Thursday, July 28, 2011

Osheaga 2011: Voice is instrumental to Anna Calvi’s message

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MONTREAL - To understand the power of Anna Calvi’s voice, it helps to listen to her cover of Leonard Cohen’s Joan of Arc. It’s an instrumental.
“I just thought, so many people have interpreted him as singers; there doesn’t need to be any more,” the British singer told The Gazette in May, a few hours before making her Canadian debut in Toronto. “I felt like the way I could contribute is to recreate this beautiful atmosphere that he tells in the story just through music.”
Calvi’s full-throated vibrato can register on the Richter scale; her whisper can be so finespun, it’s barely there. She has a disciplined awareness of when to use either – or neither: her self-titled debut opens with an instrumental (Rider to the Sea) that typifies Calvi’s cinematic arrangements, her mastery of tension and release, and her belief that the right notes can say more than the right words.
“Listening to music is quite like hypnosis, really. It’s about being taken to another place, and being lost in the space of a song. I do like that idea, and so I really want the music to tell the story as much as the lyrics.”
A desire in line with Brian Eno’s aesthetic, which may be one reason he became an early champion of Calvi. Further support came from Nick Cave, who brought her on tour with his libidinous scuzz-rock quartet Grinderman last year. The latest endorsement came last week: a nomination for Britain’s Mercury Prize, the prestigious artistic-merit award upon which Canada’s Polaris Music Prize was modelled.
High-profile accolades and honours weren’t a consideration when Calvi was preparing her debut; neither was the most basic level of success.
“I was making a lot of it before I was signed, and I had no idea if anyone would like it, or if anyone would ever hear it. But I was still putting everything that I had into it. That’s a lot to give without knowing if you’re going to get anything back, and sometimes that’s a bit scary.
“But you know, I don’t think art should be easy. It should be a struggle. It’s part of what makes it mean so much. You’ve really been through something to get out with this piece of work.”
Calvi assembled the mosaic of her album slowly, “like with painting – you get the strong main colours, and then you go in and you do the small work. That small work I like to take my time with.” The finished whole is both minimalist and carefully detailed, featuring unsettling silences as well as subliminal washes of sound and backing vocals that start to coalesce after repeated listens. There are elements of vintage chanson (No More Words), a steely touch of Patti Smith (Desire) and a peppering of flamenco. That might sound all over the place, but Calvi stitched her lifetime of influences into a deliberate vision.
Everything in Calvi’s songs and presentation is carefully developed, from her flamenco-inspired stage outfits (“I wanted to wear clothes that expressed the passion in the music”) to her strength-through-silence charisma in concert (“It’s kind of like anti-performance, but it ends up being a more dramatic performance because of it”) to the maverick guitar/harmonium/drums core of her band to her resonant vocals (“I’m actually a soprano, but I sing much lower”). The latter is particularly astonishing – not just because Calvi’s speaking voice blends into the blur of passing traffic, but because she began singing only five years ago.
“For years and years, I was thinking it must be so amazing to express yourself in such a way – using your essence, really, because your voice is your essence. … But I don’t fit into the mould of what I thought a singer should be. I have a quiet speaking voice, and I suppose I’m reasonably reserved with people I don’t know. My idea of a singer was so opposite of that: someone who wants to be the centre of attention, who’s got a really loud voice.”
While transforming herself into a vocalist, she discovered that she “felt more passionate when singing lower” – and if there’s a single motivating force in her art, it’s passion. The word crops up repeatedly when discussing Calvi’s songs and inspirations; despite her perfectionist streak, one gets the feeling she doesn’t have time for music that’s more studied than emotional.
“Can you give me an example of a more studied musician?”
Brian Eno.
“Ooh – controversial. I feel that Brian Eno approaches music as an artist approaches a conceptual piece of work, and that doesn’t have to be unemotional. It’s thoughtful. What I find unemotional is music that’s obviously careerist – people trying to sell lots of records and play on the main stage of Glastonbury. That’s what I can’t connect with. People wanting to explore ideas, I think, is interesting. There is a sort of passion there.”


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