Will Simpson chats to Anna Calvi as she releases her third stellar album, Hunter.
“I think people think that I’m quiet in my everyday life and loud when in my work,” whispers Anna Calvi. But if this is an injurious misconception, then the 37-year-old singer-songwriter isn’t doing much to counter it. Demurely sipping a smoothie in a North London cafe, she seems ill at ease and gives every impression she finds the interview process excruciating. Frequently, she puts her hand in front of her mouth and speaks so quietly you can barely make out what she’s trying to say. And yet Calvi’s a performer blessed with a voice of such fearsome power it could flatten passers by at 10 paces; and on the evidence of her third album, Hunter, she’s clearly a bold artist with much to say about the state of the world and her own identity.
It’s been a few years since Calvi’s star has passed this way. Her self-titled debut album was released in 2011, the follow-up One Breath arriving two years later. But that half-decade gap hasn’t signalled a loss of artistic confidence – far from it. “I just wanted to wait until I had the right material and just take my time,” she explains. “The songs took a while to emerge and I didn’t really want to release anything until I was ready, until I could I really stand behind it.”
Calvi also took time off to write the music for Robert Wilson’s The Sandman, an opera based on a short story by E.T.A. Hoffmann. “A really incredible experience… I actually did a double album’s worth of music, so that was quite an undertaking, but it was really fun. It was actually a lot easier than writing my own stuff. You don’t have to worry about ‘is this what I want to say?’. There was already a story in place, and visuals, so I just had to make sure that the music worked with them. You’re writing for someone else’s vision, which I found really freeing.”
She uses the phrase ‘freeing’ several times during our conversation, and indeed one of Hunter’s main themes is personal liberation. Calvi has talked about how it’s her ‘queer’ album, and it seems to have been the product of a period of intense questioning in her life.
Calvi soon started collecting herself, although with this being the early 90s, she had more cassettes than vinyl. “I loved stuff like Grace Jones’ Nightclubbing. I loved the way that she imposed herself on those songs, so you forgot a lot of them were actually covers, and people like the Cocteau Twins and Scott Walker.” It wasn’t all hip names, though – when pressed, Calvi admits her teenage collection included an MC Hammer album.
Sing to Me
The ongoing vinyl revival pleases Calvi greatly. “I love it, especially the renewed interest in cover art. So much care and attention goes into a sleeve. I love the tactile nature of it. When you have a download, you can’t see so easily the work that has gone into making it. But with a larger product, you can appreciate all the love and care and attention that has gone into this beautiful thing. It just feels like a bigger deal.”
Calvi began to play instruments around the time her collection started. She had pestered her dad to let her play the violin, but eventually alighted upon the guitar. “My father had a few lying around the house, so I gravitated to it naturally, I suppose. I also “I moved to France to be with my partner the other year, so I didn’t know anyone really in the area where we were living and I found that useful in exploring my identity a bit more. When no one knows you, you can reinvent yourself, and so I used this opportunity to explore my own gender, which is something I’ve always had a slight question mark about.”
Calvi doesn’t go so far as to say she is gender fluid, but on the opening track she fantasises about “walking and talking as a man”. Lead single Don’t Beat The Girl Out Of My Boy is a plea for gender-neutral parenting, and the brooding, atmospheric title track a study of poised, predatory femininity: “I like the idea of a woman being the hunter as opposed to being hunted, which is how she often seems to be portrayed in our culture. I felt it was important to see the figure of a woman who is going out and hunting for what she wants and creating her own stories, rather than being this passive product of a man’s dreams. I feel that’s what I would’ve wanted to be when I was younger.”
It hardly needs pointing out that the late 2010s is a far more receptive era to discuss such ideas. Artists as varied as Ezra Furman, Christine And The Queens and SOPHIE have taken pansexuality/gender fluidity from the margins into the colour supplements – though Calvi doesn’t seem to be bothered that she could, from a certain angle, be viewed as bandwagon-jumping. “That never even entered my head,” she demurs. “I just think it’s really exciting that there are a lot more voices from the queer community in terms of music. It’s something that I’m sure has helped a lot of artists and people in general. When I was a teenager, there wasn’t anyone.”
There was David Bowie, though, and as talk turns to his records, Calvi relaxes more. Her first vinyl purchase was Aladdin Sane. “I was nine years old. I chose it because of the cover, which I just thought was amazing. I remember when my dad first played it, I didn’t like it much. I found it so weird and kinda hated it. But then, a few days later, I played it again and it all fell into place.
“I just loved his way of singing and the way his songs created worlds – and the fact they’re just really intelligent pieces of music. Obviously, the glam-rock stuff is great, but my favourite era is probably the late-70s Berlin era, when he really was pushing boundaries creatively with every album.”
Calvi’s music-obsessed father was a crucial figure in her development. “He was a young person in the 60s and had records by Jimi Hendrix and The Doors and Captain Beefheart, so I listened to all of them growing up. They were quite freeing in structure, I guess, because they were influenced by psychedelic drugs. You could sense that feeling of wanting to go into another world, which I found really… alluring. I remember seeing this video he had of Jimi Hendrix playing at Woodstock, which I found really captivating – a really crucial moment in wanting to play guitar.”
Inevitably, Calvi found herself in teenage bands, the details of which seem wiped from her memory: “I can’t even recall their names, but they weren’t very serious affairs. I remember we played a few Oasis covers, but then lots of similar bands did at that time. It was the mid 90s.”
Incredibly, it took until Calvi’s mid 20s to discover her voice. She didn’t sing for years simply because she’d assumed that because she had a quiet speaking voice, she wouldn’t be able to project properly. Then one day, Calvi decided she would have a go.
“It didn’t happen overnight,” she explains – this was no instant Little Voice-style revelation. “I had to work really hard at it. I just practised for hours and hours. I listened to singers that I loved, like Scott Walker and Nina Simone, and just chipped and chipped away at it until I managed to find this voice underneath that was always there.”
Piece by Piece
There is a sense in which Calvi is a late starter, though she instantly bristles when I suggest that she could feel as if she is making up for lost time. “I’m not. I just happened to release my first album when I did.
Her progress since, though, has been helped not just by established names – after catching an early gig Bill Ryder-Jones (then of The Coral) recommended that Domino sign her, which they duly did, and no less a luminary than Brian Eno compared her to Patti Smith – but also by Mercury nominations for both albums and almost wall-to-wall critical praise. “Oh, I really can’t think about that kind of thing,” she shrugs. “You can’t put your self worth on what other people say about you, because one person will love you and the next person won’t. You can’t trust any opinions. You just have to like what you’re doing and do it for yourself.”
It would be a huge surprise if Hunter bucked that trend. Her most accomplished album to date, its combination of smart hooks and imaginative, on-point songwriting with Calvi’s trademark drama and passion could see her make the leap from cult gure to dinner-party-soundtracking ubiquity. Late starter or not, there seems little that can stop her now.