With her brilliant new album Hunter just around the corner and a series of festival dates across the summer, Anna Calvi is at the peak of her powers. She chats to Fedor Tot about gender, guitars and Grinderman.
Listening to Anna Calvi speak is a surprise. Her voice, on her three records to date, is big and strong, full of visceral cutting power, slicing through the dark griminess of her guitar work. Outside of that, she sounds shy and quiet, the complete opposite of her onstage persona. It’s a startling transformation, but she’s no less eloquent in either context.
Her new album, Hunter is a powerhouse, rippling with confidence and a nocturnal, 3am energy. It gestated for five years inside Calvi’s head after 2013’s One Breath. “I just wanted to take my time to make sure it was right. I don’t want to put out music that I don’t believe in, so I waited until I had the material that I thought was strong enough,” she says. “I felt there’s so much music and so much noise in the world, that the only reason to add to that noise is that you have something passionate that you want to say, so I waited until I had work that I could really stand behind.”
Hunter showcases a smooth development for Calvi but also a huge step up. On record, she appears to be increasingly more confident and direct in her musical themes, with plenty of the tracks on the album revolving around themes of gendered and sexual identity – as evidenced by tracks like Don’t Beat The Girl Out Of My Boy and opener As a Man.
“I was at a point in my life where I wanted to explore what gender means to me personally. I’ve never felt completely comfortable with all of the characteristics that are put upon what a woman should be – I’ve always found that it’s very limiting to have to act a certain way because of your gender. I explored my own masculinity and what that meant for me – I feel that it’s an interesting time at the moment, it’s more talked about in the mainstream.
“I guess I wanted this record to be for the teenage me. It would’ve been useful, as a queer girl, not really having a role model, or a woman who’s more than what a woman is expected to be, and a woman who is imperfect, animalistic, driven, and messy, and all these things that women are but we just don’t see in our culture.”
Calvi has previously talked of how she wanted to get rid of gender definitions – does she still feel that way?
“I do. The expectations and pressure to conform to gender is unnecessary, for both men and women, and I feel it does affect our quality of life, even in subtle ways – work, what you feel you’re allowed to do, want to be. As women, we’re just reduced to our body parts in a way that I don’t feel men are. These things are a destruction of what life could be.
“As soon as you have a certain identity, you have a sense of us and them, that causes a sense of inequality. I feel like the way our society is structured is that one person’s gain is another person’s loss. That’s obviously not just male and female, it’s race and so many other things like able/disabled. I wonder why humans are so obsessed with having to name everything. I guess it’s the way that our language and brains work – we have to box everything.”
Moving away from the lyrical themes of Hunter, we started to discuss the actual sound of the album. Lead single Don’t Beat The Girl Out Of My Boy sounds positively anthemic – strip away the art-rock production and you’ve got a brilliant pop song with simple, direct lyrics and a litany of hooks.
“I found that the lyrics sounded very strong, so I wanted to have a simplicity to the music, whilst still having all those things that you mentioned. I was trying to bear in mind the idea of openness and bringing the listener in, obviously I feel like it’s a record that the more you listen to it, the more you like it. However, I did want there to be enough moments for there to be an open door rather than you having to put the work in to understand the song.”
Amidst the record’s influences, you can detect the slinky mystery of Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks score, that percussive, baritone sound. Calvi’s favoured Fender Telecaster is not a guitar known for being able to growl (it’s usually more associated with country twang), but, she says, “I love this contradiction to get the deeper tones out of a Tele. If you use a guitar that does have more of a low end that’s great, but then you don’t get the attack, the drama and the shock so it’s a compromise between both.”
The drum sound too, is gorgeous, big and reverberated, without being overpowering. It was produced by Nick Launey, whose CV includes Kate Bush, David Byrne and Nick Cave (around the release of her debut album, Cave invited Calvi to tour with him as support for his Grinderman project). Enamoured with the drum sound Launey created on Public Image Ltd’s 1981 album Flowers Of Romance, Calvi invited him in. “What I noticed about working with Nick is that he’s a lot more of a perfectionist in comparison to a lot of other producers, he would work to the early hours to something that satisfied our tastes. I think there’s less of that attention to detail in general.”
Although Calvi can herself come across like someone who’s very protective of her songs, she does allow a small coterie of collaborators into her circle. “My songs are pretty fully formed – I want to be prepared when I go into the studio, but I feel that there’s always room to react to an idea, to change things. The main thing I always ask myself is ‘what does this make me feel?’ I was always questioning whether the intent and emotion was coming out. Hunter is about the emotion and the body rather than something cerebral, I needed to make sure that there was room for me to react in the studio and play something that wasn’t too ordained.”
That aforementioned link with Nick Cave feels very appropriate for Anna Calvi – their music both exists in a nocturnal, drunkenly romantic state, and both have very distinct onstage personae, both understand the value of a mysterious front person. Did Calvi pick much of that up from Cave?
“I actually think with Nick Cave that the version of him onstage and off are almost exactly the same. With me I’m probably completely different, I’m shy and quite quiet, and all that energy stored in me, that’s what builds and has to come out creatively. Sometimes I think it would be cool to be like Nick Cave, but at the same time I feel that it kind of works for me being this way. Maybe if I was different and more confident off stage, maybe I wouldn’t need to have music as a way of expressing myself…
“It’s like a way of releasing the side of you which for whatever reason is hard to release in other situations, so it does feel cathartic. And it’s a way of weirdly having control over your life, and I find it very anxiety-making how unsure the world is, and how you never know what is going to happen. You never have control over anything really, but when you’re creative you manage to have this control over an imaginary world, which really relaxes me.”
Hunter is out via Domino Records on Fri 31 Aug. Anna Calvi is playing at Green Man (Thurs 16-Sun 19 Aug) and Festival No. 6 (Thurs 6-Sun 9 Sept). Info: www.annacalvi.com