Prior to the release of her third album Hunter on 31 August 2018, Anna Calvi talks about agency, sexual freedom, gender stereotyping and desire with writer Natalia Damigou-Papoti.
The double Mercury Music Prize-nominated singer-songwriter has worked with David Byrne, Marianne Faithfull and Brian Eno and toured with Nick Cave and Arctic Monkeys. A riveting performer and virtuosic guitarist, Calvi’s upcoming Hunter is much more than the comeback of her exceptional talent, it is a visceral and cathartic album – a version of Calvi at her most uninhibited.
Your previous album, One Breath, was released in 2013. What has happened during these last five years? When and how did you start writing Hunter and how do you deal with the creative process?
I started writing Hunter after I finished touring One Breath, in 2014. I really wanted to make Hunter a record I could stand behind completely. I wanted to feel that if I stopped making music, I would be happy to leave with this record. Therefore I took my time, and waited until I felt I had the strongest material. Alongside writing my record, I wrote an opera for the theatre director Robert Wilson. It felt really liberating to be working on both projects simultaneously. It really fuelled my creativity.
I am interested in the people you work with. I know that the amazing Mally Harpaz has been with you since the beginning. Are you more solitary when working or do you need people around you? How do these relations inform your music and your politics?
I am very solitary when I work. I may play Mally my demos, but not always. I often play my girlfriend what I’m working on. Other than these two people I am completely secretive about the process. However I talk about my ideas and politics to most of the people in my life.
A few years ago, you moved to France to live with your current partner, not knowing anybody other than her in the country. What were the most liberating, as well as the toughest aspects of this decision?
I loved the fact that no one knew me. I could be whatever version of myself I wanted, which felt very liberating. I liked the stillness of Strasbourg – it’s such a tiny place compared to London. I found being in nature and being away from noise really opened me up creatively. The negative aspect of Strasbourg is that it’s quite conservative. When my girlfriend and I tried to rent a flat, we were turned away for being gay. It was really shocking to me that this could still happen.
Even though you have been playing the guitar and the violin from a very young age, you didn’t sing at all until your mid-20s. You mentioned that you were even unable to sing along to a track playing on the radio. Looking back, now that your voice is louder and more expressive than ever, what do you think was blocking you?
I think it was shyness. I don’t like being the centre of attention. I don’t like speaking for the sake of it, unless I feel someone is interested in what I have to say. I am an introvert, and I had to find a way of using that to my advantage, rather than it limiting me. I now feel that being an introvert is central to my creativity, and my drive to sing. When you are introverted you have a secret – you have energy you save and save until it’s bursting to come out. Therefore singing becomes a necessity to liberation, often in the most powerful way.
What does Anna Calvi love doing when she is not making music?
Normal stuff… seeing friends, watching movies… reading.
A reviewer of the Independent once described you as “a scary, scary lady”. I guess a femininity that dares to howl about desire is always perceived as intimidating. Even more so when this desire eludes the heteronormative prescription of what femininities can or should ask for. Do you mind being “scary” or do you enjoy it? How is this aspect of yours connected with the fact that in real life you seem entirely different, almost vulnerable and even shy?
I think it’s interesting that a strong woman who isn’t afraid to express something carnal is still perceived as being scary. Why are we so scared of women?
Playing music allows me to access the most elemental, powerful and brave aspects of myself. But they couldn’t exist without my stillness off stage. One side of me depends on the other to survive.
You have said that you have been inspired “by this electric moment of artists and the wider community talking about gender and sexuality”. Tell us about the artists that have influenced you. Are you collaborating with anyone working through or with similar themes?
It feels like a really exciting time for queer artists. Perfume Genius has had a big influence on me, not just through his music, but his desire to be totally honest about everything he is in his music. I feel I have always had this in mind, but he inspires me to go even further. I love PlanningtoRock. I find their voice so emotional and beautiful, and their songs about gender and sexuality are really inspiring. I would love to collaborate with these artists. I collaborated with an amazing queer fashion label called Art School. Their ethos is to create clothes that fit the individual, rather than the other way round. They always have trans models and models of all different sizes which is so important.
Your stage presence is completely mesmerizing; you are wild and powerful, visceral and unapologetically erotic. How do you feel after such an intense show and how do you cope with such a massive tour of almost 50 shows in less than 5 months?
This new record is about the body therefore it demands for a performance that encompasses the whole of my body. I couldn’t just stand still and sing these songs.
I wanted to see how far I could take the contrasts of strength and vulnerability onstage.
