Anna Calvi: Suddenly catapulted from relative unknown to one of the most well-respected musicians in the business

She's been compared to Edith Piaf, and her fan base includes Brian Eno and Nick Cave. The New Statesman talks politics, music and feminism with Anna Calvi.

Anna Calvi’s sumptuous self-titled debut saw her catapulted from relative unknown to one of the most respected artists in music. Released in 2011, it was a record full of drama and beauty, nominated for the Mercury Music Prize and the BBC’s Sound of 2011 poll. Brian Eno and Nick Cave became avid fans, critics were falling over one another to heap praise on her work and Calvi established herself as one of the finest British songwriters of recent times.

She was exposed to a range of music from an early age and her obsession grew as she got older, becoming a classically trained violinist after convincing her parents to buy her one when she was six, and teaching herself to play guitar when she was eight. This seriousness about her art seems to inform everything she does creatively and marks her out from many of her contemporaries.

Incredibly, it wasn’t until she was 23 that she began singing. Emulating the emotion and vulnerability of singers like Edith Piaf, Calvi developed the unique singing voice now so central to her sound: from soft, delicate whisper to spine-tingling roar.

After some time away writing new material, she’s back with her second record, One Breath, which will be released on 7th October. To celebrate her return, the New Statesman spoke to her about music, politics and feminism.

Black Box studios in France was where you recorded the last album and you chose to return there to record One Breath. What is it about the French countryside that you enjoy when recording?

When I work I really like to be away from distractions, so being in the countryside really suits me. Black Box has really beautiful old equipment and I'm really fond of the people who work there. They also cook amazing meals!

Your debut album was so successful and highly thought of that many people would be tempted to try and recreate that with their follow-up, but something tells me you just wouldn’t want to do that. What can we expect from the new record?

I wanted to experiment with different sonic textures on this record. I wanted to use the guitar at the emotional climax of the song rather than having it simply as an accompanying instrument. I also wanted to explore the different ways I could use my voice - to exploit as much dynamic range out of it as I could. I think this record is also more personal than my first. There are more extremes of emotion, and more moments of beauty and ugliness.

You’re quite keen on using a small recording unit to sketch out early ideas, aren’t you? Can you ever see yourself producing other people’s or, indeed, your own work?

I would love to do some producing for fun, I'm not sure I could handle the responsibility of someone else's work for a whole album, as I know how important the role is. But I think if the pressure was removed I would really enjoy producing, as I'm always very involved in the recording process. I could see myself further down the line of my career producing my own records.

Your live sound is really beautiful, translating what you do on record really well indeed. I’ve always thought, though, that there may be room to grow that sound as the venues you play get bigger. Is that something that’s in the back of your mind?

I think the type of record you are performing dictates how the live sound should be, rather than the size of the venue. The new record requires new instrumentation and I'm looking forward to translating that in a live setting.

Being creative must bring so many rewards, and I’m not talking about success or acclaim, but more escapism and a deep exploration of your own thoughts and feelings. Is that something you enjoy?

Getting lost into your imagination is a really wonderful thing. Art is a safe place to explore every aspect of your psyche - from the most ugly to most vulnerable parts of who you are. I think it's important for everyone to have the space and time to have a deep exploration of ones thoughts, whether they are in a creative role or not.

I remember seeing something a while ago that said Suzanne and I came about after a dream you’d had. Has that idea of exploring your subconscious featured on this new album?

I think a lot about the power of music to hypnotise, as that's what music does to me. I want music to transport me somewhere else. There are several moments on the record where I specifically wanted the music to be hypnotic. I always try and create an atmosphere in my music, for the listener to get lost in.

It’s incredibly moving listening to your work because you sing with such emotion in your voice. Do you feel that’s a natural thing, or can one learn to do that through practice?

My voice came from hours and hours of practice. But I feel I was channelling my own particular way of expressing myself through the guitar and violin before I became a singer. I think that's just my personal connection to music and it has always been there. I eventually found a way to express myself through singing, which was a really liberating experience. It took a lot of work though.

The tone you get from your guitar is stunning. How and why did it first appeal to you and become your signature sound?

I've always liked to play with reverb because it really makes the guitar sing. I just find I can play with a lot of emotion when I have reverb. I like to keep it simple though, I don't like the sound of a heavily affected guitar. I want to be able to hear the human playing behind it.

You play without a bass player, meaning you have to create guitar parts that compensate for that, which makes for a really intricate playing style. Can you just explain how the lack of bass has affected your creative approach?

It encouraged me to work harder as a guitarist, and it also taught me about space. I love space in music. I also have an even bigger appreciation of bass now, as when I add bass frequencies to a song it feels so important!

I’ve gathered in the past you are rather underwhelmed by much of the music released today. Are there any bands or artists you would recommend me listening to?

I think there are a lot of great bands currently releasing music: Austra, Wild Beasts, Bat for Lashes, Patrick Wolf, The Invisible and Connan Mockasin are some of the artists I'm listening to at the moment.

