ANNA CALVI is about to release her sophomore album One Breath (Domino Records) on October 4th. The follow up to her critically acclaimed 2011 self-titled debut, ANNA CALVI has brought fans into her intense and vivid singer-songwriter world. Her arrangements are lush and sweeping, and her voice throaty and intense: think of PATTI SMITH and MARIANNE FAITHFULL infused with modern-day showmanship of Karen O (YEAH YEAH YEAHS). NOTHING BUT HOPE AND PASSION sat down with ANNA CALVI to discuss her mentor BRIAN ENO, being a control freak versus a let-it-go type, and the most annoying questions female musicians get asked.
ANNA CALVI: “I don’t literally spill everything that’s happening without some kind of coding.”
Tell me about the inspiration for your lyrics
It usually starts… it’s kind of things in my life that somehow, subconsciously find its way into the songs.
They are pretty raw and emotional. I read that you said that wasn’t a persona, so the themes are pretty personal and straight from life.
Do you have any sort of fall out from that happening?
In what sense?
In terms of sharing things that are going on in your private life, or maybe a fan taking it personally, taking it really seriously.
I think you can’t really control how people take things. But I definitely do write it with an amount of protection, I don’t literally spill everything that’s happening without some kind of coding.
As far as the songwriting process, what do you need to be creative?
On tour I write down ideas, but don’t actually write songs. To write I need to be in my own space.
What’s the most annoying thing about becoming better known? You had your debut and a lot of attention from that.
Nothing really annoying has happened. I mean, my profile isn’t such where it’s become a hindrance, it’s still pretty small.
You were nominated for the Mercury Prize, and a lot of bands get that and totally crash and burn. I’m curious, as you ramp up, is there more and more pressure or does it feel natural, like this is the way should be going?
I think with the Mercury, the story is if you win it your career is over. But I didn’t win it so I’m alright.
If you had to put yourself in a genre, how would you describe yourself? And how do you feel about genres, in general, in music?
Well, I think when you are actually a musician making stuff you never really think about genres it’s just how other people find ways of describing what you do. I wouldn’t really know.
For most people, it’s like they need a reference point to something in the past. Have you ever had any comparisons that are offensive or “who the hell thinks that?”
Oftentimes it’s people trying to compare to any other woman. Like really random people like FLORENCE AND THE MACHINE, that’s one of the weirdest ones. I’ve gotten a lot of comparisons to SIOUXSIE SIOUX which is bizarre because I’ve never listened to her music but from what I understand she’s cool so I’m not insulted by it.
You are lumped into a much smaller group as a female musician. Which brings me to this next question which is a bit clichéd but something that is coming up often now. Tell me about the pressures of being a beautiful female musician in an industry that is male-dominated. In your experience, what has that been like?
I think there’s definitely been an aura of… judgment, you know, about how you look. It’s really hard to escape it, because it’s almost like if you are a woman, you deserve to be judged, by just the nature of being a woman. I got asked a lot, last time, about whether I was a feminist, when that happened at the beginning that really pissed me off, but then, after thinking about I realized that it’s really important that women and men reclaim that word because it’s about equality. It’s the opposite of what it’s made out to be, which is excluding men, it’s about including women. There’s a really big difference. I think the reason it’s kind of come to is because the year I was doing interviews, it really niggled away at me, some of the questions I was being asked. Like “What’s it like to be a woman and play guitar?” You know, really dumb questions and it really annoyed me at the time and I couldn’t work out what it was and then stepping away from it I realized, yeah, that’s sexism. It was this gradual process where I realized, that’s just really not on. I would like there to be a stage where no one needs to ask what’s it like to be a woman, we’re just artists. That’s the dream. Hopefully, eventually we will get there.
I imagine you get questions like that and think “If I were a man, would you be asking me this?” It’s so patronizing, in a way, “Oh you play guitar.”
So are you a control freak or a let it go type?
A hideous combination of both, which is the worst. [laughs] How does that work on tour and when you are recording?
It’s like “It’s got to be perfect, it’s got to be perfect…” then “Oh fuck it!” It’s really not good. [laughs]
As far some of the other musicians, you’ve been endorsed by BRIAN ENO, and he sang back up. What was that like? Were you a fan?
Yes, a big fan. It was really amazing. He was the first person who gave me some confirmation that what I was doing was good, that was really cool. He really helped my career, he brought my music to a lot of people’s attention who probably wouldn’t have noticed otherwise.
That’s quite a lucky break.
Yeah it was.
I read that you studied music but it took a big jump until you believed you could do it. What was it that encouraged you?
I studied music but I didn’t start singing until later. I used to think what’s the point of people hearing my songs. I worked really hard to become the singer and with a lot practice to get my voice where I wanted it to be.
So you talked about creating atmospheres, which is evident in your songs, which are pretty lush, with the lyrics and the sound. I know you have this really electric live performance, but the atmosphere in these situations isn’t always something you can control. What have been some of your favorite settings, where you just feel provided the best place for your sound?
I did a gig in London at Shepherd’s Bush Empire that was really nice. There’s a venue called Le Trianon in Paris that’s an old theatre, that’s really cool. It’s a really nice atmosphere and it was my biggest audience at that point, over a thousand people.
Do you find that performing you really feed off the energy of the crowd, or can you bring the same level of performance no matter what?
I find it really affects my performance. Sometimes you can convince the audience to get more into it and sometimes you lose it, every show is different.