Anna Margaret Michelle Calvi is an English singer-songwriter and guitarist. Her eponymous debut album was released in the United Kingdom in 2011 and was nominated for the Mercury Prize and earned her a nomination for British Breakthrough Act at the 2012 Brit Awards. Her second album One Breath was released in 2013 through Domino Records and was also nominated for the Mercury Prize.
Anna Calvi was born Anna Margaret Michelle Calvi on 24th September 1980 in Twickenham to an English mother and Italian father, both of whom are therapists. She spent most of the first three years of her life in a hospital undergoing treatment and surgeries to correct congenital hip dysplasia. “The way I dealt with that was to create my own world. And that’s what my relationship with music is – a world of my own creation that I escape into. I was always a dreamer. The early things stick with you,” she later remembered. Calvi grew up being exposed to a multitude of genres of music by her music-loving Italian father; this eclectic array ranged from Captain Beefheart to The Rolling Stones to Maria Callas, combined with an early understanding of classical music, “I was so taken by the sound. Whenever I saw an instrument I would get so excited and my heart would beat really fast.”
Calvi first picked up the violin at 6, and guitar at 8. “Something would take me over whenever I’d seen an electric guitar,” she later recalled. By the age of 10 she was using a double cassette karaoke machine to overdub her playing. She came to be much influenced by 20th century composers Messiaen, Ravel, and Debussy, attracted “to the impressionistic element of the music”, and would try to recreate this feeling on the guitar, an instrument she was compelled to learn on discovering Django Reinhardt and Jimi Hendrix at the age of 13.
Calvi originally intended to study art, but instead opted for a degree in music. She attended University of Southampton where she studied violin and guitar, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Music in 2003. After graduating, Calvi worked as a guitar teacher, giving private lessons to help finance her music career until 2010. In October 2015, having been previously nominated twice for the award herself, Calvi joined the panel again to decide the winner of the 2015 Mercury Prize. The panel also features Nick Mulvey, Corinne Bailey Rae and broadcaster John Kennedy.
2008–2010: Early projects
Calvi did not begin singing until her mid-twenties. “I had a phobia about it until five years ago,” she said in 2011. “I wouldn’t sing in school or even in the shower. I had this emotional block about hearing my voice. So the guitar became my voice when I was a teenager, it was how I could express myself.” In an effort to find her own voice Calvi has spoken of how she would lock herself in a room for long periods of time, singing along to records by Edith Piaf and Nina Simone
Calvi formed several bands, including Cheap Hotel, who released one download-only single (New York), which did not chart. Calvi later met multi-instrumentalist Mally Harpaz and drummer Daniel Maiden-Wood, who eventually formed her band.
At an early gig, Calvi caught the attention of Bill Ryder-Jones who urged Laurence Bell of Domino Records to sign her. Early support also came from Brian Eno, who heard about Calvi through a friend. He has since become her unofficial mentor describing her during a BBC 6 Music interview as “the biggest thing since Patti Smith.”
In the autumn of 2009 Calvi recorded a series of filmed Attic Sessions that were uploaded onto YouTube, including a cover of Leonard Cohen’s Joan of Arc, Elvis Presley’s Surrender, TV on the Radio’s Wolf Like Me and David Bowie’s Sound & Vision.
Calvi played guitar on the track The Prizefighter and the Heiress on Johnny Flynn’s album Been Listening, and in October 2009 she went on to support Flynn on tour.
In 2010 Calvi supported Interpol on their UK tour, as well as label-mates the Arctic Monkeys at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire. Nick Cave also invited her to support Grinderman across Europe in October 2010.
On 11 October 2010, Calvi released her debut solo single Jezebel, a 1951 song originally written by Wayne Shanklin and made famous by Frankie Laine and French chanteuse Edith Piaf. Both Jezebel and the B-side Moulinette were recorded by Rob Ellis, and released on limited edition 7″ and digital download. Live versions of both Jezebel and Moulinette were filmed at The Luminaire venue in London by Emma Nathan, who also created the vinyl artwork.
2011–2012: Debut album
Anna Calvi released her debut album in the UK and Europe through Domino Records on 17 January 2011, to critical acclaim. It entered the official UK charts at number 40, and achieved similar success across Europe, charting at 17 in France, 33 in Austria, 40 in Switzerland, 55 in Sweden and 70 in Germany. In France, according to Q magazine, Calvi “has become an overnight star, the album debuting in the Top 20.” The album was released in USA, Australia, and Japan on 1st March 2011.