You’ve been able to call Brian Eno and Nick Cave fans right from the off. That must be incredibly helpful and great for you personally.

Brian Eno's support has meant so much to me. He was one of the first people to hear my debut record and he really gave me the confidence to feel I was on the right track. I owe him so much. To tour with Grinderman was like a dream come true for me, as I'm such a huge fan of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. Seeing them perform every night was a great education!

I find it incredibly frustrating that female artists and male artists get treated differently. Female artists are far too often judged on how they appear. What I’ve loved about the media coverage you’ve had is that the narrative has centred around your brilliance as a songwriter and you as a creative force, rather than how you appear or what you wear. Am I being incredibly naive there, or do you feel that, too?

I do feel lucky that my musical vision has been strong enough to avoid that trap. However, I often get asked what it's like to be a woman in music. I've spoken to other female artists and they also continually get asked this question. It's frustrating that women are regarded as 'female artists' as opposed to 'artists', which is how men are regarded. I doubt male artists get asked what it's like to be a man making music. I really hope this fascination with gender won't last forever and we can all just focus on the music.

Do you consider yourself a feminist?

I think it's really important that women and men reclaim the word feminism. Feminism is about equality. It's about being inclusive, not exclusive.  So, yes, I do consider myself a feminist. I don't believe that ultimately the patriarchy serves men any better than it serves women. The pressures on men and women to live up to their gender stereotypes are ridiculous and impossible to fulfill.

What’s the single biggest issue facing women in the world today?

Violence towards women is a huge problem - in too many parts of the world sexual, physical and cultural abuse of women is commonplace. Many women in the world are still culturally oppressed and unable to develop their potential. There is more equality of opportunity in the West than there used to be, but still women often have the less secure, less creative, less well-paid jobs. Sexism is ingrained in our culture so there is a lot of work still to be done.

There seems to be a rather nasty anti-immigration sentiment permeating British society, captured perfectly by that government van telling immigrants to ‘go home or face arrest’. Have you noticed it and, if so, what are your thoughts?

I didn't see the Government vans myself but think that was an appalling idea. Much of the public’s concern about immigration seems to be based on an exaggeration of the scale of immigration and a belief that immigrants are a drain on the public purse. Such fears are being exploited by the media and right-wing political parties. I recently read about an OECD study which in fact confirmed that immigrants actually contribute more to Britain’s economy than the indigenous population.

Ultimately no one really 'owns' any part of this world.

Much is being made about a lack of a strong, coherent voice on the left of politics. How do you see politics in the UK right now?

There's definitely a feeling that all parties are the same and politicians are motivated by personal gain. However, outside traditional politics there is a hunger to bring about change. The popularity of the Occupy movement, for instance, demonstrates the energy there is to curb the power of banks and multinational companies and ensure they pay their fair share of taxes. I think left-wing parties need to develop a much more distinct voice and have the courage to stand up for their core values. They should focus on championing the rights of the underprivileged rather than attempting to keep up with the right wing agenda.

For more information about the release of Anna’s second album, visit http://annacalvi.com/

Rob Pollard is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter @_robpollard

Anna Calvi. Photo credit: Roger Deckker

Rob Pollard is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter @_robpollard

Getty
Show Hide image

Is TTIP a threat or an opportunity?

TTIP offers potentially huge opportunities to both Europe and the US - we should keep an open mind on what the final agreement will mean.

Barack Obama made it abundantly clear during his visit to the UK that if Britain left the European Union then it would be quite some time before we would be able to negotiate a trade deal with the United States. All the more reason to examine carefully what the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) will mean for the UK. For Labour this is especially important because a number of trade unionists and Party members have expressed concerns about what TTIP could mean.

The economic worth of such a partnership between the European Union and the US has been questioned and it has been frequently stated that TTIP could give multinational companies unprecedented influence and undermine the British NHS.

With regard to the economic benefits of TTIP there are few that would argue that there are no economic gains to be achieved through the partnership. The question is to what extent economic growth will be stimulated. On the positive side the European Commission has argued that an agreement could bring economic gains of between €68 billion to €119 billion per year to the EU (0.3% to 0.5% of GDP) and €50 billion to €95 billion (0.2% to 0.4% of GDP) to the US. For Britain, this means that an agreement could add up to £10 billion annually to the UK economy.

On the negative side, a study commissioned by the European United Left/Nordic Green Left Group in the European Parliament has maintained that TTIP would bring only “limited economic gains”. These gains have to be weighed, it was argued, against the “downside risks”. Those risks have been identified as coming from the alignment of standards in areas such as consumer safety, environmental protection and public health.

These are important concerns and they should not be quickly dismissed. They are made all the more important because the existence of already low tariffs between the EU and the US make the negotiations to reduce non-tariff barriers to trade all the more significant.

