Despite her diminutive stature, Anna Calvi’s self-titled debut sounds larger than life in almost every dimension—it’s a bold, passionate statement, with soaring melodies, fervent singing, and swelling caverns of reverb-laced atmosphere. But when the Straight catches up with the English singer-guitarist as she’s waiting to cross the U.S. border into Canada, she sounds nothing like that. Perhaps it’s the prospect of being grilled by uniformed officialdom, or maybe it’s that she hasn’t yet developed an interview persona, but she comes across as wary, sleepy, and very, very, very shy.
Well, one of the central themes of Anna Calvi is the emotional risk that can accompany romantic entanglement. Several of the record’s songs—including the droning, anticipatory “Desire”; the Brill Building torch song that is “First We Kiss”; and the swooning, reverberant “Blackout”—suggest that love carries with it the danger of losing one’s sense of self, of falling so fully for another that reason flies out the window.
Asked if this was her intent, Calvi gives a one-word answer: “Yeah.”
It’s possible, though, that Calvi’s terse response to my one big question is simply indicative of how she thinks. Her songs aren’t notable for their lyrical content: most of her words border on cliché, although they’re sung with uncommon conviction. Where she excels, though, is in prompting belief and identification. “Yes, this is how love feels,” you’ll think, as you bask in the hothouse ambiance of her debut.
Her approach has a lot to do with opera, something Calvi’s Italian father made sure she was exposed to at a very young age. She also admits to a fondness for the impressionist composers Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, and for the alleyway clatter of seminal art-rockers the Velvet Underground. Other reference points might include Patti Smith, Phil Spector, and, judging by a clever “only the lonely” quote, Roy Orbison.
She also brings a filmic, rather than a literary, perspective to the business of building a song.
“I see music very visually,” she says, “and I really try and make sure that the music is telling the story as much as the lyrics are. So I do see my songs almost like mini-films.”
Over the course of our brief chat, Calvi does eventually open up enough to address her lyrical concerns. Many of her songs, she explains, are about “a sense of losing control, and how terrifying it can be”.
“But also, if there’s something that’s taking you over, it can also feel really amazing,” she adds. And when I suggest that this could be true of music as well as love, she doesn’t disagree.
“Music has been a passion for me all my life and a way I can express myself fully and completely,” she avows, for once sounding absolutely sure of herself. “It gives me a real strength that I don’t have in other situations. So I definitely feel like I have a real affair with music.”
Anna Calvi plays the Biltmore Cabaret on Thursday (June 2).