The last time we had a chat with Anna Calvi was in deepest, darkest Dingle, where the potent, if pint-sized singer was all abuzz about her (then) imminent selftitled debut album. Almost two years later, with said album having picked up all manner of awards, gongs and plaudits (including a Mercury Music Prize nomination), Calvi is once more climbing out of the studio bunker and blinking in the sunlight.
Slight of frame, 5ft in her slip-ons, and something of a favourite in the fashion world (more about which later), Calvi recalls that almost alien period of time prior to the release of her debut album when she had no idea whether anyone was going to hear it.
“The success that came after was a huge surprise,” she says. “It was, obviously, really nice for people to respond so well to the record – especially when I was making it that I didn’t even know it was going to come out. I suppose it was a different mindset with the new one, in that the only formula I could reference was to try to make something that I’m personally happy with. You can’t control how the outside world is going to feel about any new music you make. The only success you can really have is to like what you do, because then you’ll be able to stand by it – even if other people don’t like it.
“Whether people like it or not is irrelevant to the way the work is created, but it’s obviously nice if people like what you do. That can’t be why you do it, mind, because you can never please everyone. Some people will love it, and some will hate it, no matter what you do – unless it’s so terrible that everyone will hate it! In general, even if it’s a tiny audience, there are people who will think it’s cool.”
Did Calvi say the word “cool” there? Yes, we do believe she did. Certainly, she isn’t short of it – natural, effortless, casual, the whole bundle accompanied by talent that smolders just before it ignites. Born to an English mother and an Italian father, 31-year-old Calvi was introduced to music and art at an early age, playing guitar and violin, and dabbling seriously with drawing and painting. Something of a prodigy, she admits she was the oddball product of a liberal household, eschewing the sounds of her teenage contemporaries and peers by obsessing over flamenco music and the collected works of Ravi Shankar.
The creative battle between art and music was won by the latter, with Calvi choosing to study at Southampton University. Her initial idea during her time there – enamored by the works of Stravinsky and Debussy – was to become a film composer, but on graduation she instead got a job as a guitar teacher (“I was rubbish”) and then, as a somewhat less ambitious sidebar career option, a sales assistant in a teddy bear shop. “Don’t ask!”
Come the mid-Noughties, Calvi had, quite literally, found her voice. Up to that point, a lack of confidence in her vocal powers had been viewed as something of a stumbling block to a recording career. On an ambitious, self-taught tip, Calvi studied her favourite vocalists – Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, Maria Callas and Edith Piaf – the result of which formed her now recognisable alto richness and warmth. Through the making of the first album and then touring it, and then making the new one (One Breath), she now has no issues with her voice.
“Oh, goodness, yes, I feel very comfortable and confident in expressing myself as a singer. That was happening when I was making the first record, but it’s carried on. I’m now more interested in exploring the dynamics of my voice, rather than just enjoying singing really loud. When you’re new to it, and you realise you can belt it out really loudly, it’s fun, but with maturity comes wanting to pace that, and to use it as a dramatic tool, rather than having to do it all of the time.”
Did Calvi say the word “dramatic” there? Yes, we do believe she did. Certainly, she isn’t short of it – a bold stage persona strengthened if not defined by a choice of clothes that add to an androgynous presence. To say that Calvi is a different person off stage is an understatement, however. In person, she is rather sweet (in a good way), petite and southwest London cheery. On stage, she is coiled, ready to pounce, seriously into the presentation.
“I never feel I become someone different,” she ruminates, “but rather I get in touch with a different side of myself. I appreciate the differences of my personality – that I can be one way on stage and another way off it. I certainly wouldn’t want to live out my life in either of those ways, though. People are multi-dimensional, and different situations bring out different sides of character. That’s what performing is for me – it brings out a different side of who I am.
“Is that similar to acting? Not really – acting is being someone you’re not, whereas what I do is deliver parts of me that are already there.”
And yet the cinematic reference points are valid, surely? When you write songs is it your intention to encapsulate cinematic ideas?
“I’m not sure about the narrative, but my main preoccupation with my songs is that the music should be telling the story as much as the lyrics. That’s how I write, and once I have a story that I want to tell, I leave room for the lyrics to fill in the gaps and vice versa. That’s what gives the music a cinematic edge – film music is very much about explaining the images you see, and I see my songs very visually when I’m writing them. If I’m having a problem finishing a song, or songs, I sometimes storyboard, in a way, the song’s theme. That helps me complete the story.”
How things can change in two years; Calvi’s 2011 Dingle gig at Other Voices was one of her first outside the UK. Now, she is a veteran of the road. Indeed, she loves the bubble-routine of touring, which just about puts her in a class of one.
“Funnily enough, the experience of touring has been really good for me, as a musician and a person. Having the experience, too, of knowing that the first album isn’t just the one statement of your life – that it has to explain everything about you, and who or what you are. That can be quite exhausting and stressful, but when you make another record you realise the first album was just a snapshot of your life at a certain time; it isn’t the sum total. When you realise that, the music, as well as the touring and playing of it, is a lot more approachable and adventurous.”
Did Calvi say the word “adventurous” there? Yes, we do believe she did. Certainly, she isn’t short of it – especially in the way she has acceded to the fashion industry’s co-opting of her original dress sense and style. In point of fact, Calvi has been feted by the likes of Gucci’s Frida Giannini and Chanel’s Karl Lagerfeld. Not bad going for someone who wore velvet flares in her hippie teenage days, is it?
“Ha! It’s been interesting because when I started projecting a visual side of me, it was an aspect I never considered people might be interested in. I know nothing about the fashion world at all, but it’s been intriguing for me to get a glimpse into what it’s about.”
Calvi says she has been very much welcomed into that world, and while she is aware of stereotypical views of it, she can only judge on what her own experiences are.
“It seems to me that there are a lot of kind and generous people in it. I’m sure like everywhere else, there are some people that aren’t, but for me it’s been fun to explore.”
So it’s an enjoyable adjunct, then, to the music? Calvi’s tone of voice becomes almost stern. “The music is something I take very seriously.” She softens her voice for the conversational coda: “The bottom line is that whatever I’m doing has to feel right for the music I’m making. Anything that conflicts with the music is a no-no.”