INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
"Craft is what enables you to be successful
when you're not inspired." - Brian Eno
The Telegraph JANUARY 11, 2011 - by Andrew Perry
ANNA CALVI: GIVING VOICE TO PASSION AND DESIRE
Singer-songwriter Anna Calvi talks about forces beyond her control.
In the annual January scramble to unearth as many new acts as possible, the hapless pop fan can begin to feel a little fatigued. But one listen to the exceptional self-titled debut album from Anna Calvi will almost certainly set the pulse a-racing.
This petite twenty-eight year-old from London whips up a unique sound, reinvigorating rock songcraft with hints of flamenco, '50s rockabilly guitar, Scott Walker's '60s romantic chansons and the dynamics of French classical composers such as Ravel and Debussy. Her secret weapon is her voice. When its full capacity is revealed, it feels powerful enough to shake buildings to the ground.
In person, Calvi is anything but a mouthy self-promoter. She sits quietly beside me in an east London café and I often feel like I'm doing most of the talking. Then, very gently, she'll open fire with a series of arresting ideas contained in her work.
"I like space in my music," she says. "I make a lot of effort to create atmospheres. I want the instruments to tell the story as much as the lyrics do. Every note you sing has to be important. Every note you play on the guitar has to mean something. I don't want my music full of crap. I'm like that in life: I don't natter on, nah-nah-nah. I'm quite quiet. I just say something when I have something to say, and my music's like that as well."
Calvi was brought up in London, near Putney. Her parents are both hypnotherapists and aficionados of classic rock. Her father's Italian stock may possibly explain the exotic, passionate clamour in her songs. She learnt the violin, then the guitar, and soon got into David Bowie after hearing Space Oddity on the family car's radio.
"The first song I wrote was when I was ten," she says. "I was in the Spiders From Mars [Bowie's imaginary group, circa Ziggy Stardust]. Songwriting was my obsession. When I was eleven or twelve, I had a makeshift studio, where I'd overdub instruments. I eventually did a degree in music and studied orchestrating and arranging, but I never sang at all, not even in the shower."
After college, Calvi was in bands - "nothing serious", she shrugs - and only five years ago, she began teaching herself to sing, by listening to recordings by Nina Simone and Edith Piaf.
When Calvi's voice unfurls on her more blood-and-thunder tracks, such as Desire and The Devil, it's quite extraordinary to think that until so recently it was locked away inside, unexplored. At those points, she delivers with the elemental force of an opera diva.
Her album, which she wrote in her parents' basement over three years, is, however, a beautifully balanced exercise in light and shade. It opens with a twangy-guitar instrumental and gradually builds to Desire, where Calvi's voice suddenly explodes to its full potential.
For that sense of dramatic timing, and more, Anna Calvi is cut from a very different cloth to most pop where instant gratification is king and where a strong voice such as, say, Florence Welch's, is used at full strength through the majority of every song.
Calvi's songs are altogether darker, too. "They're about forces beyond your control," she softly explains, "and how you find a way through them. Passion and lust and desire and loneliness are all things that can take me over and that comes out in the music."
On stage, the diminutive singer cuts a striking figure in the raunchy attire of a flamenco singer. "I try and look people in the eye when I sing," she says. "It's funny the reactions you get. You get some people who don't know what to do, but other people really engage and stare back at you, and you have this weird, intimate moment.
"I like that. If you're going to create communication, you may as well go the distance." At one early gig, Calvi caught the eye of a friend of Brian Eno's. Duly tipped off, Eno checked her out on YouTube, and quickly became her mentor.
"He said, 'You don't need me to produce you. I usually produce people when they need help but you already have a really strong vision. Your music's full of romance and intelligence - what else could we want from art?'"
A dinner-party conversation between Eno and Nick Cave resulted in Calvi supporting Cave's band, Grinderman, on their recent European tour - an apt pairing. Calvi, from the off, seems to be an artist who will prosper outside contemporary pop trends.
Though remarkably fully formed, Anna Calvi may only hint at what is yet to come from this ravishing young arriviste.