Having put out her second album One Breath last month, Anna Calvi is set to hit the road in America and Europe later this month, before releasing single Suddenly on 23 December and returning for a full UK tour in February. We have a full feature with the singer in our current issue - Q329 out now - that sees us join her in France, but before that we sat down with Calvi to discuss the elements - emotional turbulence, musical storytelling and more - that inspired the strength and fragility at the heart of her new record...
How the devil are you? "I'm good thank you."
When did this album really start for you? "I was thinking about it whilst I was touring, but I didn't start it properly until got off the road. I did some writing. It took about six weeks to record which is a lot quicker than my first record. That was about three years! [giggles]"
Was there a sense you knew exactly what you wanted to do in the studio this time? "I knew a fair bit, but I left room for things to change. I think that's important. If you lock down everything it's not exciting. Also the elements of chance of change are really important if you want to make something that feels like it's got an energy about it."
It does feel that on this record you haven't quite gone over every bit with a microscope, you've left space for more spontaneity? Not that we're saying you were slap-dash, but... [laughs] "Yeah, whatever, it will do! [laughs] I think it was really good for me to have a time limit. When you have as much time as you want you end up chasing your own tail. I was getting to a place where I was re-recording things last time. This one is more about gut instinct. Getting it down and seeing if it feels good, is the story coming across in the song? I think that's a much healthier way of working."
You have such a blank canvass when you start an album. "That the danger when you're an obsessive person who's a perfectionist. It's the worst thing to have three year to record!"
There's a sense that with this album you've expanded your personal spectrum. Do you feel you allowed yourself a wider emotional pallet this time? "Before I started writing I wanted there to be a bigger range, I wanted to have songs that were allowed to be more vulnerable than the first record - the first album is very much about strength, whereas this one has moments of strength alongside moments of real fragility. But then I found myself writing that way unconsciously, which is good. When you think about something a lot it seeps into your essence."
After the power and poise of your debut, there's a sense that on this record we discover you're human after all. "I think that's important. When I wrote it I'd had a turbulent year, and so it ended-up being more of a personal record than I expected. I just decided not to be afraid of letting that happen. A lot of the themes are things I was going through and I let that flow into the music in quite a natural way. It wasn't forced."
Do you feel you gave yourself more freedom on this album? "I definitely felt more relaxed. When you make your first record you feel like this has to be everything of what I am! It has to explain my whole life, because if I died tomorrow this would it it! Then you make another record and you go 'Oh! It's just like a moment in time'. That really frees you up. 'This is how I'm feeling at the moment, this is what I'm dealing with, this is what I'm thinking about right now.'"
Sound-wise, there seems to been a shift towards keys and synths over guitars. Did injuring your arm influence that? "I injured it while touring the first record, it's fine now. I think the real change though was because I wanted to develop my guitar playing. I wanted the guitar to come in at the emotional climax of a song rather than strumming along all the way through. It meant I had to find other ways to carry the tune. I listened a lot to Tom Waits and how he uses such unusual instrumentation to get his songs across. That was a inspiration. I wanted my guitar to be a wild force that could burst into the room and then disappear again."
There's sample and beats on Piece By Piece, that's certainly unusual for you. "I wanted to be more playful, to have more colour and textures. It's really important for me that the music is telling the story as much as the lyrics. The song is about memory and how memories will fade. The whole song is me reminiscing about this particular memory I have about someone, and throughout the song that memory dissolves. The pieces dissolve, so the music is made up of these little pieces, that get deconstructed. It felt a really natural way to tell that story. I decided not be scared of where that story took me, wherever it wanted, that's where I had to go."
It's an interesting split. The emotion in your voice makes the vocals sound very human, yet the music is probably the most artificial-sounding you've ever created. "I remember singing it once when we were just going through the song and I was pissed off for some reason, so I just sung it in a very quiet way, not really bothering. Then people in the studio were saying 'Oh that's really cool' so it made me think that this song is really introspective and it needs to be sung that way. It doesn't need to be [starts singing in an operatic voice] I will forget! You know what I mean? [laughs] The other thing I liked about it is you don't know if it's a good memory or a bad memory. Do you want to forget or maybe you're trying to cling on, and in a way it's irrelevant because you'll forget anyway. That's the whole thing about life, it's constantly moving on no matter what you do."
Would you say the whole of One Breath seems to meditated around that idea of life changing? "Yes. It's very much about the moment before you go through real change in your life and how that's full of hope yet is really scary. Those are the moments in life that are sometimes the most memorable. The feeling of not having control, when you're in love or when you're really scared. It's those feelings that are most intense. I suppose that's what I was experiencing when I was writing the album and it keeps coming back as a theme on the record."
Was it good to be writing songs at that time? "I think so, yes. Though it's interesting, say with Piece By Piece, when I sing it now that memory that I'm recalling is less vivid than it was than when I wrote the song. I find it interesting that I still have this memory, but I don't remember the way I did when I wrote it. That's a new thing for me, the songs are more living breathing things because they were about stuff what was happening and my life has slightly moved on from where I was. It's good for me that there's a documentation of what I experienced during that time. When I come back and sing them I'm aware of how I've moved on or not. It's like checking in."
The flipside to that though is people will examine them and try to interpret them. Are you comfortable with that? [laughs] "When you're doing something creative you have to expose yourself. If you don't there's something wrong. So I accept that's a part of making art and I'm happy to do it actually. The idea of being really vulnerable has a real strength to it. The juxtaposition between both is what art is about. There's no pointing singing about how brave and song you are, if inside you're not."
Of course you also have a song like Carry Me Over on the album, which is pretty huge and epic, it's not all fragile. How do create a space where both those songs can live on one album? "There is a very wide variety on this record, but it's all about the story and how I express it musically. I think about it visually and follow through with how it's meant to be. Carry Me Over is about the idea that we have this external world we all live in, but there's also this internal world of our bodies where things are relentless ticking. Your heart is constantly beating. It's a whole other existence that you're not really aware of. So it's the idea of life relentlessly pushing you on. I suppose I've always found it weird that it's you, but you just don't know anything about it at all. You're doing all that subconsciously, but you have no ability to do it or influence it yourself. I find that bizarre. What if it just stopped? What if one day it forgot how to do it? The idea that you rely on this mechanism that pushes you onwards is the inspiration for the song."
Looking ahead you're about to go on the road... "November is when it really starts. It's been fun interpreting these new songs live."
As you're using the guitar differently, are there any songs where we can expect to see you as an out-and-out frontwomen? "Well I play guitar on all of them. I don't really fancy the idea of me onstage without an instrument." [laughs]
It still seems quite staggering that you couldn't stomach the idea of singing in front of an audience until your early 20s. "If I'd imagined when I was 21 doing this I don't think I would have believed it, but everything has felt like a natural step. Nothing felt out of place. I just keep trying to move forward, trying not repeat something because it's easy. I just try to do good work and if you do that it will all make sense."
Looking back, are you surprised you couldn't sing in public before? "It's funny, it almost feels like a different person. My life has changed so much since I became a singer, and for the better! It's amazing being able to express yourself. I think everyone should do it!" [laughs] Paul Stokes @Stokesie
For more head to Annacalvi.com, plus get Q329 now for a full feature.