Calvi co-produced the album with long-term PJ Harvey collaborator Rob Ellis. Brian Eno sang backing vocals on Desire and Suzanne & I, Dave Okumu from the band The Invisible sang backing vocals on the song No More Words, and long-term collaborator Emma Nathan created the album artwork. “I see music quite visually and I like to create atmospheres… I like to try and create a whole world in the space of a song,” explained Calvi. In an interview with The Telegraph Calvi said of writing the album “‘I imagine the different instruments as colours, and so it feels like painting. I need music to come from a really emotional place. With my music I do like to hypnotise people and take them somewhere else. I like to slowly draw people into a world.”
NME gave the album 9 out of 10, describing it as NME described it as “sumptuous, seductive and a bit scary, this velvety debut will stalk your dreams.”, and stating that “this self-titled collection of 10 songs is perhaps the first great record of 2011.” Uncut magazine said “This isn’t just a great debut. It’s a fearless rejection of current pop trends, fashioning a benchmark of intensity and originality that the rest of this year’s albums will struggle to match.”, whilst The Fly magazine called it an “arresting, sparse and darkly captivating listen.” The Evening Standard said “the raw talent is undeniable: 2011 is Calvi’s for the taking”.
Calvi launched the album to sold out show at the intimate Hoxton Hall in London on 27 January 2011.
The album was nominated for the Mercury Prize, which went instead to PJ Harvey. In January 2012, Calvi was awarded the European Border Breakers Award. Calvi was nominated in the Best British Breakthrough category at the BRIT Awards 2012. In the summer of 2012, Calvi was one of the judges for the Mercury Music Prize.
Calvi took time off recording in November 2012 to sing on a Noah and The Whale song called Heart of Nowhere, released in May 2013.
2013–2017: One Breath
Calvi announced on 5 August 2013 that her second album titled One Breath was to be released on Domino Records on 7 October. Her announcement was accompanied by a trailer filmed by Emma Nathan. The record was produced by John Congleton and recorded in Blackbox Studios, France as well as Elmwood Recording Studios, Texas. Calvi has explained the title as: “One Breath is the moment before you’ve got to open yourself up, and it’s about how terrifying that is. It’s scary and it’s thrilling. It’s also full of hope, because whatever has to happen hasn’t happened yet.”
Eliza was the first single from the album, followed by Suddenly, both featuring videos directed by Emma Nathan.
Calvi told Mojo magazine that whereas Anna Calvi was recorded on and off over three years, One Breath took just six weeks and was less of a challenge to complete than its predecessor. Calvi has said that she had been listening to composers John Adams and Steve Reich, as well as choral music, for inspiration while writing the record.
Anna Calvi talked to The Guardian about One Breath saying: “I wanted to explore the feeling of being out of control, and how this can be very scary and yet thrilling at the same time. It’s always important to me that the music tells the story as much as the lyrics, so I was very focused on creating rich textures and a lot of atmosphere for the songs to exist in. This record was made during quite a turbulent time in my life and I like the way I can feel that in the music when I listen back.”
One Breath received critical praise upon release, with The Independent calling the new album “an LP that rumbles with lusty insistence, swoons with bliss, luxuriates in cinematic style and nudges Calvi’s emotive voice to fresh operatic heights”. The album was nominated for the Mercury Prize which went instead to Young Fathers. This is Anna Calvi’s second Mercury Prize nomination.
Anna Calvi’s first EP – a collection of covers titled Strange Weather – was released on 15th July 2014. The EP featured David Byrne (Talking Heads) and consisted of songs by Keren Ann, FKA Twigs, Connan Mockasin, Suicide, and David Bowie.
On 3rd March Anna Calvi confirmed via her Facebook page that she would be recording a track for the 2015 science fiction movie, The Divergent Series: Insurgent. Titled, The Heart Of You, it has been written by Andrew Wyatt and produced by Adrian Utley (Portishead) at Real World Studios. The soundtrack will be released on 17th March through Interscope Records and features other artists including Woodkid, Lykke Li, M83, HAIM, Royal Blood, SOHN, Zella Day, and Imagine Dragons
Calvi was once again a judge at the 2015 Mercury Music Prize.
On 4 February 2016, Anna Calvi featured on Strung Out in Heaven, a David Bowie covers EP, arranged by Jherek Bischoff and Amanda Palmer following the death of David Bowie on 10 January 2016. Anna Calvi booked a studio in London on three days notice, contributing her voice and guitar to the track Blackstar. The EP also features Neil Gaiman and John Cameron Mitchell. Subsequently performing a moving rendition of Blackstar for the David Bowie tribute show at Radio City Music Hall. Described by Anna as “A magical moment”.
