British musician Anna Calvi speaks to us about style, androgyny, and the records that changed her life
Aladdin Sane by David Bowie
It was the first record I ever bought with my own money. I was 12 and I chose it because of the cover: I thought David Bowie looked really cool. I loved how weird the album was: it’s a combination of avant-garde and some really great pop songs. I can listen to it endlessly and it’s still one of my favourite records.
I think when I was a kid I was responding to Bowie’s androgyny but I just didn’t realise it because I was too young. There was just something about his image and the way that he presented himself that really rang true with me and I found that really exciting. I think that, for me, music is very genderless and that’s what I feel about his music specifically. When I write music it doesn’t feel like it’s restricted by any gender norms and that’s always what I look for in other artists as well.
Nightclubbing by Grace Jones
Again, the cover is incredible, her stance is so powerful. I didn’t realise when I first heard it, but a lot of the songs were actually covers, and yet, because her voice is so characterful and commanding, anything that she sings just suddenly sounds like a Grace Jones record.
I love the musicianship on Nightclubbing, I love the interplay between the instruments, and it just feels like a really original-sounding record. It was actually quite an influence on me on my latest album—this idea that you know your voice should be this commanding force that just makes everything else sound like it falls into line because your voice is so dominant.
Because I’m quite quiet in everyday life, the energy that I save up has to go somewhere. Personally, I release all this energy that’s been building up in me through creativity. It’s a very natural process. I don’t feel that my singing is angry, I’m just trying to press the sense of freedom. There’s something about full-bodied and loud singing, with everything you've got, that’s a really liberating experience. It feels incredibly positive, especially for someone who is on the shy side, to have this ability to let go. It's really life-affirming.
Grace by Jeff Buckley
I heard it when I was 17 or 18 and it really changed my view of what music could be in that there’s so much beauty in Jeff Buckley’s voice. Also, the guitar on that record is the biggest guitar influence that I’ve ever had.
Jeff Buckley uses his voice in this very free way and it can go wherever he wants it to: that’s something that I've intentionally and subconsciously very much taken on myself as a singer. His voice can be so subtle, quiet and soft and then it becomes this roaring kind of force and, again, that’s something that completely inspired me as a singer. He’s very much about that play between his voice and his guitar but they both feel like they’re partners and the essence of who he is—I feel inspired by that as a musician myself. I always try and have a play between the guitar and the voice, to make them speak the same language and tell the story of myself.
I remember writing Jeff Buckley lyrics all over my bag I took to college. I like the way you would take on lyrics and feel that they were expressing a part of you, so you'd always feel proud to have them on your schoolbag as if you wrote them yourself. That’s a really cute thing about being a teenager and looking a very particular way. Teenagers react to music because they’re always looking for a way to identify themselves.
About my new album, Hunter...
It took me four years to finish this album—I wanted to make sure the music was right, that I could really stand behind it and that I had a strong body of work that I really felt proud of. So I took my time waiting for those songs to emerge. I wrote a lot of them before I found the ones that felt right.
Hunter is largely to do with the idea of being a woman and not being restrained by the binary of having to perform her gender. Being the hunter rather than the hunted which is how we often feel when we’re depicted in the media and our culture. But she’s going into the world and seeing it as hers and seeking pleasure in whichever way she wishes without any tilt to shame. It’s a record about breaking down the idea of “you can only be male or female”. I feel like my music has always been quite genderless and this time I wanted to explore that notion even further.
Hunter by Anna Calvi is out now via Domino