Anna Calvi Interview – Lady Grinning Soul
Anna Calvi – the mercurial vocal powerhouse that utilises the guitar as a sonic paintbrush, through which she paints a cinematic world of intensely passionate music, has just released a brand new EP. Andy Price chats with this dexterous artist to find out what makes her tick creatively, her career highpoints so far and what we can expect from her upcoming third full length LP…. (Images Press/Andy Price © )
Ever since her eponympus debut, Anna Calvi has faced a dilemma of categorisation – there are those that claim she belongs firmly in the ‘indie’ camp, those that claim she’s authentic old school rock n’roll and those who insist that she’s something else, something not quite yet defined. Something wholly unique. Calvi herself however keeps pushing forward regardless, all the while gaining an increasingly large audience and growing acclaim from both critics and contemporaries.
Anna joins me after a series of live dates covering both the UK and Europe, including a mighty Glastonbury set, “I’ve just done some shows in Italy recently that were particular favourites of mine” Anna says “but Glastonbury too was really good. It’s hard to pick one favourite show. There’s many more live dates to come but it’s been a great tour so far.” Anna tells us with genuine enthusiasm, but would Anna rather be in the studio, working on the next record during this time? “No, I prefer touring to recording, I love that it’s a moment that is there and then disappears when you’re playing live, as opposed to when you’re working in the studio when everything is kind of *forever*”
“I think it was listening to Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock when I was younger that first amazed me about what a guitar player could do” Anna tells us when I ask what was it that first made her pickup her favoured instrument “I think I was about eight at the time. My dad had an electric guitar, so I just found myself drawn to it, I’d pick it up and just start playing even before I knew how to really.” Born in Twickenham to an English mother and an Italian father, Anna’s household environment was incredibly musical “My dad played guitar and my mum played the flute and my sister played piano so the house always had music in it” Anna says “I learned the violin as well when I was younger but I didn’t really enjoy that in the same way that I enjoy playing guitar, there was something about the guitar that allured me”
After struggling from a very young age with congenital hip dysplasia Anna devoted herself completely to music in her teenage years, utilising it as an outlet for her frustrations and eventually learning and developing her own unique guitar style, “I was interested in how to make the guitar sound in my head like another instrument – like a piano or a string section” Anna continues “It kind of encouraged me to try out different ways of strumming and playing. I was much more interested in this kind of approach to the guitar than using lots of different effects pedals to manipulate the sound, I kind of wanted to do it entirely with my hands. That’s how I developed my style”
Anna Calvi on stage with her signature Telecaster “I’ve had that since I was fifteen”
Anna’s eponymous debut hit the shelves back on the 17th of Jan 2011, a near-flawless first album that illustrated not only Anna’s remarkable compositional dexterity but also her unique (Fender Telecaster oriented) sound. The record had a cinematic sweep that Anna elaborates on “What really moves me is music that has a lot of atmosphere. I suppose all music is really all about trying to convey something without words, this has always interested me. That in some way the story of the song speaks best through the music and not just through the lyrics”
The cover of Calvi’s eponymous debut.
“I listened to Ennio Morricone (composer of the epic score for Sergio Leone’s classic One Upon a Time in the West) a great deal, I do think that he’s probably my favourite composer. I also really like Bernard Herman, but there is something about Morricone that really speaks to me. I love the Italian-ness of his work and the fact that he uses some really strange sounding instruments. There are moments when he gets quite ridiculous! but somehow it all still works.” You don’t have to listen to Anna Calvi long to detect this influence, in particular debut album closer Love Won’t Be Leaving which has a melody and scope reminiscent of one of those classic Sergio Leone westerns, complete with a huge and cinematic string section “I played all the strings myself on the first record” Anna recollects “but it takes a lot of practice to sound good on the violin, and that’s time that I’d rather spend writing songs really, my violin playing is quite rusty at the minute but I might bring it out again on the next record”
Is there anything that she’s done in the studio that she wishes she could replicate live on stage? “Well in the studio I have played the strings and a few other bits and pieces that I’d love to do live. I’d love to do a big orchestral version of Love Won’t Be Leaving. It’d be really cool to replicate the sound of the studio version on stage”
Calvi’s (arguable) breakthrough single Desire also featured vocal contributions from early advocate Brian Eno
Anna’s debut kicked off with the scintillating Rider to the Sea, an ethereal guitar odyssey that introduces the listener to Calvi’s mysterious, dramatic world – punctuated with sharp, shrilly guitar squalls and ghostly distant lyricless vocals. “I am actually considering doing something similar to Rider to the Sea on my next record” Calvi says “But I don’t want to be predictable and have the instrumental track open the record like it did my first album. But I do very much enjoy playing just the guitar and like I said before, telling a story through music – I definitely want to do some more pieces like that in the future”
As this is Guitar-Bass.net, we really want to press Calvi on her axe choices: “I have my Gretsch G5265 Jet Baritone which I really like, it’s got a great tone and a very cool whammy bar. Also at the moment I’m really into the sound of Moog Guitars” It’s obvious that despite protestations of purely artistic drives, Anna is very much a guitar-head at heart. “I tune all my guitars down a tone or a semitone always.”
