Singer, guitarist, songwriter, Anna Calvi released her new album, Hunter, last week, dealing frankly with the boundary between reality and performance, desire and action. (Read my review HERE)
It’s not come from out of the blue, as Wind Back Wednesday reminds. Five years ago, in a pokey London rehearsal space, she talked control, fear, suicide and why there’s a spell she won’t break between songs on stage.
USING YOUR INSIDE VOICE
Anna Calvi is one of the most exciting live performers around. Someone who takes songs which on record already feel powerful and slightly disturbing, being tense and packed with drama which never tumbles into melodrama, and brings them to the edge where she bestrides stages, casting withering looks at those who have failed her.
Playing a mix of high intensity adult pop, like early Scott Walker, and a febrile blues, like PJ Harvey, Calvi is an accomplished guitarist, a singer with a voice that seemingly engulfs her slight frame and a woman with a look of severity mixed with stark beauty.
Finding her offstage in London today though and the 34-year-old is tiny, of body and voice, hesitant when talking and curling up to make herself even smaller so that the guitar case next to her looks more like a double bass case. But just because it can be hard to hear her occasionally over the rumble of trains heading in and out of Kings Cross station doesn’t mean she’s some withdrawn little creature.
"Generally I like to be in control. I don't take drugs and shit because I can't deal with being out of it,” she declares. "It makes you think about dying doesn't it? That's what dying is, not having any control [she pauses] or maybe that’s just me.”
She laughs a bit and shakes her head, saying "this has got so morbid so early on". But for now we’re still laughing even as I point out there are people who feel better if they believe they can control the timing and the manner of their death, like they control everything else in their life. Or at least that is their illusion.
“Would I be comfortable with suicide?” she asks.
Whoa, that’s not where I was going, but if she wants to ... What I meant is we think we control our lives and our decisions when in fact most of the time we're kidding ourselves, buffeted by things around us and not seeing our actions are almost inevitable.
"I think that the issue of losing control is something that always comes back in my work and I think it is probably, ultimately the fear of death, but also everything good and everything bad comes from not being in control,” Calvi says.
“Falling in love is having absolutely no control and actually happiness, I find there is something a bit scary about it. You're like this light feather, where you don't know where you are going to go and there is a feeling of never knowing when it's going to end.”
From controlling death this discussion quickly progresses to how creating art is a process of control and then letting go.
“The writing if it’s to be honest, has to come from quite an unconscious, unthinking place, we you are almost animal about it,” Calvi says. “Then after that there is a process of intellectualising it again and sculpting it.". So I ask if now that she’s finished One Breath, a second album which is confidently riddled with various forms of insecurity, if she has mastered the process.
"I don't think you ever master it,” she says. “It's a little creature, a baby you have to coax out and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't."
Does the same process work in performance?
"Performance is a lot easier to shut out difficult voices and just be that creature expressing something without words, even if you are singing words," says Calvi. "It's a very wordless thing to do, perform, because you are in the moment and there's something about that which is very freeing."
Watching Calvi perform you do get the feeling how powerful she appears and it's not just because she might strike a guitar in an aggressive way or the guitar itself is loud abrasive. There's something about her strength and certainty that you don't find in conversation with her.
Is that an aspect of her onstage that is unencumbered or is it an aspect of her that exists because she creates an environment that allows it? Is she controlling it or is it because everything else falls away?
"I think it's the second one. It's just like for some reason the art of expressing myself in music clears the way. It's a direct thing and very powerful and what it does to me is very powerful. It's the only time that I'm able to be like that. So when I'm not like that, when I haven't toured for a year, it's been really weird for me to relearn who I am because that element of myself hasn't come out."
Why can't it come out when she knows it exists? What's stopping her from playing this on-stage certainty and confidence to the rest of her life?
"Because I only know how to access it when I'm singing and playing. I don't know it exists in any other scenario in my life,” she says quietly. "I don't know how to describe it. It feels a bit like trying to use an apple as a phone: they are completely different things and exist in different worlds and they are for different things.
“That said, when I speak on stage I go back to being normal me. I don't have a kind of a [different] voice other than when I'm singing or playing guitar. Which is partly why I don't say that much in between songs because I don't like having to go back to that person. When I hear my little speaking voice, it takes the dream away for me.”