Anna Calvi is a musician’s musician, winning plaudits from Brian Eno, beloved of radio, and asked to be a judge on the last year’s Mercury Music Prize panel, all on the strength of just one album, her eponymous debut from 2011, a work of performance art characterised by sparse, spooky guitars and powerhouse vocals.
Today, she’s doing interviews for the follow-up, One Breath. When we get to speak to her, two things are immediately clear. The first is how quiet her speaking voice is, compared to the hugeness of her singing voice. The second is that she does not like interviews very much. Long day? we ask, and she sighs.
But pain seems to be part of the process for Calvi. “I recorded One Breath over six weeks in France, then finished it in Dallas,” she says. “My producer, John Congleton, likes to work very fast. It was good for me as it meant I had to rely on my gut instinct instead of deliberating endlessly over small things. It was still stressful and difficult sometimes, but it wasn’t as painful to make as the first record.”
Did she feel under pressure to replicate the success of the first? “No. I’m not on a major label, and even if I was, I don’t think they would have seen the first record as a success anyway – I haven’t sold millions of records. The only expectation is to make a good record. That’s all I think anyone would want of me and that’s all I want of myself. If I wanted to be a commercial success, I wouldn’t be writing the kind of music that I am. It’s nice that people like it but ultimately all I want is to make good art.”
The idea of music as art goes some way to explain her extraordinary voice; Calvi doesn’t just sing, she projects, using the power of her vocals to crank up the tension in her songs. But on One Breath, there are also moments where she sings with great tenderness. One example is the wistful Piece By Piece, about the inevitability of the erosion of memories. “Being intense and passionate doesn’t have to come from being really loud; singing softly can sometimes be more affecting than shouting. I thought about that balance throughout this record, between restraint, leaving things bare and having moments when things are completely unleashed and wild. I like the idea that the guitar is a wild force that is unleashed every now and again in a moment of cathartic expression, juxtaposed against that restraint.”
“If I wanted to be a commercial success, I wouldn’t be writing the kind of music that I am. It’s nice that people like it but ultimately all I want is to make good art.”
– Anna Calvi
The album title is taken from an album track that begins with feathery softness, builds uneasily and breaks into orchestral lushness – songwriting of such emotional intensity that it feels cinematic in scope. Calvi chose the title “because it sums up the sentiment behind the album: being on the edge of change. Feeling out of control and not knowing what is going to happen to your life, which is thrilling and exciting but also scary.” This seems a perfect description of her music. “I like to tell the story through the music as well as the lyrics. I work with tension and release.”
The inspiration for the story, whatever that may be, comes from her own experience. “It was a turbulent year in my life on a personal level and these themes began appearing in my songs without me releasing it at first, but when I did, I didn’t fight it. As a songwriter it’s good for me to be as honest as possible even if it means being more vulnerable. I think there’s a real strength in allowing yourself to be vulnerable sometimes.”
What was the turbulence? Calvi coolly sidesteps the question: “It’s an artist’s job to put their feelings on the line. It’s much more difficult to have to talk about it.”
Back to the music then. Calvi is a classically trained violinist and a music graduate from Southampton University, yet “I don’t write songs from a technical point of view. I’m very emotional in my songwriting and it’s entirely gut instinct. There is time later when I’m sculpting the melody and lyrics which is more about technical ability and that side is very methodical. That is the side I find hardest, as I’m not a methodical person. I get frustrated easily.”
Has she ever considered writing with someone else? “No. I’m very much a solo worker. I do like the idea of a side project, writing with someone else just to see what that is like. But for my own work, it has to be me on my own.”
For now, there is no time for side projects, as she will be touring One Breath around the UK and then Europe. In France, her debut album was a bona fide hit and Calvi has become something of a star, invited to sit on the front row at fashion shows. “I was surprised at first, but having thought about it more, I can understand it. The music is romantic and passionate and that is appealing in Mediterranean countries. That’s great for me as my father is Italian and my mother speaks French so those languages have always been in my family and it’s nice to tour those countries.”
Before we let her off to finish her interview marathon, there’s a final chance to delve into the personal stuff. A recent magazine article quoted her as stating her inspiration for this album was her experience of suffering from depression. Is this something she’d be prepared to become a spokesperson about? She sighs again. “I never said that. They made that up. People shouldn’t be ashamed to admit that they’re depressed and I hope if that had been part of the inspiration for my record that I would be strong enough to say it. But it wasn’t.”
And that’s the end. An architypical Anna Calvi experience: tension, then release.
Anna Calvi’s album One Breath is released through Domino Records on 7 October 2013.