Multi-instrumentalist Anna Calvi was afraid to sing, until legends like David Bowie and Nina Simone showed her the way
Words Fiona Shepherd Photo Maisie Cousins
ON STAGE and on record, thrilling singer/guitarist Anna Calvi radiates control of her gymnastic voice and her dramatic performance.
All signals point to a woman who is entirely self-possessed.“I just try and make it really raw and primal and passionate,” she says.
“It’s really playing with the idea of strength and vulnerability. I want to see how far I can take those two extremes.”
But it wasn’t always thus. Calvi chose to study music instead of visual art almost on a whim, and despite playing violin and guitar from a young age and song writing for others from her teens, she feared the notion of singing for herself. “The main thing that stopped me singing was that I thought your speaking voice was an indication of what your singing voice would be like, and I really didn’t want to have a quiet, little voice like I do,” she says – in what is indeed a soft speaking voice. “But when I put my mind to something I can be quite stubborn. I won’t give up until I’ve conquered the thing I’m trying to do.”
Calvi practised obsessively in private for years, taking inspiration from vocal giants such as Scott Walker, David Bowie and Nina Simone. “What I really like about them is they find ways of manipulating the voice that they have,” she says, “and when I realised that you can colour your singing voice, so many avenues opened up to me. Now I feel really comfortable singing, it just feels very natural. It’s as if I’ve always been singing even though I haven’t.”
Having found her voice in audacious style on her first two albums, Anna Calvi and One Breath, the London-based musician has often been sought out for collaborations, performing at tributes to Bowie and Gil Scott-Heron, and working with Marianne Faithfull and David Byrne. It was Byrne who recommended that she compose the music for director Robert Wilson’s 2017 operatic adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffman’s dark fable, The Sandman.
“David warned me it would be like going down the rabbit hole, which seemed very exciting to me,” she says. “When you’re working with someone else, you make decisions quicker, and that’s helped me with my own work. Left to my own devices I can go round and round with things. Sometimes it’s easy to forget whenever you’re being creative that your compass is your instinct.”
Calvi took that impetus forward for her latest and most acclaimed album, Hunter, on which she plays with gender stereotypes and her own queer identity.
“When you’re writing, the goal is to find the most clear, succinct way to express something true and honest about yourself and your experience,” she says, “so I really wanted to push that idea for this record and see how intimate I could get. It’s been really fun to play live because it’s a very dynamic record. I feel more free and liberated up on the stage. I can just do whatever I want and not feel in any way restricted.”
WHERE & WHEN
Anna Calvi, Leith Theatre, 11 August, 8pm, £30
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