In an industry overrun by pop-princess zombies, British singer and guitarist Anna Calvi has quickly set herself apart with a seductive homespun sound, at once vulnerable and predatory. Although she’s petite and timid off stage, the moment Calvi steps into the bright lights, she transforms into a veritable force field of carnal energy. It’s fitting, then, that she’s embraced a matador aesthetic: slicked-back hair, boleros, and high-waisted trousers.
In the past six months, the 28-year-old performer has released her self-titled debut album, kicked off her first headlining tour, and earned accolades from the likes of Nick Cave, Brian Eno, and Karl Lagerfeld. Anna Calvi, which entered the UK charts in the Top 40, is the culmination of three years spent writing and recording in a basement in Fulham, London.
Although she opened for Interpol in Brixton last December, Calvi never actually met the rock trio’s lead singer, Paul Banks. From his getaway home in Panama, Banks called Calvi—just a few minutes before she took the stage in Cologne, Germany—to chat about the power of performance, restraint, and the dangerous appeal of reading your own reviews.
PAUL BANKS: Where are you? ANNA CALVI: I’m in Germany at the moment. I just got back from a month in Europe, so I feel for you. How long have you been on the road? It’s only been a week so far, but we’ve got another year to go.
Touring can be wonderful, but it can also be taxing. The shows make everything else worthwhile, but the day-to-day bus-and-hotel lifestyle gets old pretty quick. Does it get easier?
It changes, that’s for sure. I’ve often thought that I’d be in jail by now if I hadn’t found an outlet in singing. It’s that emotional release that sustains me over long tours. Performance is a very emotional thing for me, and it’s an experience that I wouldn’t be able to get in any other situation. It definitely helps get me through the harder parts of touring. All in all, I love doing it.
Is it true that you were in a punk band before working on this album? I did several different things just for the experience, but none of them were too serious. I waited until I felt confident enough as a singer to release my own material.
I read somewhere that you pushed aside other creative passions to focus on your music. I used to paint, but I felt most passionate about music—it felt natural to me. I do, however, see every aspect of the record-making process as art, and that includes how I dress and the artwork I put on the album cover. Do you have other creative pursuits?
I have plans to go into some form of writing at some point in my life, and I started with graphic art, but music came most naturally in that it was almost a biological function. I figured the art thing wasn’t going to happen, and so I focused on music, which allows me to shut off some of the less pleasant aspects of my consciousness. Whether or not I ever got a record deal, I knew that music was going to come through me. I recorded half of this album before signing with a label. I knew there was a good probability that no one would ever hear it, but my need to make it was such that it didn’t even matter who was listening. You can hear it in the songs when a band makes music solely for their careers. I respect musicians who create because of passion, not vocation.
You can see the passion in your live shows, which are different than those of your average popstars. There’s a lot of improvisation when my band and I play live, which keeps it interesting. It’s difficult to find real chemistry with other musicians, and it’s even rarer when you get to keep it, so I feel lucky to love the musicians I play with. I would hate to be in a band with people I hardly knew and didn’t like that much.
Without an emotional connection, it would be impossible to play your kind of music. To what degree are you trained? I taught myself guitar.
Damn. I listened to a lot of guitarists—Jimi Hendrix, Django Reinhardt—when I was a kid, and I really got into making the guitar sound like other instruments and using it as an extension of my voice. I think not having taken lessons really helped me develop my own style and my own language with the instrument.
I’m also self-taught but I don’t have the chops you have on the guitar. It’s a testament to the sophistication of what you’re trying to express that you’ve pushed your technique to this level—yours is some virtuoso-level shit. I love dynamism in music, and the best way to achieve that is to go from nothing to everything. I love space in music.
Restraint is easier said than done. It’s never been my forte, but it’s a stylistic thing I really admire because it takes a lot of confidence to allow the melody to carry itself. Your music sounds like you have total ownership over the songs, like there’s only one way to make them sound. Are you reading your press? I’m aware that people don’t hate the music. At first, I found that people didn’t know what to make of me, which was frustrating. They were saying it was really dark and gothic, and I never really knew what “gothic” meant.
It’s a tricky thing, reading one’s own press. It’s not great for the artistic process. You’ve said that caring about how your album is received is “the kiss of death.” I assume you mean from a creative standpoint? If you start trying to please people or prove them wrong, it means you’re no longer doing things for yourself, but the whole point of making music is to satisfy yourself creatively. That’s why I made this album, and that’s something I never want to forget.
Top photo: Jacket by Emporio Armani. Necklace by Giles & Brother by Philip Crang. Hair by Kayla Michele @ Atelier Management. Makeup by Walter Oba L @ Atelier Management using Dior. Stylist’s Assistant: Jaclyn Konopka . Photography by Aaron Richter.