Deep Breath: Anna Calvi In Conversation

Clash meets the returning songwriter…

Having gained friends like Brian Eno, fans like Nick Cave, and being nominated for the Mercury Prize, it’s reasonable to assume Anna Calvi was riding high following her 2011 self-titled art-rock debut.

Yet away from studio and stage Calvi fell on hard times, opening up in recent interviews about contending with loss, spats of depression and untamed emotions in the two years between her first album and its follow-up, ‘One Breath’.

It’s Calvi’s personal turmoil that shapes her new collection – a record that folds in on itself under the density of detachment, suffocation, liberation and salvation. For Calvi, ‘One Breath’ represents a loss of control, an acceptance of fate and an album driven by gut instinct.

Having returned to Blackbox Studios in France and with the assistance of producer John Congleton, Calvi translated struggles endured into an atmospheric album that weighs on the shoulders while offering hope to the heart.

Clash spoke to the singer ahead of the new album’s release…

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Anna Calvi, ‘Eliza’, from ‘One Breath’

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You’ve said title track to ‘One Breath’ is about that moment just before losing control. Are there moments on the record where you lost control, and had to let the music take its own direction?

I think that always happens when you’re recording. You have an idea of how things are going to turn out, but they always change and it’s really important not to fight that and allow a song to become whatever it wants to become. So there’s always an element of the unknown.

The song ‘Piece By Piece’ dramatically changed from its original idea. Is that an example of losing control, or taking the reigns to redirect the song?

That was more about taking the reigns, really. Just to make it more interesting. But that had a very strong thematic feeling about it. I really wanted the music to express the story, which is about slowly forgetting and that memory is made up of these kinds of pieces that dissipate and disintegrate over time. So I really wanted the music to express that. The idea that it would be made up of lots of little pieces that would be constructed as the song went on. So it was quite clear to me how that song should turn out.

Is it a strange paradox to write a song about trying to forget a certain moment in time, and then having that song serve as a constant reminder?

But it’s interesting because even since I’ve written it (‘Piece By Piece’), the things that I was writing about forgetting, I am forgetting. I mean, I can’t remember that moment as well as I did when I wrote the song, which is quite interesting for me. That the song has kind of predicted the future and here I am. I quite like that.

Did recording ‘One Breath’ on more of a gut instinct than your first album lend itself to writing a more personal, less-guarded record?

I guess, in a way. I wouldn’t really know how to explain why but I think it’s a more true essence of my character and the way I was feeling, because it didn’t get edited as much [as the first album]. So there’s a sense of having a feeling and putting it down and that being what it is.

Many of the tracks build to atmospheric crescendos, where the weight of the material really crashes down on you in a wave of sound. Was that a deliberate device to express emotional turmoil?

The music has always got to tell the story. For one thing I’m really influenced by a lot of orchestral classical music. One of the things I love about that music is the use of tension and release. So I use that method quite a lot in my songs. Where things build and build, and there’s this tension, and then there’s a moment where everything is released and free. So I employ that a lot, that technique.

How did keyboardist John Baggot help you create an atmospheric sound throughout ‘One Breath’?

He was good at creating soundscapes because I didn’t want to use the guitar as just an accompanying instrument. I wanted it to be used as a dramatic device at the most emotional apex of the songs – for the guitar to come in really strong like a character.

But that meant that I needed the chord to be suggested by something other than the guitar. That’s why I wanted to get a keyboard player in. He (Baggot) did a lot of great organ and piano work on the record.

Why did you choose to use the keyboard as a substitute for bass guitar throughout much of the album?

I just don’t really find bass guitar that exciting. And I think with keyboard bass you can get the low-end sound more like you can in an orchestra, from bringing in brass and low instruments. Whereas when bass guitar comes in, it automatically feels like a four-piece rock band, which I don’t find that interesting.

Lead single ‘Eliza’ is about being trapped in a situation and imagining being someone else as a form of escapism. What drove you to write the song?

It’s in part about the idea of seeing something in someone else, and seeing a part of you that you feel you have lost, and wanting to reconnect with it again. I think anyone has, sometimes, a sense that they’ve lost a [part] of who they are and they’re trying to reconnect again. I think it’s kind of natural feeling, really.

Do you mind giving a little insight into your current single ‘Sing To Me’, which has the powerful lyric, "I would tear my throat just to hears yours sing out".

That song is, in part, about Maria Callas who I really love and who has inspired me a lot. It’s kind of about the idea of being saved by someone else’s voice, whether it’s a singer or whether it’s someone that you love. It’s the idea of being sung to and how healing that is, that you could want nothing more than to hear their voice as a way of being healed.

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Anna Calvi, ‘Sing To Me’, from ‘One Breath’

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Words: Marc Zanotti

Photos: Roger Deckker

‘One Breath’ is released via Domino on October 7th. Find Anna Calvi online here

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Stream tracks by Anna Calvi via Deezer, below…

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