Draped in blood-red satin, Anna Calvi emerges from the theatrical smoke that swirls around Hoxton Hall's tiny stage. With sharply pursed scarlet lips, piercing black-shadowed eyes, and severe slicked back hair, her femme fatale beauty is disarming. But it's nothing compared to her music.
As precise about her appearance as she is about her art, Calvi carefully crafted her eponymous debut album in her parents' Putney basement for three years before its release earlier this month. On record, the ultra-clean production has a tendency to make her juxtaposition of brash percussion, plangent electronic riffs and Forties-style vocals sound pretentious. Calvi was born to be heard in person, in intimate settings like this over-subscribed album-launch soirée (party is definitely the wrong word).
When performing live, Calvi's painstaking precision and masterful attention to detail is exquisite. It's no wonder she has won praise from a host of big names from fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld to Brian Eno.
Clutching her electric guitar to her heart, the 28-year-old Anglo-Italian music graduate starts with the album's instrumental, "Rider to the Sea" and plays every note with her whole body.
"Hold me down/ and give me all your power" she demands on the alluring "No More Words", showcasing an incredible vocal range of subtle whispers, tender melodious chorals and guttural laments. She is supported by simple drums, delicately wheezing harmonium, dashes of percussion, and Hendrix-inspired strumming, but it is Calvi herself who captivates the tiny audience.
The singer has often said that the dark powers of lust are a strong inspiration, and her music is deliberately sexually charged. She isn't one to shy from extremes either and has admitted that she has loved someone so much she felt she could kill them. Such strong sentiments are bared throughout her performance. "Morning Light", especially, manages to be threatening, seductive, mournful and mocking all at once.
It is endearing, though, that Calvi's confidence never borders on arrogance. Believe it or not, she is intensely shy when she stops singing and suddenly, in remarkable contrast to her performance, she is a timid picture of sweetness and light. In a hushed tone, she softly admits to the crowd that she never usually speaks at her own gigs but this time she feels that she has to break her silence to thank everyone for coming and for their support throughout the budding of her music career.
Themes explored in "Desire", "The Devil" and the androgyny of "I'll Be Your Man" have helped Calvi win comparisons to P J Harvey and a refined Florence Welch. Neither influence is as present in her live performance as that of Edith Piaf. Aptly, Calvi ends on a climactic rock'n'roll cover of the French chanteuse's "Jezebel". She throws her head back, closes her eyes, tenses her body, performs with every ounce of passion she has and basks gloriously in the brightening spotlight.