The Independent’s Emily Mackay called Anna Calvi a “scary, scary lady.” Brian Eno called her “the biggest thing since Patti Smith.” What makes Calvi great is, no doubt, what also makes her scary to some. The bottomless warmth of her voice, her vein-tapping lyrics, her eclectic guitar techniques, and her flamenco costuming comprise the perfect storm. Above all, the staggering intensity of her music sets her apart from many of her peers.
When I first heard Anna Calvi, I was living off E Washington Ave in Madison, WI. I lived in a barely converted attic that sweltered and invited endless bats. I was mostly sleepless, often drunk, always writing. One night, I’d hoped internet radio would bring fresh inspiration for my fiction. I leaned back against the midnight windowpanes, the halogen whoosh of traffic outside, and there it was. A flurry of drums and then the strong treble of a Telecaster tuned low. The guitarist went through a few riffs, bending the neck like in surf rock, but instead using that twist to signal her story would not be what it seemed.
And then there was her voice.
The song was ‘Suzanne and I’, and I still don't know what the song is about. It could be violence or homoeroticism (“But we hold / hold it down”) or neither. The song comes on and in my mind I'm running through an endless field of dark, wet grass, exhilarated, having gotten away with something big and about to be kissed so hard I lose my breath as I stumble, my coat falling off my arms.
‘Suzanne and I’ is from Calvi’s debut album Anna Calvi, which came out in 2011 to great acclaim. “As Ms. Calvi sings about the overpowering forces of heavenly love and demonic passion, she can go from whisper to cataclysm in four minutes, and she regularly does,” wrote the New York Times. “It's obvious Calvi has a gift. Her commanding voice calls to mind some of the most powerful female performers in rock history” wrote Under the Radar in their February 2011 issue. Calvi’s debut was nominated for the Mercury prize where ironically, she lost to PJ Harvey, the artist to whom she is frequently compared. (The comparisons were further bolstered by the album being co-produced by Harvey collaborator Rob Ellis. Brian Eno had told Calvi he’d produce it but he didn’t think she needed the help.)
Calvi, the daughter of two psychotherapists, is half Italian and was born and raised in England. She recalls her parents frequently hypnotizing her to relieve stress. Their openness about emotion helped her to become comfortable with a range of feelings, Calvi says, though she’s always been quite shy. At age six, she took up the violin, adding the guitar at age eight. She steeped herself in diverse influences from Hendrix to the gypsy stylings of Django Reinhardt to the film scores of Ennio Morricone. She says that as a teenager she was obsessed with the sitar and spent a year only listening to Indian music. Later, she studied guitar and composition at university.
As proficient as she is with the guitar, though, her voice is what sinks its teeth in. Calvi is naturally a soprano but sings as an alto because she prefers the deeper warmth of that range. But it’s surprising that Calvi is singing at all, considering how long it took her to find her voice. She’d always wanted to sing, but something—perhaps her profound shyness—held her back. It wasn’t until one day in 2006, when she found herself alone in her parents’ house, that her voice came. They were redecorating and had moved out all the furniture, and something about the emptiness inspired her. Not even in the shower had she sung like that before. After that, she’d wait until she was home alone, draw all the curtains, lock herself in the kitchen, and practice singing along with artists like Edith Piaf and Nina Simone. It wasn’t long until she found herself cooped up in her parents’ attic writing the songs that were to become Anna Calvi.
The record is a tour de force because the songs, though personal, never seem to belong to Calvi alone. Rather, they take place on a playing field far above the normal goings-on of daily life. Instead of simply cataloging one woman’s flirtations with danger and risk, the songs deliver the pure, unfiltered archetypes of Danger and Risk. In ‘Desire’ she sings “And it's just the devil in me /It's just a door to the devil gathered in disguise / Taking me by the hand /And leading me, leading me off to the fire.” This song, which features Brian Eno on backing vocals, is the sound of urgent, beautiful pain. ‘I’ll Be Your Man’ moves between whispered vocals over staccato music and a crash of electric guitars. The video for that song is a perfect film noir send-up, featuring Calvi in a platinum blonde wig crushing cigarettes with her high heel, pointing a gun, and peering out over the top of her sunglasses.
Her debut is an intense album, for sure, matched by an equally powerful stage presence. Calvi performed these songs in flamenco-inspired clothing, wanting to tap into the passion she associated with that genre. Onstage, in her flamenco garb, singing and playing, Calvi feels far from her own anxieties and limitations. “"It's the area in my life where I'm the closest to the superhero version of myself," she told The Independent’s Holly Williams.
Watching performance videos from 2011, “superhero” doesn’t seem far off. The diminutive Calvi takes the stage, blonde hair slicked back. She’s wearing a bright red shirt and black pants, and her sole feminine adornment is a shriek of lipstick the color of lava. She starts strumming her guitar—often in an unconventional round pattern—and opens her mouth to set her spell in motion. Suddenly this shy girl who had to lock herself in the kitchen to sing is larger than life, her voice ringing out white-hot anthems about love and desire and the Devil himself.