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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.

New Statesman
Anna Calvi. Photo credit: Roger Deckker

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