Anna Calvi Waiting to Exhale

Anna Calvi Waiting to Exhale
Photo: Roger Deckker
Anna Calvi's self-titled debut was among the finalists for the 2011 Mercury Prize, an honour that confirmed what her early supporter Brian Eno had said about Calvi being the biggest thing since Patti Smith. With her soaring, operatic voice and massive guitar chops, Calvi is indeed an uncommon musical force, and that power is fully displayed on her sophomore album, One Breath. As the daughter of two London psychotherapists, Calvi's sound reflects her mastery of tension, coupled with lyrics that explore the darkest depths of the soul. It's something she also learned through her classical training and love of opera, along with her love of American musical dramatists like Tom Waits and Captain Beefheart, which has grounded her songs in the deep soil of the blues.

What made you decide to work with producer John Congleton on One Breath?
I was just a great admirer of everything he's done, particularly Amanda Palmer's record Theatre Is Evil. After hearing what he did on that, I felt like he would understand the sound I was trying to capture, and that was really the case. It was a great pleasure making this album with him, and I'm thrilled with how it turned out.

Did having an American producer change your musical perspective at all?
No. I don't tend to think about music in those kind of cultural terms, and John doesn't seem to either. We recorded the album at Black Box Studio in France, which is where I made my first album as well, so I was already familiar with the surroundings. I had a clear vision for the album and we had a few weeks to do it, so everyone pulled together to make it happen. John mixed the album at his studio in Dallas, but locations didn't really have any bearing on why I wanted to work with him. I love a lot of American artists, like Elvis and Jimi Hendrix and Captain Beefheart, but mainly because they were unique.

A lot of the new songs seem to have relationship themes or are based on character sketches. Is this a more personal album for you?
Yes, definitely. I found that I was writing in that way just because of some of the things that were taking place in my life over the past year. One was the passing of a dear relative, and that got me thinking about how quickly you can completely lose control of your life. On one hand it's absolutely terrifying, whether it's because of an illness or death or a relationship ending, but if you're able to overcome that fear, there's a sense that a whole new set of possibilities can suddenly open up. I think a major theme on this album is facing the moment when you have to overcome that fear that your life is about to completely change and you don't have any control over how it will happen.

Musically, the songs on this album also often build from very simple ideas to almost symphonic proportions. Were you feeling more confident constructing songs that way?
Yes, I think so. I became more conscious of unusual textures while we were making this album. One record I've been listening to a lot over the past couple of years is Rain Dogs by Tom Waits and the dynamic range on it is incredible.

You seemed to really deploy your guitar playing for maximum effect, like on the solo for "Love Of My Life."
Yes, that was deliberate, and part of what I was saying earlier about exploring the idea of textures. I didn't want the guitar to just be the foundation of every song. I wanted it to be like another voice among the other voices. It was also a conscious decision not to use a bass player. The keyboardist on the album, John Baggott, handled the low-end parts. It was just another thing I felt was necessary to try to move away from a standard rock band format, which I'm not really interested in.

I have found it a little curious that I haven't seen people often ask you about your guitar playing. I think you're incredible.
Well, thank you. I wish more people would ask me about my guitar playing too. I don't mind talking about it.

I did read an interview with you recently where you expressed frustration over being asked the same questions constantly.
Well, that had more to do with me simply being a female guitar player, which for whatever reason, is still a new concept for some people. When I get asked a question about that, it's basically a sign that the person asking hasn't really made an effort to listen to what I'm doing, and they'll inevitably compare me to PJ Harvey or Florence & the Machine. I don't even tend to view what I'm doing in a contemporary context. As I said, I feel as though what I'm doing in closer in spirit to Tom Waits or maybe Scott Walker. Or Maria Callas.

What things have you learned from people you've worked with like Brian Eno and Nick Cave?
I think from Eno I learned the power of the human voice. When we began working together, he really emphasized singing and the importance of backing vocals on records. Singing wasn't even something I felt comfortable doing until my mid-20s, but through Brian I became interested in choral singing and communal singing, and there's definitely an element of that on the new album. Touring with Nick and Grinderman really just made me more confident as a live performer. Listening to them each night was a lesson in how a great band is supposed to play as an ensemble. Everyone knows their role, and with that kind of chemistry and trust you can do incredible things.

How are you preparing to play the new album live?
It's been a challenge, but I've always been open to re-imagining my songs in order to play them in concert. I've played a few shows so far since the album was released and they've gone over well. I'm only playing three shows in America at this moment, but hopefully next year I'll be able to do a full tour.