There are a number of areas of concern. These include food standards and the regulation of GM crops and the worry that the EU’s focus on applying the environmental precautionary principle might be weakened. The European Commission, which has a responsibility for negotiating TTIP on behalf of the EU, is however acutely aware of these concerns and is mindful of its legal responsibility to uphold, and not to in any way weaken, the agreed legal standards to which the EU adheres. A concern has been expressed that irrespective of what European law may say, TTIP could undermine those standards. This I find difficult to accept because the ‘rule of law’ is absolutely central to the negotiations and the adoption of the final agreement.

But the EU is mindful of this concern and has brought forward measures which have sought to address these fears. The latest proposals from the Commission clearly set out that it is the right of individual governments to take measures to achieve public policy objectives on the level that they deem appropriate. As the Commission’s proposal states, the Agreement shall not affect the right of the parties to regulate within their own territories in order to achieve policy objectives including “the protection of public health, safety, environmental or public morals, social or consumer protection or promotion and protection of cultural diversity”.

Of course, this is not to suggest that there should not be vigilance, but equally I believe it would be wrong to assume the theoretical problems would inevitably become reality.

The main area of concern which has been expressed in Britain about TTIP relates to the NHS and the role of the private sector. Under the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions investors would be able to bring proceedings against a foreign government that is party to the treaty. This would be done in tribunals outside the domestic legal system. If a Government is found to be in breach of its treaty obligations the investor who has been harmed could receive monetary compensation or other forms of redress.

The concern is that the ISDS arrangements will undermine the ability of democratically elected governments to act on behalf of their citizens. Some have maintained that measures to open up the NHS to competition could be made irreversible if US companies had to be compensated when there is a change of policy from a future Labour Government.

In response to these concerns the European Commission has proposed an Investor Court System. This would be based on judgements being made by publicly appointed and experienced judges and that cases would only be brought forward if they were precisely defined. Specifically, it is proposed that cases would be limited to targeted discrimination on the basis of gender, race or religion, or nationality, expropriation without compensation or the denial of justice.

Why, you might ask, is there a need at all for a trans-national Investor Court System? The reason in part lies in the parlous state of the judicial systems in some of the relatively recent EU accession countries in Eastern Europe. To be frank, it is sadly the case that there are significant shortcomings in the judiciary of some countries and the rule of law is, in these cases, more apparent than real. It is therefore not unreasonable for investors to have an international framework and structure which will give them confidence to invest. It should also be noted that there is nothing proposed in TTIP which contradicts anything which is already in UK law.

We need to remember too that this is not only about US investment in Europe, it is also about European investment in the US. No US-wide law prohibits discrimination against foreign investors, and international law, such as free trade and investment agreements like TTIP, cannot be invoked in US courts. The Investor Court System would therefore benefit European companies, especially Small and Medium Sized Enterprises. 

It is of course impossible to come to a definitive conclusion about these provisions because the negotiations are ongoing. But it would surely be unwise to assume that the final agreement would inevitably be problematic.

This is especially true regarding the NHS. Last year Unite the Union commissioned Michael Bowsher QC to provide an opinion. His opinion was that “TTIP does pose a threat to a future government wishing to take back control of health services”. The opinion does not express a view on whether TTIP will “force” the privatisation of the health service (as some have claimed) and Bowsher admits that much of the debate is “conducted at a rather speculative level” and he has been unable to produce any tangible evidence to support his contention about future problems. On the other hand, it is the case that there is nothing in the proposed agreement which would alter existing arrangements for compensation. There are of course many legal opinions which underpin the view that existing legal arrangements would continue. While I accept that it is theoretically possible for the Bowsher scenario to occur, it is nevertheless extremely improbable. That is not to say that there ought not to be watertight safeguards in the agreement, but let us not elevate the extremely improbable to the highly likely.

A frequently heard criticism of TTIP is that the negotiations between the US and the EU are being conducted in ‘secret’.  Greenpeace, for example, has strongly sought to make this a central part of their campaign.  Although the Commission publishes EU position papers and negotiating proposals soon after they are tabled, it is impossible to see how complex negotiations of this kind can be practically conducted in public.  However, I believe that the draft agreement should be made public well before the final decisions are taken.

Once the negotiations have been concluded, the draft agreement will be presented to the European Council and the European Parliament, both of which have to agree the text. The European Council is, of course, made up of representatives of the governments of the EU and the European Parliament is democratically elected. Both Houses of the British Parliament will also debate the draft and there will need to be parliamentary approval of the agreement.

Transparency and democratic scrutiny are two things which there cannot be too much of. But, in practical terms, it is difficult to see how there could be more of either without making it nigh on impossible to secure such a complex agreement. Unite, of which I am a member, and others are quite right to express their concerns about TTIP, but let’s not exaggerate the potential difficulties and let’s not assume that the worst case scenario will always come about. TTIP offers potentially huge opportunities to both Europe and the US, and we should therefore at least keep an open mind on what the final agreement will mean.

Wayne David is the Labour MP for Caerphilly and is Shadow Minister for Political Reform and Justice. He is a former Shadow Europe Minister and was a junior minister in the last Labour government.