Fresh off a triumphant appearance on RTÉ’s Other Voices, Anna Calvi chats with George Morahan about her flamenco touchstones and blurring gender lines
Anna Calvi strides onto The Workman Club’s tiny stage with a bare glimmer of a smile to acknowledge her attentive audience. Clad in a pair of high-waisted, black trousers and a ruffled red shirt with her hair slicked back and lips a punishing shade of red, looking androgynous and oozing sexuality.
Mere hours earlier, O-two finds diminutive Ms Calvi alone in that same room, plumped on a sofa (in rather more conservative attire) and looking quite bewildered. Her suitcase lags behind as we find a table in the corner of the bar. With an aversion to flying, Calvi’s had to take the boat from London to Dublin. Looking a bit jaded for her troubles, she’s content to be marshalled around by PR, unrecognisable from the woman that would own the club that evening.
The opening bars of ‘Riders to the Sea’ ring out and Calvi absorbs every note. The Fender Telecaster she uses appears an extension of her body and Calvi plays it like so. “I think my music is very instinctive. I like to imagine my guitar as a piano; I imagine it as an orchestra. These are things I think about to keep me excited and interested in the instrument.” At points tonight, she fully embodies the one-woman orchestra she aspires to be.
Calvi picked up the guitar at age seven roughly. She is self-taught and has moulded a distinct and innovative style from her inspirations, which range from the obvious (Jimi Hendrix) to the obscure (such as jazz guitarist, Djando Reinhardt). Her influences can be readily heard in her music, but early last year, Calvi took to YouTube to indulge in some re-interpretations of songs that hold a special place in her musical education.
“I was in between recording and I wanted a new creative project. I wanted to give my interpretations of songs that really affected me and helped me as a musician and moved me in some way.” She uploaded five songs recorded in her attic, covering a wide range of bases, from Edith Piaf to TV on the Radio. “That attic is an important place for me; it’s where I write and do a lot of recording. It was just something to do, really,” she laughs.
The audience is glued to the spot, mesmerised. Calvi’s sheer presence seems to transcend the limitations of such a small venue. If anything, she thrives on such confines.
“I like working with restrictions; I think it makes you a better artist.” She’s not lying either. Despite its near-epic results, Calvi’s self-titled debut was created under self-imposed austerity. The album’s sweeping orchestral arrangements and choirs were deceptively prepared; “All the strings are me, re-recording myself playing violin over and over to create the effect of an orchestra. It’s the same with the choirs; just recording my voice over and over to give the sound of a large choir.”
Recorded with veteran producer Rob Ellis (known for his longstanding working relationship with PJ Harvey) and her backing band last year, Anna Calvi bears an impressive coalition of techniques and tones. Brooding and sensual one minute, but grand and romantic the next, it cuts a figure as one of this young year’s best albums.
Her band consists of a drummer and a multi-instrumentalist (who plays bass, percussion and what looks like a massive accordion.) The performance is slick and mannered, allowing Calvi to explore her fullest range as a performer. She can morph from purring temptress into a force of nature in an instant.
Although she downplays it, gender and its bounds clearly play an important part in Calvi’s music and image; protesting that she thinks “to section off artists on the basis of gender is a really pointless exercise,” whilst also toying with the bounds of sexual identity in her music and costume.
“I think there’s a masculine and feminine side in everyone. I just like playing with it and I think its fun,” she says, adding that her style is basically inspired by flamenco dancers. “Their outfits really express a passion and drama which I wanted to get across in my own outfits and my music.”
Passion and drama certainly seem integral to her show; stirring numbers such as ‘I’ll Be Your Man’ and ‘Suzanne & I’ leave the crowd pleading for more. Her opening salvo concludes to the desperate yearning of ‘Love Won’t Be Leaving’, a lyrically dense hymn of faith and optimism that extols the very best qualities of Calvi’s work.
“The song is telling the story and creating this whole world. Whatever force can take you over; be it fear or loneliness, you’re losing control. It’s about how you cope with fear and how belief in love can help you.”
A grandiose, almost spiritual sound of catharsis emanates from Calvi’s work, but that may just be O-two’s opinion. Calvi prefers to keep her music’s mysteries under wraps.
“[My songs] all mean something deeply to me, but I’d prefer people not to know my specific feelings about them, because it would take away from the experience.” And with that we close. O-two finishes its pint, while Calvi is content sipping her still water (no ice). Her roadies have just arrived. “What time am I going on tonight?” she asks, “9:30. You tweeted it earlier.” She takes this news rather suspiciously. “No, I didn’t.” Mundane matters like Twitter ethics will have to wait; Calvi has a metamorphosis to complete.
Anna Calvi is out now.