How does Calvi maintain her finger-dexterity? surely lots of daily practice? “Well to be perfectly honest I don’t really make a big deal of practicing anymore” Calvi laughs as she speaks ” I do play every day though either live or I play though some older songs when sound checking. I warm up my hands before gigs as well, I go through a few stretches. I play very lightly and then gradually speed up. It usually lasts around ten minutes but I find it kind of helps when you’re on stage and it makes me feel more comfortable with my instrument than getting up there completely cold”
Calvi with her Gretsch G5265 Jet Baritone at Bath Komedia.
“I love my Fender Telecaster mainly” Anna continues “it’s become my main guitar, I’ve had it since I was fifteen so it’s always been part of my journey” I ask her if she’s at all interested in incorporating acoustic guitar sounds into her work, but she says that she’s “just not really into acoustic guitars, I find them quite uncomfortable to play, I’ve only got small hands so I don’t really enjoy it. I also feel like people often get really lazy with acoustics – don’t get me wrong there are some really amazing acoustic guitarists that I enjoy hearing and seeing! – but I think generally most people have a tendency to just strum G, C and D and it can get quite dull for the audience”
Follow up LP One Breath showcased an even more eclectic variety of sounds, dominated by Anna’s honed and improved guitar playing.
On follow up album One Breath Anna pushed herself even more with a much more flexible approach to composition and music making, In particular the single Piece by Piece which found Anna exploring a whole new electronic landscape with unusual synthy sounds duelling and merging with her tonally varied guitaring.
“I recorded some of the drums and guitars at a studio called Blackbox where I recorded my first record, there was some great vintage analogue equipment there that I utilised when mixing the tracks. Especially on Piece by Piece. It was interesting for me to try a song that had that sound that’s quite different from what I’m known for, with a more synthetic sound. I did enjoy making that track in particular”
Both Anna Calvi and One Breath showcase not just Anna’s distinctive and hugely impressive guitar playing ability but also her incredibly malleable multi-ranged vocals, which can vary from soul-penetratingly intimate to huge and near-operatic. On new covers EP Strange Weather Anna tackles a range of different songs which range from a jaw dropingly stunning cover of FKA Twigs Papa Pacify, to a haunting version of Bowie’s Lady Grinning Soul – a no-brainer for Calvi. “That’s my very favourite David Bowie song” Calvi reveals “I always wanted to cover it. I’m really glad that I got do it on the new EP.”
The eerie title track, a sombre and dark piece in which she collaborates with ex-Talking Head David Byrne is the lead single. How did Calvi and Byrne first hook up? “He saw me play a couple of years ago in New York and liked what I did, the producer I was working with knew him and asked him if he’d be interested in singing with me, and he was so that’s how it all came about. It was really amazing to be in the studio with him. He’s very charming and really operates well in the studio environment, he’s been doing it for years. Working with David has been quite a highlight of my career so far”
Anna’s Strange Weather EP sees Anna take on tracks from artists as diverse as Connan Mockassin, Suicide, FKA Twigs, Keren Ann and David Bowie.
