With her third album recently nominated for the Mercury Prize, we meet with the extraordinary singer-songwriter ahead of her return to the EIF
Anna Calvi is dressed in her signature red and black, with dark shades covering her eyes, when we meet backstage at London's All Points East festival. Clutching a carton of coconut water and exuding a very calming presence, her revered trademark theatricality is concealed. In person, she is mellow and softly spoken; a far cry from the raw magnetism and bold sensuality that manifests itself on stage.
'It just feels really natural,' she says, when asked about her live persona. 'I think it's just about really being in the moment and using my voice and the guitar as this way of accessing something really free and not inhibited by anything. And that's what music does for me and that's why I love it so much.'
On stage, her voice soars and simultaneously hypnotises, spiralling around the stab of her guitar and its intense melodrama. Here is a performer so driven by the intensity and passion of her art that being totally engulfed is the only option for those lucky enough to bear witness.
'It's about just losing yourself and that's what I need and that's what I think an audience needs,' she continues. 'They need to see somebody who is willing to take that risk. It's so rare in life that you can take the risk because there's so many restrictions on how we behave and what's socially acceptable. But here's this moment where you can just completely let go. I think it's infectious and really healthy.'
Released last August after a five-year gap between records, Calvi's third album Hunter provides the perfect backdrop for her musical prowess and bewitching on-stage animalism, with fierce meditations on gender, identity and sexuality throughout.
'It's been such an amazing record to play live because it's really visceral and it has a lot of energy. And it's been interesting because with my first two records, audiences would be very still and politely listen. Whereas this one, it's a little bit more confrontational and it's just exciting to see how that relationship with the audience can change as your music develops.'
For Calvi, there have been many changes in the five years since the release of her second record, both musically and more personally that have fed into the creative process of Hunter.
'After One Breath, I broke up with someone I was with for eight years and then I moved to France to be with my current girlfriend. And that was just a very big life change and I guess it encouraged me to take more risks in general and definitely with my music, kind of spurred me on to be as expressive and explore the concept of pleasure. And actually politically, as a woman, that feels like a really important subject to explore.'
Looking more broadly at the world of popular music, it can be said that we're currently in a fairly fruitful period as far as queer representation goes, but especially, queer female representation. Calvi agrees that there has been a noticeable sea change in the way the music industry responds to queer artists, but for her, it's always been essential to speak her truth.
'There's something about being queer that allows you to maybe very slightly more easily wriggle out of those shackles. I think maybe it's always been there in me, this idea of not feeling like I fit the mould of what a woman is meant to be in our heteronormative society and maybe that's always given me a bit of fuel and energy for my music. And I've always felt that music is really genderless. It's always been an escape from these very sort of strong ideas that are put onto you about how you should behave and who you should be. And I think those feelings of needing freedom and needing to find freedom are always what can drive really good music.'
credit: Maisie Cousins
On Hunter, Calvi unequivocally presents a more intimate insight into her world, providing urgent ruminations on feminism and her own queerness, which feel more carnal and candid than ever before.
'It's always been important to me,' she explains, 'but with exploring my own identity and also I suppose being inspired and frustrated by what I was seeing around me, I just really felt like it was something I wanted to explore in more depth.
'I think one of the first songs I wrote was "Hunter" actually and I just really liked the idea of this woman who's exploring what she likes, what she doesn't like, without any sort of sense of shame. There's something really beautiful about a sexual experience and what a weird thing it is that we're meant to feel slightly ashamed of something that's so natural. Maybe this is the closest we can get to a sense of feeling higher than just the animal inside us. I find that quite a beautiful idea. And that kind of set me off in terms of what the record could be about.'
Calvi's self-titled debut, released in 2011, and follow-up One Breath which arrived two years later, were both nominated for the Mercury, losing out to PJ Harvey and Young Fathers respectively. But with a third nomination recently announced for Hunter, could 2019 be her year?
'It's cool because it really makes you think about how important how you start an album is.' She says about her experience on the other side, judging the prize. 'Because it's that moment to really grab someone and say hey, come and spend some time with me and my world. Follow me down this rabbit hole. I think it's made me think about just how important those first few seconds are.'
It's often said that speaking things into existence can be a powerful way to bring your goals to life. In Calvi's case, it feels as though there is a collective attempt by those that admire and respect her, from fans and peers to members of the press and media, to make her Mercury Prize win a reality. Hunter would not only be a hugely worthy winner, but it's a timely and critically compelling record that demonstrates the mastery of an artist who continues to push creative and aesthetic boundaries. So here's our attempt at speaking it into existence; 2019 will be Anna Calvi's year.
Her eponymous debut album, Anna Calvi, was a record of raw power that signalled the arrival of an ambitious and inventive songwriter, and was nominated for the Mercury Prize. She was also nominated for her second album, One Breath. Her third studio album, 2018’s Hunter was a vital new direction for a consistently…