Interview: Anna Calvi - 'I don't mind people thinking I'm scary, it's better than being boring'

On stage, and on her second album, Anna Calvi lets rip. Yet in person she is a model of quiet restraint

It can be quite surprising to meet Anna Calvi in person for the first time. And to discover that she is nothing like the bold, fierce rock guitarist and singer of her live performances who first caught the attention of Nick Cave and Brian Eno (who hailed her the best thing since Patti Smith) in 2010. Although she and I have met before, when we shared Mercury Prize judging duties last year (when Alt-J won the prize). Calvi was petite and reserved, a thinker, carefully deliberating everything before she spoke. Just as she is today, when we meet at her record label's offices.

“A scary, scary lady”, is how our reviewer described her at an intimate show at Wilton's Music Hall, east London, in September. Calvi, a diminutive figure against the large sofa, despite her striking bright blue shirt and shock of red lipstick, laughs. “It is funny because I don't see myself like that, but when you're being really strong and forceful there's a sense of wildness that perhaps could feel scary. But I don't mind it. I'd prefer someone to describe me as that, rather than… boring.”

She feels that having an outlet for her passionate, expressive side is important. “Music is just a way for me to unleash myself and be really expressive in a way that I can't in normal situations. People often ask me, 'can you not bring the person you are on stage into normal life?' but it just doesn't work like that. In a way one feeds into the other because after I've been on stage I feel depleted, like I've exerted all my energy emotionally and physically, and then I need time to go back in and recharge and so I'm even quieter.”

The 33-year-old grew up near Putney, south west London, with her older sister, now a writer, and parents, both psychotherapists practising hypnotherapy. Being hypnotised was a regular occurrence growing up in the Calvi household and it played a strong part in shaping her creativity and imagination and also her tendency to withdraw and delve deeply into issues. “Just that idea of encouraging me and my sister to think imaginatively – because that's part of therapy – and to be more insightful about why you're doing things. And sometimes it can be annoying having parents who are always like: 'Yes but why? Why did it happen?' There always has to be another layer and meaning.

“Both my parents were proper hippies when they were younger. They lived in a commune and they were really into music, especially my dad – I've got all his records from the Sixties. You know when you hear about hippie parents that make their kids be really conventional? I'm more following in their footsteps.”

The first song she ever wrote was as a 10-year-old, imagining she was in David Bowie's band. Then she thought she'd be a painter until, she says, her “obsession with music just became more and more”. Her debut album was written and recorded between the basement and attic of her parents' home, hidden away.

Her second album, One Breath, the follow-up to her Mercury-nominated self-titled debut, was written from her own home in south west London. Like her debut, it was written in isolation, in the dark hours when no-one was around. “I write best at night time,” she explains. “My sweet spot is around 1am when I'm not too tired and it's late enough that I feel like I'm in the right place.”

As with her debut, it shows off the guitar skills which she mastered, having first picked up her father's guitar aged eight and taught herself to play to Jimi Hendrix, two years after she'd started learning violin. She studied both instruments during her music degree at Southampton University.

Loud mode: Anna Calvi on stage Loud mode: Anna Calvi on stage “I wanted the guitar to be this wild animal that lashes out at pivotal – the most emotional – moments of the song and then for the chord progressions to be played by more colourful instrumentation than just strumming guitar,” she says. “I listened to a lot of Tom Waits like Rain Dogs and listened to how he tuned percussion to suggest chord changes. I kind of stole that a little bit with this record,” she says with a smile.

She also listened to a lot of choral music, Rachmaninov and Rossini, while she continued to draw inspiration for her cinematic, atmospheric songs from visual arts, especially Surrealist films, exploring the thin line between the dreaming and waking worlds. There are themes of fading memories, in “Piece by Piece”, and momentous life changes, in the title track.

“I wanted to play with the idea of time,” she explains. “'One Breath' is about that one breath before something happens. You know when something really momentous happens in your life, time feels like it's lasting longer than it really is? The whole song was drawn out to really express the emotional turmoil of how scary and how thrilling it is to be at the moment before everything is going to change in your life.” What was that moment for her.

“I had to say something to someone that was very important and changed things in my life,” she says quietly. During the making of this album, Calvi lost a close family member (she prefers not to say which relation). “There's definitely a sense of how that can make you feel out of control, that things can change in your life without you being able to have any say over them,” she says. “I tend to think quite deeply about things in general which can be a bit annoying, but in terms of music it's good that I'm quite emotional. I'm very up and down.” Not that you'd know, such is her cool, controlled demeanour.

Those ups and downs do not signify an album about depression, as she was misquoted as suggesting in a magazine. “It's much more about the feeling of hope that things will get better – that there's limitless potential to every moment because the future isn't already written.”

The album 'One Breath' is out now on Domino

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Arts and Entertainment
Umar Ahmed and Kiran Sonia Sawar in ‘My Name Is...’
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
This year's Big Brother champion Helen Wood
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Full company in Ustinov's Studio's Bad Jews
Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Harari Guido photographed Kate Bush over the course of 11 years
Music
Arts and Entertainment
Reviews have not been good for Jonathan Liebesman’s take on the much loved eighties cartoon
Film

A The film has amassed an estimated $28.7 million in its opening weekend

Arts and Entertainment
Untwitterably yours: Singer Morrissey has said he doesn't have a twitter account
Music

A statement was published on his fansite, True To You, following release of new album

Arts and Entertainment
Full throttle: Philip Seymour Hoffman and John Turturro in God's Pocket
film
Arts and Entertainment
Kylie Minogue is expected to return to Neighbours for thirtieth anniversary special
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
    Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

    Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

    After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
    Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

    Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

    After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
    Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

    Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

    Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home