We ask Anna how she feels about Strange Weather, and where it fits in her oeuvre “I’ve always enjoyed doing covers because as a singer you can be really creative with your interpretations, and I just wanted to pick some very different songs and challenge myself with making them all sound in some way like they have my stamp on them, even though they’re very different and from different eras.” Anna “That was the challenge for me. to make those covers my own. I recorded it very quickly, just over a few days in New York. It was a really fun little project to do.”
Anna with her Fender Telecaster at Bath Komedia, playing to a diverse audience…
Despite her obvious love of all things guitar (aside from the aforementioned acoustic-apathy) she’s not particularly into over-complicating the effects “I use a lot of reverb. That’s really the go-to effect that I use a great deal. A little bit of distortion here and there but that’s it really. I like to keep it quite minimal, I do use a Mesa Boogie Tone Burst on occasion”
Calvi steers clear of the cliches often attributed to guitar wunderkinds, not for her are Pete Townshend esqe shape pulling or long proggy guitar solos. “I think there has to be a really good reason to have a guitar solo in a song, I’m not the sort of guitarist that would just put one in there just for the hell of it, but if I feel there’s a good reason for it I will write a solo – but to be honest there’s not usually a good reason to in my songs.”
Although it would be easy to say that Anna Calvi stands apart from her contemporaries based purely on her hugely powerful, commanding vocals or her spine-tinglingly sharp and precise guitar playing, it is fundamentally her songwriting that (to this writers’ ears at least) propells her far above from the rest. From the debut album’s dynamic, soaring The Devil, the operatic sweeping, Love Won’t Be Leaving to One Breath‘s poppy and punchy Eliza and ghostly Sing to Me It’s obvious that Calvi is an eclectic songwriting talent to be reckoned with. “A songs’ theme kind of naturally develops” Calvi explains “I try not to over-think these things too much. But usually the theme or central idea of a song kind of materialises as I construct the melody and lyrics, often one line can be enough for me to know what the entire song will be enough. After that it’s just filling in the gaps and joining the dots”
I ask Anna how she feels about her first two albums, does she feel that she has captured what she wanted to capture and would she change anything about them now if she was writing them afresh “I think really those records were right at the time and I did the best that I could do. I try to avoid listening to my records after they’re released. If I did listen back to them frequently I’d be having more of those kind of ‘I wish I’d done it this way’ kind of thoughts. But I don’t – It’s very different when you’ve written it, it’s really stressful for me to listen back to the older stuff. It’s almost like watching yourself on film – it’s not a relaxing experience for me!”
After seeing one of Calvi’s shows at the start of the year, one thing that struck this writer was the diversity of her audience, she seemed to have fostered a multi-generational appeal, the venue was packed with not only young music fans but an older, more discerning (and grey-haired) contingent – after thinking about this for a while I came to the realisation that it’s because there’s something distinctly authentic and connective about her music that contrasts her with the majority of her contemporaries. – I asked her if she agreed with this conclusion… “I’m not sure really” she pauses for a while to ponder – “I suppose the material I’m writing does have an appeal to people of an older generation, who appreciate that authenticity you mentioned. But really I can’t really explain why my audiences are quite so diverse, but I am more than happy about it. If your audience is made up mainly of sixteen year olds then that’s a scary situation to be in, because in two years they’ll like completely different music, if your audience is a wider range then I guess it’s easier to keep them”
So what’s next for Anna Calvi – well a brand new full length LP that’s currently tightly under wraps – “It’s early days but I’m already really enjoying the writing process for this album” Anna says “It seems more relaxed musically, but I can’t really say how it’ll sound when it’s all produced. Right now I’m just loving writing which really is my primary passion in life”
And how does Anna feel about the increasing allure of fame as her star rises? “Fame is not really something I’m after, I want to have enough of an audience to enable me to carry on doing what I’m doing musically. That’s success for me. But fame has nothing to do with being an artist and doesn’t interest me.”
Anna Calvi’s numerous talents and single-minded determination to make music on her own terms make her one of the most exciting artists around right now. In this age of soulless electronica, dreary balladeering and nu-folkery – it is in artists like Anna that the spirit of musical invention lives on. Her unique approach to the guitar elevates her (in the estimation of Guitar-Bass.net) head and shoulders above the vast majority of contemporary guitar players.
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