Interview: Anna Calvi

English-Italian diva pens torch songs for the new millennium

With her hard-to-pin-down sound, bee-sting lips and bottomless blue eyes, it's no shocker to learn that ANNA CALVI has just snagged a 2012 "European Border Breakers Award." When I catch up with her in the Netherlands, she's sleeping it off following the last night's awards ceremony.

"Yeah it was good," she allows sleepily. "It's nice to be appreciated for what you do. They choose someone from each country, someone who has done well in Europe." For the record, Calvi didn’t receive any cash from the EU-sponsored awards, but—like previous winner Adele—only a "small statue with stars on it."

For what reason did the EU recognize her for crossing borders? "I think my music isn't particularly English sounding," she offers. "My influences are quite wide and not specifically English. Perhaps that's why it's resonated in other countries."

With the psychedelic darkness of a NICK CAVE song or David Lynch soundtrack, Calvi's sound bears little in common with the Amy Winehouse/Adele brand of neo soul currently dominating the charts. That didn't stop her from being nominated for a Mercury Music Prize, BRIT Award, or being named one to watch in BBC's Sound of 2011 poll.

"I grew up listening to my father's record collection," she explains. "There was a lot of CAPTAIN BEEFHEART and all these '60s bands as well as classical and jazz like DJANGO REINHARDT. I also fell in love with composers like Debussy and Ravel. I had a very wide spectrum of music that I'd listen to, but I didn't feel like I was weird or anything."

Born with two dislocated hips, Calvi was in and out of hospitals for the first years of her life. "I had to have lots of operations to try to correct that," she recalls. "The way that children deal with stress is to get lost in their imagination, which is something I did a lot and continue to do. It's an essential part of being a creative person — I taught myself guitar from age eight and just got obsessed and lost in it."

When she sings, "It's just the devil in me," on Desire, from last year's eponymous debut, it's hard not to get lost oneself in Calvi’s lush musical world. But it's not difficult to fathom why legendary producer BRIAN ENO chose to work with her and called her the biggest thing since PATTI SMITH.

However, Calvi is somewhat reticent when talking about her songs. "There weren't any specific experiences—it's not like I had a break-up and then wrote a song," she says, when asked what informed the creation of her album. "I really wanted to tell the story of the songs through the music and not just the lyrics, to create an atmosphere for each song, as if it were a film. I wanted to make it passionate—that was my main idea for the album."

Calvi's sense of theater extends from the music to her bold fashion statements and the lush visuals that accompany her videos. "I wanted to express the passion in my music," she continues, "which is why I dress in flamenco fashion. I really love the music and wanted to capture that sense of drama."

The petite singer makes her Japan debut next week at posh Roppongi supper club Billboard Live. This is followed by an appearance at the new Hostess Club Weekender indie rock showcase, where she'll be performing alongside the likes of Spiritualized and Atlas Sound.

Are people around her concerned about her coming to Japan? "Concerned? About what?" she asks. Seems like Fukushima may have fallen off the international radar. "It's my first time to Japan," she says, brushing off the gloom-and-doom. "I'm really excited because I've always wanted to go there. It should be cool."

Billboard Live, Feb 17 (listing) and Hostess Club Weekender, Feb 19.

Dan Grunebaum
1st February, 2012
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