In early June 2018 Calvi announced that her third studio album Hunter would be released by Domino Records on 31 August 2018. The album was co-produced by Nick Launay, and features Adrian Utley from Portishead and Martyn P. Casey from the Bad Seeds. At the same time she released a single, Don’t Beat the Girl Out of My Boy, and announced a European tour in support.
Hunter was received well by critics, earning a five star review in The Guardian, who call it “glorious and triumphant”, and “a record that succeeds on any terms you try to force upon it,” while Pitchfork Media rated it 7.8 out of 10 and praise Calvi’s “remarkable evolution on Hunter” which “pushes her artistry to another level”.
Calvi enlisted director Matt Lambert to produce the video for title track Hunter. Dazed labelled it “an exploration of queer intimacy and self-love.”
2019: Peaky Blinders and other projects
Calvi is the composer for the musical score for the fifth season of the TV series Peaky Blinders, the first episode of which premiered on 25 August 2019. She told NME that “It was incredible for it not to be about me and to really try and get into another character. When I was doing it, I really felt like I was him. I really got into the mindset of Tommy Shelby.”
In an interview with Headliner Magazine, Calvi said that she feels like a true ‘Peaky’ artist: “The songs in the show work really well – there is music that feels ‘Peaky,’ and I think I am one of those artists that is a Peaky artist. It’s a bit like playing music with someone, where you’re watching [Cillian Murphy’s] performance and responding to it; it felt like a dialogue between us. For Tommy it is very much about trying to express his inner world…to underpin that idea that he may be saying one thing, but inside there’s a turmoil and an anxiety in him which he is trying to hide – that was an important one.”
Headliner Magazine praised Calvi’s work on the Peaky Blinders score: “As source material, season five has given Calvi a lot to play with. Complicated narratives, quotable one-liners, and cunning plans that would put Baldrick to shame play out against a smorgasbord of ostentatious ’20s glamour and opulence. The gang are out of their depth in high society, trying to pass themselves off as upstanding members of the community, however, the inevitable pull of violence, power struggles, turf-wars and revenge are never far from their minds. ‘We all try and get away, but we never do,’ warns the gravel-voiced head of the family, Polly.’ Often using high levels of reverb, the score is all woozy electric guitars, dissonant chords and distorted riffs – and full on rock and roll – heightening the sense of unease and conflict amongst the characters. Key score moments include a beautiful melody juxtaposing a particularly violent (even for him) Arthur Shelby beatdown, and a tense assassination attempt where the guitar is strung out like the viewers’ nerves.”
Calvi wrote the song Julie for the soundtrack of The Souvenir, a drama film directed by Joanna Hogg starring Tilda Swinton.
Calvi is set to feature on Jeff Goldblum’s upcoming second album I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This for a mash-up of Wes Montgomery’s Four on Six and Marianne Faithfull’s Broken English.
In March 2020 Anna Calvi released Hunted, an album of reworks of the tracks from her 2018 album Hunter. The project featured artists such as Joe Talbot from Idles, Courtney Barnett, Julia Holter and Charlotte Gainsbourg.
Calvi is known for her intense guitar playing and live performance. She has said that she tries to create the sounds of other instruments through her guitar. Visually, Calvi nods to the world of flamenco in her stage outfits, opting for the high trousers and blouse of a male dancer rather than the traditional frilled dress.
Following her debut album release show at Hoxton Hall in London, Calvi won over critics with her “performance of superb self-possession and dramatic timing.” The Independent called her a “strumming seductress” who was “born to be heard in person” playing “with every ounce of passion.”
Calvi’s European tour in Autumn 2011 was filmed and released as a 2 part series called Somewhere Along the Line.
Calvi performed a short headline tour in France, Spain and Portugal in November and December 2013.
Anna began 2014 with a Tour of the UK in February before heading to Europe throughout March. The Guardian gave Anna’s February performance at London’s Troxy theatre a four star review, stating that it “confirm[ed] Calvi as a modern guitar hero of exceptional talent and imagination”. After the show at the Troxy, Anna played an intimate “solo show” to 150 fans at the George Tavern. Reviewing this special performance, Gigwise said that “up close and personal, the microscope highlights the nuances and flourishes that make Calvi the rarest of talent”.
On 24 March 2014, Anna Calvi announced two shows in May in Sydney and Melbourne, as part of her Australian Tour. She also performed on 1st June as a vocal guest alongside the Heritage Orchestra for Giorgio Moroder tribute.
Calvi returned to Glastonbury Festival on 28th June 2014 for a performance on the Park stage. Calvi was chosen for the Morrissey gig at the O2 Arena in London on 29th November 2014. This gig will represent a huge step up for the singer and should act as the catalyst for more mainstream exposure.
