like a person who makes monsters. Or, indeed, a kind of music that rages like wild emotions adrift in stormy seas, performed, on stage, with a fierce, laconic poise. There is definitely some split personality going on here. ‘When I play live I’m a different person,’ Anna smiles, sweetly. ‘I feel powerful and fearless. All the things I wish I felt in everyday life.’
Anna Calvi’s self titled debut album, is about lust and love, devils, and a new take on David Lynchian dramatic surrealism… uh, actually, stop right there. Another thing about this disarmingly sweet blonde girl is that she’s better at defining what she does than anyone else. No ‘the songs just come out’ banalities here. Anna Calvi knows what she’s doing, and why. ‘It’s a record about the internal forces in life which are out of your control and can take you over, and how you survive them. It explores intimacy, passion and loneliness. There is an element of darkness to the record but there is also a sense of hope. This album is the culmination of my whole life up until now.’
And there are good reasons why that life is suffused with a darkness. The story begins with a baby girl, born in London, and struggling to survive. Anna Calvi spent most of her first three years of life in hospital.
‘The way I dealt with that was to create my own world. And that’s what my relationship with music is – a world of my own creation that I escape into. I was always a dreamer. The early things stick with you.’
Growing up with her music obsessed Italian father, Anna was exposed to an eclectic array of sounds which ranged from Captain Beefheart to The Stones, to Maria Callas, combined with an early understanding of classical music developed through childhood violin lessons. She would come to identify the work of 20th century composers, Messiaen, Ravel, and Debussy as an influence, attracted in her words “to the impressionistic element of the music”, the feel of which she would try to recreate on guitar, an instrument she was compelled to learn on discovering Django Reinhardt and Jimi Hendrix at the age of 13. Combining all these influences she aimed to make her guitar sound like an orchestra, but only instinctually; “I don't try and achieve this by using lots of pedals - My Vox amp, a reverb pedal, and then’… she puts her hand somewhere between heart and gut… ‘it comes from here.”
In the following years Anna would immerse herself in other influences such as opera, West African music, the blues of Robert Johnson and Bukka White and in particular flamenco - the passion flamenco dancers exude in their stance and style having had a massive impact on Anna’s fierce, upfront stage persona, and the outfits she and her band choose to perform in, the visual element of Anna’s art being of huge importance to her. It’s this thoughtful focus on the visual side of things that leads Anna to clearly identify how the work of film directors Wong Kar Wei and Gus Van Sant has also influenced her music, remarking on her admiration for “people that make beautiful films where the cinematography tells the story”, something Anna attempts to mirror in her own work.
Anna reached a crossroads at 17. After considering art school, she made a last minute decision to take a degree in music. And, once that was done, she finally made the decision to sing. ‘I’d always wanted to be a singer, but it was hard for me because I’m so shy. But I just worked on it – five or six hours a day. I was very secretive about it. It was the scariest decision that I’ve made because of the kind of person that I am. But slowly, slowly, slowly, this big voice emerged.’
Anna found her musical twin when she met Mally Harpaz in 2006. ‘She actually began playing drums with me. But I heard a harmonium being played and just thought it was so beautiful it made me want to cry. There’s something very timeless and stoic about it. I asked Mally if she’d give it a go. She’d never played one before but she’s the kind of musician who can just pick stuff up.’
The next, and last, recruit to the Calvi less-is-more aesthetic was drummer Daniel Maiden-Wood. ‘He’s very intuitive. And he listens, which is really rare in a drummer. It wasn’t a conscious decision to not have bass when we play live. It was just that I wanted Mally to be the orchestra of the band. They are both such great musicians, and I like working with restrictions. I love the rawness of the three of us. And I love space in music. And it’s exciting, thinking, “How do I make this sound like a giant string section when I only have this guitar?” That’s always the way I’ve worked.’
