Anna Calvi is a name on very many lips as One To Watch in the first few weeks of 2011. Her raised profile has undoubtedly been aided by her presence on the shortlist for the BBC Sound Of 2011, and is also backed up by ringing endorsements from the likes of Brian Eno.
After listening to her self-titled debut album, it comes as quite a surprise to find that this expressive chanteuse is relatively softly spoken, a woman of few words but one who chooses them wisely.
She is talking about the composition of her debut album. The focus she’s applied to her work is immediately clear. The album, for instance, was not born overnight. “It took about two and a half years to complete I think,” she says, “but that was fine as I wanted it to be absolutely right, and didn’t have the pressure of a deadline hanging over me”.
Did the songs develop over that time? “They were pretty fully written from the outset, because I had a strong vision of how I wanted them to sound. What I wanted to do was to create an atmosphere, one that takes the listener into another world. I also wanted to get the music itself to talk as visually as the lyrics do.”
“What I wanted to do was to create an atmosphere, one that takes the listener into another world” – Anna Calvi sets out the intention for her self-titled debut album
The opening instrumental, Rider To The Sea, sets the scene. “My thinking with the instrumental was that if you were to be hypnotised, it isn’t something that would happen straight away – you need to be taken there first.” The soundscapes, it turns out, were of primary importance to her. “I had my own personal setting for this album, and I enjoyed paying close attention to detail, spending a long time creating atmospheres and telling the stories through the music.”
For a first record, the scope of musical diversity on show is unusual. Presumably this is due to a childhood where the music of Maria Callas and Captain Beefheart enjoyed a healthy co-existence? ” Yeah, I think so,” she agrees. “I’ve listened to a lot of styles from classical to pop, and I take from a lot of styles when writing songs”.
Calvi is the owner of a voice that demonstrates impressive power on songs such as Desire, but elsewhere – on I’ll Be Your Man, for instance – she takes the profile down to a whisper, inviting the listener in to a far more intimate environment. “I think it’s important not to sing loud all the time,” she explains, “for me it’s like crying wolf.”
So far Calvi has been a woman of relatively few words, but when talk turns to the interest in her music shown by Eno, she becomes positively gushy. “I was really amazed by it, and happy too. I feel very lucky that my music affected him in that way. We met up several times, and he has sung some of the backing vocals on the album.” Did he have creative input beyond that? “It was advice that he gave me as much as anything else. He just felt I had a very strong vision, and gave me strong advice that didn’t need someone to tell me what to do.” Does this mean future projects together are a possibility? “Who knows?” she responds, but her voice has a conviction that implies it won’t be long.
“For an artist like me who is quite leftfield, winning it would have been inappropriate” – Anna Calvi is happy not to have won the BBC Sound of 2011 poll.
For this record, however, she is happy to sing the praises of producer Rob Ellis. “It’s very important and good for me to have someone you respect to work with, someone you can bounce ideas off. It was great to work with such a talented producer, as when I was getting stuck he could take the reins.”
Their work focussed on the instruments with as much intensity as the vocals. “I think the two should be working together,” she says. “I think the guitar should sound like a voice, and I tried to imagine it as a voice when I was writing. Because I’m a singer and a guitarist, it came naturally to me.”
Perhaps inevitably our talk turns to the BBC Sound Of 2011 tastemakers poll, the ‘winner’ of which was recently announced as Jessie J. Was there a sense of relief for Calvi that she avoided the pressure winning would bring? “I think that for an artist like me who is quite leftfield, winning it would have been inappropriate. It’s not about selling one million records for me, but it’s good that Jessie J won, as she will sell a lot. I feel more appreciative that I was recognised, and in that respect I was happy to be in the final 15, but not the final five. I think it’s proved to be a nice way of getting the music out to the people.”
Calvi herself heads out on the road shortly. “I’m going on tour in February and March, and it’s a headline tour that I’m really looking forward to.” The sense is that the stage is her natural home – so what would her ideal venue be? “For me it would be a place that looks like an old theatre. I haven’t had a say in where I perform yet, really, but that would suit me well.”
Anna Calvi’s self-titled album is out on 17th January 2011 through Domino. She plays London shows at Hoxton Hall on 27th January and the Barfly on 4th February. Her UK tour begins in Sheffield on 24th February. More at her website.