With her second album One Breath due for release on October 7th, Daniel Gumble caught up with south London guitarist and vocalist Anna Calvi to discuss the making of her new album, her introduction to the world of music and the importance of MI stores for budding musicians…
Since the release of her spellbinding eponymous debut in 2011, Anna Calvi has been the subject of almost universal acclaim from both critics and fellow artists alike. Described by Brian Eno as “the best thing since Patti Smith”, a certain Nick Cave was quick to follow suit by affirming his admiration for the south Londoner, leading to a touring support slot with his side project band Grinderman. A Mercury Music Prize nomination later that year merely added to Calvi’s burgeoning reputation as one of the UK’s most promising new artists.
At times epic and grandiose, at others fragile and introspective, Anna Calvi drew inspiration from a curiously diverse array of sources. From Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Buckley to David Lynch and Edith Piaf, her sound was likened to each and a host more to boot. Not bad company for an artist on their inaugural outing.
In fact, it was indeed one such artist who brought Calvi to the attention of her eventual label - Domino Records - on the strength of one of her explosive live shows. “Bill Ryder Jones, who used to be in The Coral, saw me play in Manchester and told Domino about me,” she explains. “That’s how I got signed. “
Ever since, artist and label have made for perfect bedfellows. “They just let me get on with it,” she says. “They don’t try to get involved creatively - they’re very respectful about that - but they work really hard on the stuff that they know about, so for me they are a great label to be with.”
Now, two years on, Calvi is back with her much-anticipated sophomore album One Breath, which is released through Domino on October 7th.
Although not an altogether radical stylistic departure, One Breath is without question the work of an artist experimenting with sonic textures and musical arrangements. With a greater focus on tonal shades and atmospheric shifts that manifests itself primarily in her theatrical fretwork, the instrumentation throughout One Breath is sparser and, at times, more aggressive than anything featured on its predecessor. “It’s funny how varied different people’s opinions of the album are,” says Calvi. “Some have said that they find it a softer sounding album to the last one, yet, in terms of the guitar, I definitely wanted to experiment with heavier sounds. I really wanted to use the guitar as a dramatic device, rather than just using it as an accompanying instrument.”
While One Breath’s contrasting shades are indeed dramatic, as with her debut, Calvi’s guitar remains largely untouched by external effects, opting primarily for a clean, reverberated sound. Having previously stated her preference for working within limitations as a means to drive creativity, Calvi clearly isn’t one for extensive studio trickery when it comes to creating her distinctive guitar tones - even on the heavily distorted ‘Love of My Life’, which marks the most significant departure from what could be described as her 'signature sound'.
“With that song I just wanted it to be loud and abrasive because of the content of the song, but the rest of the album doesn’t sound like that. All I used on it was reverb and a Hotcake distortion pedal. I don’t think there’s anything on the album that really sounds that processed.”
If Calvi’s creative process is one bound by a degree of self-imposed limitations, then the same could well be said of her guitar itinerary; she still relies most heavily on a Fender Telecaster she’s had since her early teens for both stage and studio duties. “I got that guitar when I was 14 or 15 years old,” she explains. “I got it because Jeff Buckley had one and I was in love with him at the time, so I just wanted the same guitar that he had. I still use that same guitar now. I don’t really have lots of guitars. There’s my main one – the Tele – and I also have a Fender Baritone. Those are my main two guitars."
So, what is it about these two guitars that renders them such a perfect match for her playing style? “I think that Telecasters have a really nice twangy sound and the Baritone is great because it has really deep, low tones and is also very warm sounding. It’s a really beautiful guitar.”
While the range of guitars employed across One Breath hasn’t changed since her first album, it seems that the recording and production process has, at least with regards to the amount of time spent in the studio. “I spent less time in the studio this time than last time, but I did want to experiment with a broader spectrum of sounds because I wanted there to be a broader spectrum of emotion.”
Produced by John Congleton at Blackbox Studios in France and mixed in Dallas, Texas, Calvi always had a clearly delineated sound in mind for One Breath and, as such, played a very hands-on role in the album’s production, working in collaboration with Congleton throughout the process. “Me and John were talking about the album for a year before it was made and I had a very clear idea of how I wanted it to sound, so we worked very closely together on it.”
The broader scale of sound that Calvi has cultivated with One Breath has also translated itself to the live stage, with the addition of a fourth member to the current line-up. “It will still be the same band as before [Daniel Maiden-Wood on drums and Mally Harpaz on harmonium and percussion] but we will also have a keyboard player on stage for the tour,” she explains.
Looking back over her early introduction to music, Calvi reveals that her initial steps as a musician were made as a violinist, before eventually moving on to the guitar. “The first instrument I had was a violin when I was about six years old,” she notes. “I don’t know what it was, but I just found the idea of playing music really exciting. I can’t really explain it, but I thought it [the violin] looked amazing and was a really interesting shape and I just wanted to play it.”
At the age of eight, she picked up her dad’s electric guitar, providing her with a new creative outlet. “I’d started to feel frustrated playing the violin, as I was just playing other people’s songs and I found the idea of playing the guitar more exciting, although I did continue playing the violin as well.”
Recalling her formative years as a guitarist, Calvi also has fond memories of visiting musical instrument stores from an early age, citing them as a significant factor in both the development of budding musicians and as a potential source of inspiration for those who may not have consciously considered picking up an instrument.
“I think everyone has a natural inclination to play a musical instrument and when you first see them there is just something that draws you in. I definitely think it’s important that people who are thinking of learning an instrument have somewhere to go where they can play and look at instruments. I have really good memories of being a kid and going into guitar shops and trying out loads of different guitars. It used to be one of my favourite things to do of a weekend.”
One Breath is available on Domino Records on October 7th. You can hear current single 'Eliza' from the new album below.