After such a show I feel exhausted and invigorated. It is really liberating to give so much of yourself. However I am slightly daunted by such a long tour ahead of me!
During the launch at Heaven on 19th June, I kept thinking that everything I was witnessing was an ode to desire. You were recounting stories of desire not only through your lyrics – where this has been a reoccurring theme since you first album – but now even with your own body, with the way your fingers pluck the guitar strings and with the sensuality of both your mouth and voice when you are either whispering or screaming. This desire that propels your music and body is not only intense, but it seems to be, above all, urgent. Tell us about this urgency of desire and the role it plays in either your life or music.
For me desire, in whichever way it manifests, is what being alive is about.
I can’t separate desire from the energy that keeps me breathing. It feels so fundamental that I can’t imagine it not being present in my music, in some form or another. The desire to express myself, to be liberated from my body, from my mind, is so strong in me.
In Hunter you talk about gender roles and their accompanied expectations and limitations. This topic has taken center stage the last couple of years across all fields and especially in the creative industries. What has your experience been in relation to the music industry and how or why does it inform this album specifically?
It informs this record because this was a theme I felt most passionately about. I think about feminism and gender all the time and it was natural that it would come out in my work.
I’m so tired of seeing women depicted as being hunted by men in our culture. On my record the woman is the hunter. She goes out into the world and sees it as hers. She’s seeking pleasure in any way she wants, free from any shame. I want more realistic depictions of women.
In the video clip for the album’s lead single “Don’t Beat The Girl Out Of My Boy” you are surrounded by a cluster of semi-naked queer bodies who touch each other and do what most of us were thinking of doing while watching you perform in Heaven. Did you enjoy making the video as much as we enjoyed watching it?
I did enjoy making this video, it was very cathartic. The dancer who was primarily holding me was amazing, I felt we had a real connection. Sometimes she was almost strangling me! It was a very intense experience.
In your last album you are more truthful and assertive than ever and it seems that the album has seeped into your personal and public statements. You are much more vocal, unapologetic and explicit about all the things that matter to you, starting from your struggle with your sense of gender and to your sexuality. What changed and how does it feel right now?
The thing about making music is it forces you to be brave.
You do things you wouldn’t think were possible because you are trying to serve your music. In this case, I felt I couldn’t write such a personal album without sharing more – I wanted to really share what I felt about these topics. I was so moved by the response I got and people were a lot more open with me in return, which was wonderful. Sometimes I feel like I’m the only one thinking the way I do, and it feels amazing to hear that there are many people going through the same thing.
A day after your show at Heaven, a review appeared in Guardian that made many of us question our own perception and riveting experience of your work. The review was mean, contradictory and seemed to lack any knowledge of your work specifically or the music industry more broadly. In fact, they described your work, and a number of other artists that are creating innovative music, as “uncategorizable” and “dumbly infectious”. Do reviews like these upset you? Do you even read them?
I don’t read reviews anymore. You can’t please everyone, so what’s the point? Someone told me about that review and I just felt this journalist obviously wasn’t well versed in my music, or the type of music I make. So perhaps she wasn’t the right person to be reviewing this show. But it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t mean anything in the end.
What is the best thing you have heard about Hunter so far?
As I don’t read reviews I can only go on the people around me. My girlfriend just told me it encapsulates all that a woman can be. That’s a pretty great statement.
The whole album is in a way a statement of defiance against gender conformity. For example, in the self-explanatory lyrics of “Don’t beat the girl out of my boy” or the track “Alpha”, where you “question why strength is seen as a masculine trait”. How was your own journey exploring your sense of gender?
I’ve been exploring my gender since I was a child. I felt more like a boy than a girl, and I remember being 8 and telling my parents I was a boy. I struggled with being a teenager, I hated growing into a woman’s body. As I got older I came to accept this body, but I used music to escape from its limitations.
The last track of your first album is titled “Love won’t be leaving, it won’t be gone until I find a way.” On the other hand, Hunter is so liberating, wild and cathartic that it seems that you have found the way. What is there to do after that?
As a writer you’re trying to get closer and closer to the most honest you can possibly be. So the search is never over.
Anna Calvi will be on tour from the 24th August. The UK dates run from the 27th September to the 6th October and her next London show will be at The Roundhouse on 7th February 2019. Check out all the tour dates at the link: https://www.bandsintown.com/en/a/223657-anna-calvi
Natalia Damigou-Papoti writes mainly about topics concerning gender, feminism and pop culture. Since 2017 she is an associate researcher and administrator at Cuntemporary.