21st Century Music: Anna Calvi
21st Century Music are playlists and profiles that focus on artists that have released their music since 2000. These highlight new(er) acts that continue the sound and spirit of the older acts that are the focus of Ceremony. Click on the streaming service of your choice below to listen to the playlist as you read along.
In 2012 I was nearing the end of a long flight, and with less than an hour remaining in the air I was looking for a final diversion to fill the time. In the on-board entertainment system I found episodes of a BBC series, Live from Abbey Road, which featured interviews and live performances by artists in the famous studio. I was drawn to an episode with Blondie, naturally, and after watching that segment it continued on with another artist that I didn’t know, Anna Calvi. Watching her perform in the studio with her irregular accompaniments, I was captivated. And such began one of my few artist crushes of the 21st century.
My affection for Calvi’s music began with her first, self-titled LP, released in early 2011. I’m not usually one drawn to the dramatic, but in music it can be enrapturing when done right. I’m not a fan of stage musicals, the overwrought pop and R&B of mainstream music fare, or of artists that use their vocals to crush you with multi-octave dramatic blasts over and over again – so in the musical environs in which I travel, the drama that draws me tends to be dark and moody and built with a full mix of vocal and instrumentation and melody and rhythm. It must be delivered in a way that suits the artist and the music, is unadorned with superfluous ornamentation, and in which the highs and lows accent the music rather than serve as an end in itself. Calvi’s first LP did this better than few others I’d heard and hooked me.
It’s true that dramatic swoops and powerful segments are a staple of Anna’s sound as much as her trademark red lipstick – the two seem to go hand-in-hand – but her penchant for mixing her strong vocals with nuanced composition, a full-on band sound, and the virtuosity of her guitar work serves to make the music move to broad and engrossing ranges without seeming overdone or indulgent. Her albums include rockers, quietly powerful and moody ballads, and a steady diet of catchy melodies, pounding rhythms, and consistently impressive playing. She enhances the traditional arrangement of guitar, bass, and drums with intriguing accompaniments such as the harmonium (a hand-pumped organ), a variety of keyboards (Solina, Moogs, Mellotron, and Swarmatron), strings, a vibraphone, and a glockenspiel. Calvi has been compared to PJ Harvey, which fits, but could also be considered as a modern take on Kate Bush, and these days stands as one of the few independent, solo, female artists that has written and performed her own music while offering up a distinctive, mean, lead guitar sound.
Anna was raised in Twickenham, England, to the southwest of London, listening to wide variety of musical styles. She started playing violin at a young age and went on to collect a degree in music at the University of Southampton. Along the way she picked up the guitar and developed her distinctive style, borrowing from a diverse range of musical styles, not the least of which from Jimi Hendrix. She didn’t start singing until her mid-20s as she shifted from trying her hand in bands to a solo career, eventually forming a two-piece backing band. She gave guitar lessons along the way to make ends meet. As her sound and profile evolved, she eventually scored opening slots for Interpol and Nick Cave and was signed via support from Brian Eno. Her first album would be produced by Rob Ellis, best known for working with PJ Harvey.
Calvi has overcome her reserved and shy nature when on stage, having developed an engaging live style, throwing herself into her performances to match the drama and passion of the music. The sodden, matted hair and engrossed look she adorns on the cover of her most recent album, Hunter, captures the nature of her full-on personality and performance style. She is sensual, sexy, and feminine while being powerful, assertive, and empowered, making for a formidable, uncontrived persona that avoids the sensationalism or sexism that often encumbers female performers and embodies the full dynamic of the modern woman, and that’s even before taking into account her lesbianism. She usually performs in a flamenco style outfit, but in the man’s wardrobe of high-waisted pants and shirt. She has commented that it’s a more practical option given her performance style.
After that fantastic debut album, presaged by a great single, “Jezebel” (a cover of a 1950s song popularized by versions from Frankie Laine and Edith Piaf) she has gone on to release two more albums and an EP of cover songs over the following seven years. She has guested on others’ music and collaborated with Brian Eno (he performed on “Desire” and “Suzanne and I”) and David Byrne (who guested on two songs on the Strange Weather EP of covers), provided music for soundtracks and an opera, and has built a strong reputation and following across her native UK and the rest of Europe. She has been nominated many times and won several British and European awards. Yet, in North America she remains sadly neglected. She has likely lacked label and promotional support, and I believe there’s an audience for her here if properly promoted and could play to some worthwhile audiences this side of the ocean.
Anna has only performed twice in Toronto, both times in 2011 – first at the El Mocambo and then at Lee’s Palace – and I’ve been anxiously awaiting her return. Late this summer I’ll be travelling to England for a couple of weeks. Calvi has been touring her new album and I’m keenly watching to see if she’ll be performing while I’m there and in a location of which I can get to – because she’s a rare artist worth going out of your way to see and hear, and I can’t wait for the day when that will happen.
The Playlist - Song \ Album (year)
Jezebel \ non-album single (2010)
Rider to the Sea \ Anna Calvi (2011)
Desire \ Anna Calvi (2011)
Suzanne and I \ Anna Calvi (2011)
Love Won’t Be Leaving \ Anna Calvi (2011)
Suddenly \ One Breath (2013)
Eliza \ One Breath (2013)
Tristan \ One Breath (2013)
Love of My Life \ One Breath (2013)
I’m the Man that Will Find You (featuring David Byrne) \ Strange Weather EP (2014)
The Heart of You \ Soundtrack to Insurgent (2015)
As A Man \ Hunter (2018)
Don’t Beat the Girl Out of My Boy \ Hunter (2018)
Indies or Paradise \ Hunter (2018)
Wish \ Hunter (2018)