Anna also collaborated with Marianne Faithfull on her 2014 album track, Falling Back. Subsequently, Anna performed this track with Marianne Faithfull on the BBC’s Later with Jools Holland TV show on 23 September 2014.
In December 2014, Calvi performed a one off show with the innovative and eclectic Heritage Orchestra, conducted by Jules Buckley. New orchestral versions of tracks from Mercury prize nominated albums Anna Calvi and One Breath as well as her EP Strange Weather were performed at St John’s Church in Hackney, London. The concert was a sold out event which also saw guest appearances from Patrick Wolf, Charlie Fink from band, Noah and the Whale and Dave Okumu producer and musician from the band Invisible. Calvi had also worked with the Heritage Orchestra previously on the Giorgio Moroder show as the Sydney Opera House.
Summer 2015 saw Calvi head out again with the Heritage Orchestra across Europe including appearances at the BSG Festival in Istanbul, Heartbeats Festival in Lille and the Cactus Festival in Bruges.
In March 2016, Anna was part of the, Pieces of a Man: The Gil Scott-Heron Project. “A celebration of the life and legacy of the legendary American soul and jazz poet, musician, and author” in conjunction with Convergence Festival in London. Under the direction of The Invisible’s Dave Okumu, an ensemble of guest vocalists and poets, including Andreya Triana, Kwabs and Jamie Woon performed reinterpretations of Scott-Heron’s music. “Anna Calvi delivered a menacing rock-opera take on “Me And The Devil”.
On June 8Tg, 2016, Anna performed with the Heritage Orchestra Voices, in Cardiff as part of Festival of Voice. In July 2016, Anna Calvi & Jherek Bischoff performed Lady Grinning Soul at the BBC Proms David Bowie special.
On 23 April 2018, Calvi announced the dates of her European tour. She played three performances at Berghain in Berlin, Germany, on 12 June, Paris La Gaîté Lyrique on the 15th, and the Heaven venue in London on 19 June.
Style and influences
Calvi frequently uses a (90s US) Fender Telecaster guitar and a vintage red Vox AC30 amp, both live and in the studio. She has been called a virtuoso guitarist, although her first instrument is the violin, in which she has a university degree. Calvi imagines playing guitar as an orchestra and is noted for her particular style of playing which involves hitting the strings in a circular motion, rather than strumming up and down. The result has been described by Q as “the prodigious wash of sound that recall Ennio Morricone, Duane Eddy, even Jimi Hendrix in its fluidity.”
Calvi has been compared to other female singers such as PJ Harvey and Siouxsie Sioux. and is noted for her powerful operatic voice
Calvi’s style has been described as dark, romantic, atmospheric pop. The singer has said that the powers of lust are an inspiration, and her performances are deliberately sexually charged. Calvi has cited Nina Simone, Maria Callas, the rock of Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones, the blues of Captain Beefheart, the stage performances of David Bowie, Nick Cave, Morrissey and Scott Walker as well as classical composers Carlo Gesualdo,Messiaen, Ravel and Debussy as among her influences.
Calvi has also spoken of the influence of the films of Gus Van Sant, Wong Kar-Wai and David Lynch on her music. She admires “people that make beautiful films where the cinematography tells the story”, and tries to do the same in her own work.
In 2011 British artist Joe Simpson painted a portrait of Calvi, which was exhibited around the UK including a solo exhibition at The Royal Albert Hall.
On 1st December 2010 Calvi performed at the Colette showcase in Paris as part of The Room of Curiosities exhibition by Thomas Erber.
Calvi was invited to play at the Gucci dinner which was hosted by Vogue during the 2011 Haute Couture Paris fashion week. Frida Giannini, creative director at Gucci, also chose outfits for Calvi to wear during her May 2011 US tour. Calvi opened the new Gucci Sydney store on 30 November 2011.
Calvi also performed at the Fendi auction in May 2014 at Sotheby’s in London, and at the Chloe Paris F/W event on 28 September 2014.
The fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld has said he is a fan of her music, and has photographed Calvi for the Maison Michel Fall Winter 2011 lookbook.
Sir Paul Smith photographed Calvi for the cover of L’Express Styles.
Calvi was invited onto the Chanel table for the Amfar charity event at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival.
On 28th September 2014 Anna Calvi accompanied Marianne Faithful in a headline performance at the Chloé fashion show in Paris, France.
On 20 February 2017, Calvi performed four of her own tracks (including two new songs) and a cover of Christine and the Queens iT at the Burberry London Fashion Week show with strings and a choir from The Heritage Orchestra. All five tracks were released as the Live for Burberry EP.