Photo by Maisie Cousins
Anna Calvi’s music lives in the space where emotional fire meets virtuosity and grand vision. The British chanteuse’s records are intense, starkly honest, and laced together with a cohesive aesthetic that touches every aspect of her work. Calvi’s music is difficult to genre-stamp. It juxtaposes sweet melodies and cinematic, Morricone-informed guitar noir against molten feedback and gritty dissonance. Calvi’s music is as enchanting as it is challenging, and yet there’s an undeniable pop sensibility to much of her work, even if the earworms carry heavy topics and wrap them in bold colors. Calvi’s stunning, operatic voice—which has frequently been compared to Edith Piaf’s—leads the charge, but the guitar is her weapon, her dance partner, and her second voice.
With her battle-scarred Fender Telecaster, Calvi has made her way into the collaborative company of such luminary artists as David Byrne, Portishead’s Adrian Utley, and Brian Eno, who mentored her in her early years and once described her as “the best thing since Patti Smith.” The multiple Mercury Prize nominee has been fully embraced by the establishments of high art and high fashion. The singer/songwriter was even called upon to provide the score for the fifth season of the hit TV show Peaky Blinders. As guitar culture’s relationship with its rock ’n’ roll heritage continues to shift and evolve, Calvi represents a new kind of guitar hero: one that channels the drama of the flamenco tradition and the fury and fearlessness of greats like Hendrix into music that’s timeless, dangerous, and progressive.
Calvi studied guitar and violin at university, yet when it comes to her playing, she claims to operate from a purely emotional place. Just the same, her technique is phenomenal: a mélange of blistering linear runs, screaming slide guitar anti-melodies, spaghetti Western twang, and dramatic, Hendrixian feedback and string bending. Calvi also has her own unique circular sweep-picking technique, which she developed from listening to West African guitar music.
Calvi’s performances are ecstatic rituals that live between a rock show and guitar exorcism as performance art. Calvi’s previous LP, 2018’s Hunter, channels the power and dynamism of her stage show into a collection of songs that boldly assert her identity as a queer artist: 10 battle cries of freedom from gender norms. It’s a weighty and personal record that enjoys a lush production from the illustrious Nick Launay (Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Killing Joke, Yeah Yeah Yeahs). After Hunter was released, Calvi felt compelled to revisit the early demos that would later become its songs. Finding a certain magic in their sparseness, she gentlyreworked them for her latest album, Hunted, and invited some of her favorite singers (including Charlotte Gainsbourg, Julia Holter, and Courtney Barnett) to add their voices to the music. A reverse remix of sorts, Hunted is a way of transforming a deeply personal work into one of community.
Premier Guitar spoke with Calvi as she prepared for Hunted’s release and her first U.S. tour in years. The soft-spoken musical dynamo opened up about creating Hunter and its companion Hunted, her influences and philosophies as a guitarist, and the idiosyncrasies of her unique world.
Tell us about the Hunted versions of these songs. What motivated you to revisit those demos?
Basically I went back and listened to the first versions of these songs that I recorded when I’d first written them, and I really liked the intimacy and vulnerability they had about them. So I asked some of my favorite singers to add their vocals to these very early recordings. With each song, I kind of already had an idea of whose voice I’d really love to hear on it. I just went for singers that really mean a lot to me, whose voices move something inside of me, and I was lucky enough to get some of my favorite artists, which is pretty incredible.
I think you always gain a lot when you re-record a song that was a demo for an album, but sometimes you do lose some of the magic that happens when you’re on your own and you’ve just written a song and you put it down, when you’re not really worried about anything. It makes it feel natural when you perform it and there is a purity to that which is quite hard to recreate. But I do think both versions have their appealing qualities.
You have a knack for penning simple, yet substantial guitar parts, like the snaky main lick on “Indies or Paradise.” How do you approach writing parts that are simple, but compelling enough to underpin an entire tune?
The main thing is to try to not have your ego involved. There’s kind of this dark desire for all guitar players—including myself—to want to show what you can do. But I think writing good parts is more about showing what you can not do, if that makes sense? To keep it simple and just go with what the song’s asking for is going to be more effective 99 times out of 100. Technicality doesn’t make for very interesting music, most of the time.
Your songs have a lot of drama and sonic cinema, and a lot of that comes from the way your guitar parts build tension in a track. Any advice for adding this to a guitar idea?
For me, the first thing is to get a good reverb pedal or an amp with great reverb. My guitar hero, probably more than anybody else, is Jeff Buckley. The way he played with the reverb on his guitar I always found very dramatic. He’s why I got a Telecaster and why I started playing with reverb in the first place. It sounds like such a simple thing, but I find it brings out the cinematic quality of the guitar and really makes the guitar sing. And I guess my other main influences are quite cinematic: I love Ennio Morricone and the guitar work in his pieces. I’m always really trying to tell the story with the guitar, and I imagine my songs like mini films. That very much informs how I approach the guitar, with a sense of story in mind.
When Hunter came out, you said that a major part of your process was asking yourself if a guitar part fully expressed something emotional. But you’re also a very technically skilled player, so how do you reconcile those two sides when you’re writing?
I’m not really thinking about technique at all when I play, I’m thinking emotionally entirely. When I start to put a part together, I’ll tilt my head back while playing to make sure I’m not staring at the fingerboard. That makes me go to new places, where I’m reaching out and hoping to find a note that does something for me.
TIDBIT: On her latest album, Hunted, Anna Calvi revisited early demos from Hunter, her intensely personal 2018 release, and invited some of her favorite singers to record vocals over them.
I’ve seen your pedalboard expand quite a bit over the years. How has your relationship with effects evolved and were any specific effects particularly inspiring on Hunter and Hunted?
At the beginning, I was quite the traditionalist and I felt if I wanted to make my guitar sound a certain way, I needed to do it with my hands and not through pedals. So, other than reverb and some distortion, I didn’t have anything because I had this idea that it was somehow lazy. I’ve gotten more into pedals and I’ve revised the way I think about them and have come around to the idea that using effects is really about being creative, rather than not being able to do it with just your hands. I’ve expanded to use several different reverbs, some chorus and delay, various distortions, and it was nice to have a wider sound palette, especially for this record.
It’s funny because it comes from all kinds of places. Like on the song “Hunter,” I really wanted the guitar to sound kind of sleazy—like if a guitar could sound like sex, I wanted it to sound like that! I couldn’t actually find a pedal combination that worked for that quite right, so I ended up using a combination of chorus and distortion plugins in Pro Tools, which I’m usually really quite against using, but I hit on some settings that just really worked there. That guitar track without the plug-ins is just a naked DI’d guitar and it loses the whole sound. Sometimes, you just get lucky and it’s funny how far I’ve come with using effects.