Anna Calvi: ‘I always think visually when I write’

We caught up with critically acclaimed singer-songwriter Anna Calvi to discuss preparation for her fourth album, why she uses a Fender Telecaster and the advice Nick Cave gave to her.

Anna Calvi

“I always took a long time to do things,” muses Anna Calvi backstage at All Points East festival. The singer-songwriter has not long left the east London stage and, in her wake, an audience reeling from a set stacked with the sort of bewitching theatricality synonymous with her name. Her coruscating slide guitar and booming baritone leaving a firm impression in the mid-afternoon sunshine.

Presently, she is mulling over how her perfectionist tendencies have been tempered by the fast-track demands of the TV world. “You have to be very quick in your decisions,” she explains, referencing her work scoring the hit show, Peaky Blinders. “You have to be focused on just getting it done and trusting your instincts. That was a new thing for me because I always thought things through a lot.”

Coming from Calvi’s mouth, it sounds almost apologetic or, at the very least, weighted in regret. That’s partly because Calvi is so softly spoken that it takes a moment to readjust, reconciling the apparent meekness before you with the wild-eyed figure that stalked the stage only a short while ago. She might have no regrets at all. It’s simply hard to tell.

Anna Calvi

At the time we speak, she is on a festival bill topped by alt-rocks legends Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, of whom she is quick to declare herself a “huge fan”. In fact, their headline performance in 2018 at the festival is one she unreservedly classes as the best show she’s “ever seen”. We can speculate, but it makes one wonder whether it was the catalyst for Calvi’s decision in 2019 to cover the group’s 1994 track ‘Red Right Hand’ when she started her work on the Peaky Blinders’ project.

The London-born musician had hovered on the fringes of pop culture prior to getting the gig scoring the television phenomenon’s final two seasons despite having released three critically lauded albums. Anna Calvi’s eponymous 2011 debut was both beautifully realised and pleasingly out-of-step with the prevailing musical trend. A cynosure acclaimed by critics and resonant with her peers, it was rightly anointed with a Mercury Prize nomination. Her following two albums, 2014’s One Breath and 2018’s Hunter had followed suit. The former felt like a natural extension of her debut, while the latter was a distinct change of gear.

A constant, however, has always been the sight of the musician wielding a sunburst Fender Telecaster at her waist. When asked about her loyalty to this guitar, Calvi says she was drawn to the Telecaster partly down to her love of Jeff Buckley: a formative influence. “When I was 18 or something, I was completely obsessed [with him],” she admits. The coil pickups of a Telecaster “chime” and “sing”, she says, making for an alluring proposition. Plus, “with a bit of reverb you can get a lot out of a Tele”.

A multitude of influences permeate the songwriter’s sound, and while these influences might be easy to pinpoint, her qualities lie in being able to transcend them. Dashes of spaghetti western guitar, Piaf-infused drama, Roy Orbison-esque romance, and widescreen 80s rock can be found in her musical brew. Visually, the musician cuts a figure that somehow always seemed destined for the late-nineteenth, early-twentieth century setting of the BBC drama.

Anna Calvi

It is a striking aesthetic evocative of another, unspecified era. Her wardrobe laden with flamenco reds, frilly blouses, and power suits. It’s a part of the Calvi musical package, and her keen visual eye is something that is simpatico with her songwriting. “I always think visually when I write,” she says.

This approach certainly suited a situation when she was presented with an actual moving image. “To actually have a picture in mind is quite an amazing way of writing,” she enthuses, and reveals that her set-up would include a guitar, keyboard, and microphone. “I would watch a scene and then just react to it. It was a really interesting new way of working.”

Turning attention back to Nick Cave, Calvi is circumspect as to whether his career is a roadmap for how her own (“Well, I mean, a little bit, for sure,” she will offer), but is nevertheless full of praise for the Australian’s approach. “He’s incredible. And it’s impressive how he is still writing his best music. It’s good that he changes things up a lot: he does a film score, he writes a script for something, he does a book, he does an album. He’s interested in not repeating himself. Actually, he once said to me that that was the key to his creativity: just keep changing it up.”

For now, Anna Calvi is changing things up by returning to her day job. Score work is to be parked while she sets her sights on “preparing” her fourth album which she is “three-quarters” of the way through writing. She claims to be “really happy” with the direction it is taking. “It’s a slightly new area for me,” she reveals. “It’s exciting.”

Anna Calvi guitar

When pressed as to what this new area might be, she is tight-lipped but will say that the “attitude” occupies a different space to that of Hunter. A lot of it comes down to her “confidence”, which has grown over the years. “I think it’s having confidence in myself that I can do it,” she says candidly about trusting her instincts to push the creative boat out.

She expands by explaining that it’s rooted in “taking your time”, allowing compositions to breathe, and articulates her point further by declaring a new-found self-assuredness onstage. “When I went onstage today, I thought, ‘I’m gonna take my time. I’m not going to be quick [out of worry that] people might lose patience or get bored’. There’s something about doing that in music that makes you a bit braver, I think. And it makes me write differently.”

To the outside eye, this is a musician who has always forged a singular path aware of the power of dynamics, melody, and the irresistible combination of reverb-rich guitar and a powerful voice. The prospect of a braver Anna Calvi is one hell of an enticing proposition. That fourth album can’t come quick enough.

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