The trio emerged from their nocturnal bunker every once in a while to play some shows. Young Brit-folk star Johnny Flynn asked Anna to support him on tour, and, at the Manchester gig, former Coral guitarist Bill Rider-Jones happened to be there, and be smitten. He immediately called Laurence Bell at Domino and urged him to sign her. ‘It all happened really quickly,' Anna recalls, ‘We were making this album in this tiny studio and we had nothing. I had to arrange and play all the string parts. All the choirs are just layers of me. Suddenly I had the opportunity to go to Black Box Studio in France which has all this beautiful vintage analogue equipment from the ‘60s. I only wanted that for specific songs. But I wouldn’t have had that if Domino hadn’t come along. And even though I would be doing this anyway, because I go mad if I’m not making music, when you’re doing twelve-hour days and putting all your time and energy into something, and all the time thinking, “No-one may ever hear this”… it is difficult. It’s nice to come out of the rabbit-hole and into the sunshine.’
As well as benefiting from Laurence Bell’s early support, Anna found yet more outside encouragement from Brian Eno, which came about when a man who happened to be a friend of Eno saw her perform at London’s Luminaire, and urged music’s most eminent producer and agent provocateur to check her out. He did, and was enchanted by her series of wonderful stripped-down performances The Attic Sessions. Eno was so taken by Anna that he asked her out for lunch. ‘He was really lovely. I gave him my early basement demos, and he loved them, and since then he’s been a real mentor. He came along at just the right time. He was the first person from the outside world who heard what I was doing and validated it. It was quite a pivotal moment in my life. He sent me a letter saying that the music was full of intelligence, romance and passion, and what more can we want from art? It was like the water at the end of the desert.’
The element of light at the end of a long, dark tunnel permeates both the music of, and the story behind, the album. ‘I just wrote and recorded all the time on an eight-track in my parents’ attic. I then spent two-and-a-half years making this album in secret in a basement studio. It was very unhealthy, actually. I didn’t see the sunlight for a long, long time. It was such a great experience to then go and work with Rob Ellis’
Rob Ellis is, of course, the producer, composer and musician who has had plenty of experience collaborating with strong female artists through his years with Polly Harvey. What did he bring to the party as Anna’s co-producer?
‘He’s old-school rock ‘n’ roll… you know, “Hit the drums harder!” Which I love. We both share a love of classical music...he loves the same composers as I do. So I didn’t have to explain what I meant when I said that I wanted I wanted a guitar or a shaker to sound like an orchestra. It was great to find someone who understood.’
Anna is justly proud of her first album, and picks out two songs where she feels she’s got close to what she ultimately wants to achieve. ‘I’m very microscopic about detail. And there’s a lot of sound-painting in Love Won’t Be Leaving. I see music very visually. And I want the music itself to express the story as much, if not more, than the lyrics. I think I achieved that on Love Won’t Be Leaving. I’m happy with The Devil, which I recorded in France. It’s a good example of how I wanted to make the guitar sound like another instrument. I wanted the middle-section to sound like the strings on a Hitchcock soundtrack. It crescendos towards an explosion, but in a real and honest way. It's not about bravado.’
But before the album, the first release. Anna has embarked on a one-woman mission to reclaim the ancient and noble idea of the debut single that stands alone from an album she views as a complete work. Hence Jezebel. ‘It was written by Wayne Shanklin. But it was the Edith Piaf version that I heard. It just really had an effect on me. I love Edith Piaf. I love how much emotion and guts she puts into her singing. Its something I try to do in my music...be as open and passionate as possible. Jezebel just seemed like the right thing to put out first. The album is such an entity in itself. It’s a story and a journey. So I didn’t want to take anything out of the album before it was released. I wanted people to hear the album as a complete thing.’
At the time of writing, Anna is preparing for a tour with Grinderman - highly appropriate, as Nick Cave is, of course, the master of love songs that present love and sex as wild and uncontrollable forces. I put it to Anna that that idea is as close as one could get to a concept for the intense unleashings of lust and need that make up her debut album.
‘That’s fair. Music’s so sexual. How can you not express that in some way? Playing guitar is a sexy thing to do. And there is that thing of...when you love someone so much you think that you could kill them. I’ve definitely felt that.’
Anna Calvi smiles sweetly.
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- Anna Calvi, One Breath