Her debut was nominated for the Mercury Prize and now she is touring with her new album. Duncan Seaman spoke to Anna Calvi.
WHEN seeking inspiration for her songs, Anna Calvi has a keen understanding of the kind of things that will fire her imagination.
“If I listen to music that moves me and makes me feel emotional that’s a good place to start,” says the 33-year-old from Twickenham.
“Or feeling emotional about something else – that’s where I can be most honest in song writing. That’s where the best material is made.”
Her latest album, One Breath, certainly reflects her desire to cover a wider spectrum of emotion than her much vaunted debut disc, which was nominated for the 2011 Mercury Prize.
“I think it’s just something as a songwriter you want to get to a place of honesty as much as you can,” she explains.
“I don’t know if it was liberating – it’s more like hard work, writing songs. It’s not like running down a hill or something.
“The process of making something you are proud of or writing something that you feel is better than something you could have done before is liberating. Every now and again I get that feeling.”
The daughter of two psychotherapists, Calvi admits an interest in human psychology shaped her own thinking.
“It definitely made me more thoughtful and aware of myself,” she says.
“I guess a lot of that happened in my family, talking about feelings to understand why you do the things you do. It’s probably quite useful as a writer. It definitely affected my personality which I guess feeds my music.”
The album’s title track tries to analyse a split-second moment of anticipation.
“It’s about telling someone something important that changes your life,” she says.
“That feeling of being on the edge of a precipice between past and future.”
Calvi has described using her voice as an instrument on this record. In tracks such as Love of my Life and Sing to Me she seems to be immersing herself in the songs.
“There’s a lot to be said for the sound of the human voice even without words,” she says.
“It’s very powerful and expressive. Sometimes words get in the way of that.
“Just the idea of harnessing that feeling as much as possible – it’s a way of saying something as much as words.
“It’s a lot of how I am – inflection and delivery, not just words.”
Her fascination with musical textures – in One Breath she used tuned percussion, sweeping strings and electronic bass lines – stems from an extensive musical background.
At five she asked her parents for a violin and at Southampton University she studied it and guitar in depth.
“When I went to university that’s when I got introduced to a lot of music that I would not have known about,” she explains.
“Contemporary classical music. It’s more experimental music that I took influence from in my own music – Steve Reich, John Adams, Messaien – things that are bizarre and strange yet beautiful in some way.”
Her own songs attempt to bridge the gap between the conventions of the mainstream and more serious-minded music.
“The idea of using that and putting it into a pop song, it’s a great way of melding two worlds if you can do it well.”
Not that she listens to classical music exclusively, she hastens to add.
“At the moment the records I’m listening to are the Blood Orange record [Cupid Deluxe] and I’m actually enjoying Beyonce’s new record.”
If that surprises anyone, she says: “I’m not in any way judgmental about music. There should be space for every type of music for different things.
“For my own personal enjoyment that’s what I’m listening to although it sounds different to the way I would write a song.”
Calvi’s father Claudio is Italian; her mother Veronica is English.
The powerful image she projects on stage and in her videos, however, is not directly derived from her ancestry.
Her strongly contrasting attire – all black and white and deep red – and demeanour owe more to Spanish culture, she explains.
“Passion in music is really important to me.
“The way I do things is to try and express that passion.
“I take influence from flamenco outfits – that’s where that comes from.”
For the next two months, Calvi’s schedule is heavily booked up with touring.
After UK dates she heads for France, Germany, Switzerland and Italy. Later on she’s due to visit Slovenia, Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Belgium.
Fortunately the travel doesn’t bother her.
“I enjoying touring,” she says. “I enjoy playing every night.
“There are things that are difficult about it – you sometimes get homesick, but I can’t imagine what I would rather be doing with my time.”
February 4, Brudenell Social Club, Queens Road, Hyde Park, Leeds, 7pm, £14. Telephone 0113 275 2411. www.lunatickets. co.uk
The making of a career in music
Born in Twickenham in 1980, Anna Calvi is the daughter of two psychotherapists specialising in hypnotism. Her older sister, Nuala, is an author. She learnt violin from the age of five and guitar from the age of eight. She studied music at the University of Southampton.
Her early supporters included Bill Ryder-Jones of The Coral, Brian Eno and Laurence Bell, boss of Domino Records, who signed her in 2010. Her self-titled debut album was a hit across Europe and was nominated for the 2011 Mercury Prize. The follow-up, One Breath, was released last October.