“It was at the Grey Horse in Kingston,” says Anna Calvi about her first public performance. “I remember I played ‘Purple Haze’ by Jimi Hendrix. I wasn’t singing, but I remember it gave me such a buzz. I think it ups the stakes as a performer when you’re playing in front of people. You’re wanting to take more risks, and you want to push yourself further. I think I had that from the very first time I played on stage.”
This is patently true. Anna Calvi has somehow bottled that live persona, that ecstatically personal outpouring of pure emotion and feeling onto the live stage. Over the years, she has constantly upped the ante, taking bigger risks, and in the process continuously discovering herself, and what it means to be a women, and more importantly, a human. It’s show business, but with a deep undercurrent of intelligence and thought behind it.
A relatively late bloomer in terms of making records and performance, Calvi did not begin singing until her mid-20s. “I had a phobia about it. I wouldn’t sing in school or even in the shower. I had this emotional block about hearing my voice. So the guitar became my voice when I was a teenager, it was how I could express myself.” A virtuoso guitarist, with a wide ranging musical education that embraced everything from Hendrix to Beefheart, Django Reinhardt to Nina Simone, and Maria Callas to classical. She learnt both guitar and violin from a young age, and studied music at Southampton University, before being locked up by Domino Records on the recommendation of The Coral’s Bill Ryder-Jones.
Along the way Brian Eno became a mentor of sorts (“the best thing since Patti Smith”), played guitar with Johnny Flynn, and supported the likes of Interpol, Arctic Monkeys and Grinderman, before eventually releasing her first album in early 2011, aged 30, but making an immediate impact. Seven years later, she’s just released her third album, Hunter, an even deeper exploration of gender and humanity – themes that run through her catalogue – that is disarmingly honest, powerful, and a longing expression of freedom, from gender stereotypes, and from social norms.
“I just think we shouldn’t treat people differently depending on what body parts they have. Obviously, to try and give it some kind of binary way of seeing gender completely excludes so many people including trans people. There is so much more to the vastness of human experience than a purely masculine or feminine one. I started to wonder what these things even mean, what it means to be a woman or man. If we think it’s not to do with your anatomy, then what is it? And yet, it’s used so much to control both men and women.”
On stage, Calvi prowls and exudes the confidence of someone who may have found the answers. Yet, for her, it is an on-going process, which involves trying to discard the essentially shy and sensitive being that she claims she is, instead striving to articulate her desires and needs. When you’re on stage aren’t you obviously a woman, I ask? “I feel very free to express any masculinity that I have. I feel very free to express it in my music. But, I do identify as female, and I do feel frustrated at the limitations of what that means, and specifically this idea of women being prey somehow. And so I really wanted to express a story as a woman as a hunter,” she says about the new album. “When I say ‘hunting’, it’s not about taking pleasure as a result of someone else’s oppression. It’s purely exploring her pleasure in all the ways without feeling shame for it. Because often women are either overtly or subtly given these feelings, that we should feel ashamed of our bodies, or of our natural desires.”
Within Calvi’s music there is the pure desire for love and acceptance, brilliantly and beautifully expressed through much of Hunter. For instance, ‘Don’t Beat the Girl out of My Boy’, which on the surface could be about employing gender stereotypes on a newborn, but about which Calvi says, “To me, it’s more about the defiance of happiness, celebrating and identifying yourself without feeling any pressure to conform to something. And that when you’re with someone that you love and you’re free from all of that, you’re purely happy, and you’ll defend that happiness with everything you have. That’s what it means, for me.”
Then there’s the meaty muscularity of ‘Indies or Paradise’ which also concerns a vision of love and harmony. “It’s about this pure belief that humans have, that things will get better, and that love will save us. It’s like we always knew that love would save us from death. It feels almost religious, people’s belief in love. It’s really tragic, because ultimately it doesn’t save us from death, but it does provide so much happiness in our lives. It’s almost childlike. I wanted a song about that.”
Striving for a primal and visceral sound on record, where her guitar and voice are pure expressions of liberation, Calvi has transplanted that on to the live stage, with recent shows emphasising a greater spontaneity and freedom than on record. “It’s definitely a more visceral performance. I mean it’s a record (Hunter) of the body. I really felt it was important to get that across on stage. It’s much more physical. I suppose I was much more interested in how to get the contrast between intimacy against the really powerful, which I feel the record has both of those, and how to push that on stage. I’ve been playing with a runway, which goes out into the audience. I’m very close to the audience. And I think it’s both very intimidating for me and for them, but also very empowering for both parties. It’s such a close encounter.”
Like Nick Cave, for instance, Anna Calvi is willing to let it all hang out, but wrapped up in the guise of expressional entertainment: using music and live performance to break free from the shackles imposed on us all. It’s how she gets her true feelings and emotions across. “Especially when you’re shy person,” she say, “to have this way of pure expression is very personal.”