Undoubtedly it’s her voice that will strike the listener first: like Edith Piaf, whom she admires, Calvi’s voice is as tiny as her physique when she – reticently – speaks, but is vast and capable of remarkable acts of athleticism when she sings. Hardly less remarkable, however, is her guitar-playing which, in a beat, can go from a whisper to a scream, then back again.
Sublime: Could we have a potted history of Anna Calvi, please?
Anna Calvi: I started playing the violin when I was about six. I picked up the guitar when I was eight or nine, and wrote my first song around then. Later, I played guitar in lots of bands until, a few years ago, I decided it was time to learn to confront my fear and sing. I locked myself away and practised for six hours a day until I found my voice. Then I started recording my first album in a little basement studio of my own. Bill Ryder-Jones, who was in The Coral, saw me at a gig and told Laurence Bell, the head of Domino Records. Laurence came to a few shows and asked if I wanted to join their roster which, obviously, I said yes to. I finished off the recordings with Rob Ellis (frequent collaborator of PJ Harvey) in France. And that’s where we are now.
S: What sort of influences and experiences went into forming your style?
AN: I respond to music that’s very passionate, so I was instantly fond of artists such as Nina Simone and Edith Piaf, musicians who give everything of themselves in their music, who don’t hold back. There is no irony or tongue-in-cheek about them; it’s just very emotional. That’s what’s always appealed to me.
S: That's intriguig because England is all about irony. Did you feel out of sync with the environment you grew up in?
I definitely feel that I’m not part of any scene. I’ve always done my own thing. My mum was brought up in Geneva and my dad in Italy, and I suppose I never felt completely English because of this family background. I don’t know if that’s had an effect on my music. Maybe.
S: Can you recollect the feelings that made you pick up an instrument so early in your life?
I used to get unbelievably excited when I’d see a musical instrument, and even at the age of four years old I was begging my parents to let me play the violin. They tried to put me off for a few years because they thought I was too young, but I kept begging until they gave in. I just used to stare at it. I thought it was the most amazing, magical thing. So I’ve always really been drawn to any type of musical instrument. When I started playing the guitar I didn’t have any lessons at all. I just improvised and taught myself. I really enjoy that creative freedom when you make your own rules on an instrument.
S: Were there any guitar players you were particularly impressed by?
Well, my dad used to play me Jimi Hendrix and Django Reinhardt, those were the two I really loved, and still do. I like players who push their instruments to be free, expressive and dangerous.
S: You studied music at Southampton University. What did that bring you as an artist?
AN: It was great because I already had a big love for classical music, so it opened up my ears and eyes to lots of other music. I really got into 20th-century classical music through studying it. You learn such a lot when you study the score and analyse the music. That’s not how I usually experience music, in an analytical way, but learning about that side of it is really helpful, as it opens up a lot of possibilities.
S: What modern composers do you like?
AN: Messiaen, Stravinsky, Ravel, Debussy, John Adams. I love Steve Reich and Philip Glass, too. But personally I related most of all to Debussy and Ravel.
S: Would you say that maybe the dynamics of your songs are something you have drawn from classical music? There are a lot of loud/quiet passages in your music.
AN: Definitely. I try and bring an orchestral element to all of the songs, even if they’re just on guitar and drums. I try to exploit the sense of tension and release, which is what you get a lot of in classical music.
S: The harmonium is one of the lead instruments in your band. It's a great sound, for sure, but wouldn't be easier to do it with a laptop?
AN: I love real instruments, you can’t beat them. I knew a guy who had a harmonium, and the first time I heard it I just thought it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. It almost brought me to tears. It’s got such an amazing sound. It can feel really huge, like a church organ, but it can also feel solitary and stoic and almost timeless. It could almost have been around a thousand years ago – it’s got real personality to it. You can hear it breathe and pump air, it’s got lungs.
S: What did the producer, Rob Ellis, bring to your songs?
AN: He’s a really great musician and arranger. When we got together I had already solidified a lot of the ideas in my mind, so it was really good working with him because he didn’t come in with his own vision, saying, That’s how we should do it. He was very respectful. That’s what’s great about working with a good producer. They bring ideas you wouldn’t have thought of yourself, and transform your vision into something that’s even more magnificent than you had even hoped. He loves Ravel and Debussy as well, so when I tried to get that orchestral element into the music he could relate to that.
S: It's interesting that you chose Rob Ellis. He is also one of PJ Harvey's long-term collaborators. There is a certain similarity in spririt between what you do and what shes does. Would you agree?
AN: Our song-writing styles are very different, but I get the sense that she throws herself into music with complete wild abandon, and I really respect that. I think she’s a great artist. But comparing us? Every single female artist gets compared to PJ Harvey. So it doesn’t really mean anything to me.
S: Brian Eno also pops up on your album. How did that come about?
AN: His friend happened to see me at a show and loved it, so told Brian about me. Brian actually looked me up on YouTube, which is kind of funny, and he liked it and got in touch. We met up, he heard some of my demos and has been really supportive since then. He said he wants to be my protector, which is really nice. Then he actually came along when we were mixing the album and did some vocals on a couple of songs. It was quite a moment for me to be able to do some work with him.
S: In recent weeks you've become omnipresent in the UK press; Do you pay any attention to what's written about your music and the music around you?
AN: I've worked incredibly hard to make this album, and I hope people like it. My influences are so wide, ranging from classical music to Robert Johnson to Edith Piaf, so I’m not particularly interested in what happens to be fashionable right now, and I never have been. I felt strongly that I wanted to make a piece of work that was true to my artistic vision and that came from my heart. I don’t mean that in a cheesy way; I just wanted to express myself as honestly as possible.
S: There's a lot of drama to your music. Is a live performance also a bit like a theatrical performance for you?
AN: It doesn’t feel theatrical. I just need to feel something when I’m on stage, so I get into a different part of me. I sort of go into a trance where I feel different, where I can express myself in a way I can’t in normal life. I try to feel the emotion of the music when I play, otherwise there’s no point doing it. It’s not like a show where I’m saying, ‘Hey, how cool am I!’
S: A part from your own emotions, what else triggers your muse?
AN: I’m a very visual person. I paint as well. I like Peter Doig in particular, his colours are so rich and strong. I get very influenced by artists and film-makers. I love films where the cinematography is really beautiful. I want to see beauty, basically. There’s was a film recently with Tilda Swinton, I Am Love. In every single scene of that film the colours are so rich, so much effort has been made to create a beautiful piece of art. I love that. And I try to do that, too.
Anna Calvi, Anna Calvi (Domino)