U.K.'s Anna Calvi on her widescreen approach to music
The artistic reference points in the largely glowing reviews out of the U.K. of the debut album from English guitarist, singer and songwriter Anna Calvi, which came out this week in the U.S., are more often cinematic than musical. Her often eerie portraits of romantic obsession have drawn allusions to David Lynch’s gothic edginess, Sergio Leone’s mythological expansiveness and the ravishing beauty of Chinese director Wong Kar-Wai's films.
That’s just fine with the 28-year-old musician, whom celebrated producer Brian Eno has lauded as “the best thing since Patti Smith.” A classical violinist-turned-electric guitarist who earned a music degree from the University of Southampton, she recorded the material on “Anna Calvi” largely in the attic of her parents’ home over a 2 ½-year period.
The album is produced by Rob Ellis, the drummer for PJ Harvey, to whom Calvi also has been compared musically, along with chanteuses from previous generations such as Edith Piaf, Nina Simone and Shirley Bassey. Her key musical collaborators are percussionist-harmonium player Mally Harpaz and drummer Daniel Maiden-Wood, although Eno appears as a guest on two tracks.
But with no bassist, the musical focal point being her guitar, voice and the drums, along with the black-and-red fashion she appears to favor in live performances, the package may suggest to some the Black Stripes.
Calvi was set to arrive next week for her first North American performances: three shows in New York, one in Toronto and several showcases next week in Austin, Texas, at the South by Southwest Music Conference. But after recently injuring her arm, she had to cancel the performances, although she'll still be in the U.S. doing some promotional interviews.
"I'm so sorry that I had to postpone the rest of my UK tour and the dates in the U.S.," Calvi said in a statement issued Wednesday. "I've injured my arm and have doctor's orders to rest up for the next couple of weeks....I can't wait to come back and finish off the UK tour and do some shows in America."
The canceled shows, except for those at SXSW, are expected to be rescheduled soon. Calvi has no Southland dates booked but is expected to play here by midsummer, according to her U.S. spokeswoman.
Pop & Hiss asked Calvi to elaborate on the way she creates the deeply moody textures in songs built as much around her dynamic, reverb-soaked electric guitar work as her dark vocals that run from barely there whispers to full-throated screams.
Pop & Hiss: How has cinema informed your approach to music?
Calvi: I’m very inspired by visuals, both painting and film. I like to create whole atmospheres in my songs — I want each song to be like a mini film. I respond to beauty, and to films that are beautifully shot. That’s why I love Wong Kar-Wai so much: His films are so beautiful, every single scene is really like a still-life painting. I love Gus Van Sant too. “My Own Private Idaho” is my favorite of his; it’s shot really well. The cinematography is really important…. I think it’s nice in films where the landscape is shot in a way where it’s almost like a character; it gives you subliminal information. I like to do that when I record: make visual pictures with sound. Everything in the music is telling the story as much as the lyrics.
Your father is Italian — does that give you a special affinity for Italian filmmakers?
I am a big fan of Leone, but I don’t how much that directly affects me as a musician. I think it has more to do with the way people play music in my family. My grandfather was a pianist — not professionally, but he would hear tangos on the radio and play them in a very emotional way. It’s not a family where people sit down and read music off manuscripts. That’s a very different way of making music. Even though I was trained that way, I definitely fall into the category of playing music from a very emotional place.
How did you make the shift from playing classical violin to picking up a Fender Telecaster?
I was about 10 when I first heard [Jimi] Hendrix. For me, it was “Voodoo Chile.” Just the sound of the musicians jamming together, it bewitched me. It’s an incredible-sounding record. I became obsessed with Hendrix.
Surf guitarist Dick Dale always said he was trying to capture musically the power and emotion he felt when he was on his surfboard riding a wave. Beyond the strong visual element you strive for, how important is the visceral aspect of playing music?
I’m so comfortable expressing myself through the guitar, it’s like an extension of my body. I like to imagine I’m using it like an orchestra. That’s how I keep myself interested as a guitar player. I like to be quite physical with the guitar, I try and breathe life into it and express my personality through it.
You have a reputation for extremely powerful, and sensual, live performances. Do you prefer playing live or in the studio?
They’re quite different. It’s almost like they require different parts of the intelligence. When you’re recording, you have to be very imaginative, and incredibly obsessive: It’s all about detail and building a song, trying to create the power you might feel if you heard it live. But it requires a different part of creativity. …When you record and then listen to it back, you hear exactly what you sound like and you can’t hide behind anything. Sometimes you think, “Oh God, I sounded like an idiot on that.” It’s something you constantly have to face up to, and it can be quite exhausting. Live, all of that just disappears. It’s more instantaneous…. I love playing live because of everything I can do with my voice and my guitar; it’s a more enjoyable experience.
-- Randy Lewis
Photo of Anna Calvi. Credit: Kate Garner.