Inside her Eden: “Bowie, Buckley and my mother’s eyes”

A detail of a photo of Anna in Milan by Adriano Russo

I contacted Anna while the whole world is affected by Coronavirus and she, as the most of us, is stuck in her house. This helped us to discuss about many things: her career, the music business, the songwriting, her tastes in music and cinema, the records she is listening at the moment… We also focused on Hunted, her last discographical effort. I found a delicate and a little worried human being but a tremendously enthusiast artist, who is very positive for the future.

Anna, I can’t start this interview without asking: how are you? These days are becoming stranger and stranger, the whole world is falling into a nightmare and our lives are completely changing, in a way we never considered before. How are you personally facing this situation?

Anna: Dear Matteo, it’s lovely to speak with you, and I’m really happy you reached out. I do find this situation hard. I’ve found being in a relatively small flat without a garden quite difficult in these days of being in lockdown. However my main concern is trying to convince my parents to obey the lockdown rules. They are behaving like unruly teenagers! I live with my girlfriend and I’m happy that we are in a good relationship, so spending all this time together is nice for me. It must be so hard when one has a difficult home life.

My elaboration of three photos by the Italian photographer Simon, who portrayed Anna in 2013 for the magazine Toh!

I know you have inevitably had to postpone your live gigs. How do you think an artist can react and, maybe, make the difference in this troubled situation?

A: I think there has to be an acceptance. Now it is not the time for playing live, and we just have to be patient. I would never want to put my band, crew or audience in any danger, so this feels much more important right now. However I like to imagine the future, when this virus no longer exists. Think about how amazing live shows will feel! As an audience member and as a performer, we’ll have a heightened, full blooded, visceral experience of being together again. It will never have felt so good. That is incredibly exciting to me. I think this situation must be hard for artists who are about to release records. These have been years in the making, with meticulous plans of how the next year will go. It must be hard to be in limbo like that. One nice thing to come out of this time is the feeling of community between artists, and between artists and their supporters. It feels like we’re looking out for each other.

The three studio albums that followed Anna’s debut. The front cover of One Breath features a photo by Roger Deckker, the other two provide pics by Masie Cousin.

Hunted has been released a few weeks ago and I frankly love the new way in which you proposed seven tracks from Hunter (2018). The duets are simply brilliant and the roughness of the songs reveals how strong is the quality of your composition. Was more difficult to choose the singers for the collaborations or the new clothing for the songs? The duet with Charlotte Gainsbourg was unexpected but magnificent. When and why did you think to propose her joining you for Eden?

A: I’m glad you like it! It wasn’t hard to choose actually, because some songs just really felt like they belonged with certain singers. When I first wrote Eden, it was actually called Melancholia, as a reference to the Lars Von Trier’s film in which Charlotte Gainsbourg starred. So from the very beginning of that song, Charlotte was in my mind. She embodies this song in its understated beauty and strength: The strength it takes to allow yourself to really love for the first time.

Some of your songs, especially your ethereal ballads, can get me in a different dimension. I’m thinking about Sing To Me, Bleed into Me, 1970s Wind but also the last beautiful versions of The Swimming Pool and Eden. Are your completely in control of your writing or is maybe there a certain level of unconsciousness?

A: The weird thing about songwriting is that I don’t really understand how it happens… you can be humming along aimlessly and suddenly this tiny speck of magic lands on you, and you’re just trying to capture it before it blows away. That’s how songwriting feels for me. I have a particular love of writing slow atmospheric songs… I’m writing a lot of them at the moment. I think my new album will be full of these ballads.

Two unpublished photos by Gary Manhine exclusively for Anna Calvi Unofficial Fansite. Manhine portrayed Anna in 2010 for the newspaper The Stool Pigeon, when she had only released her first single Jezebel.

Your discographical debut (2011) was a true epiphany and I personally loved One Breath (2013) too. It was a considerable acknowledgment of your talent and I liked very much the different moods of its songs. Musically speaking, Hunter is a very good album but I think it has also been a real turnpoint for your career. A ‘manifesto’ of contents through which you showed yourself to the world in a stronger way. Are you satisfied how it was generally received by people, and by your fans in particular?

A: I am yes, especially in that I love the way people are more open with me than they have ever been before. I love to hear about other people’s lives in this way. I feel like the fact that I have been more open in my lyrics and in what matters to me has encouraged people to share more with me. The thing is, I don’t generally like talking about myself – I’m much more of a… listener, in life. So I’m always interested in how you feel!

In 2014 after we met in Verona, where you performed at the Teatro Romano (I have lots of good memories!) I decided to create a website dedicated to you. It’s a way to show my passion and also to focus on your creativity. On it you can find a complete discography, a gallery section dedicated to several photographers you worked with and also an exclusive interview with the marvellous Mally! There is at least one page dedicated to every project you worked on, from Peaky Blinders to Strange Weather, from The Sandman to your collaborations with Marianne Faithfull or Jeff Goldblum. You are still a young artist but in around a decade of discographical activity you did a lot, and you have really consolidated your name in the music scene. What are you mostly proud of?

A: It means more to me than you could know, that you have spent the time creating this website and documenting what I’ve done. I feel so lucky to have such caring, intelligent and passionate supporters of my music. I do remember this meeting! I hope we can meet again some day soon! The things I am most proud of… are still learning to sing, because this changed my life. Working with Marianne Faithfull I’m hugely proud of (We have just heard the news she has been hospitalized for coronavirus, we send her all our love and strength. Get well soon Marianne! author’s note). She’s such a wonderful artist. I’m proud of The Sandman because it was so different from anything I had done before: I had to say yes before understanding how I could actually pull off such a huge task. The same goes with Peaky Blinders. I have particularly fond memories of the first record. I remember taking a rough mix home of Love Won’t be Leaving, and thinking, I would be happy to die tomorrow because I’ve created something I really really believe in. I feel proud of One Breath because I made it in the midst of the most difficult time in my life, from a personal perspective. I don’t know how I got through it but I did, and that record is a testament to that. I am proud of Hunter because I had to be brave, and really open myself up and take a jump.

Anna has never hidden her love for Bowie: posing like him with the long-play Low, recording her studio version of Lady Grinning Soul from the EP Strange Weather and performing live several covers, also from his last masterpiece Blackstar.

I am a real and unconditional aficionado of David Bowie and Jeff Buckley. I know they are true passions for you too. Along your career you elegantly showed your admiration for them (I simply went crazy listening your Lilac Wine’s excerpt on Instagram!). Sometimes you recorded or performed some interesting covers… How much are these two incredible talents an inspiration for you? I seriously think the way you play the guitar is because of Jeff. And David… well, it was just an incredible artist! Do you think you will record other studio covers of them in the future?

A: Jeff Buckley changed my life. He made me want to be a singer, he informed my guitar playing and sound, and he constantly reminds me of the purity of wild expression. I get annoyed when people compare me to say PJ Harvey because I find it a bit lazy, but I am happy and proud to say that Jeff had a huge influence on me. In the same way that I am proud to say I have my mother’s eyes. He is part of me now, and I love that. With David Bowie, he is less a direct influence on my sound… but I’ve grown up with him and it still blows my mind that someone could have so many amazing songs!* How is it possible?! I would love to do more covers, especially one of Jeff’s. It made me really happy to see how many people suggested covers for me to try, when I asked on Instagram. I now have a very large pool to choose from!

* It is interesting to know that the British folk-rock and actor Johnny Flynn, with whom Anna collaborated on his album Been Listening, during her Attic Sessions and supported live in 2009, has played as David Bowie in the forthcoming movie Stardust, just presented on an online premiere after the cancellation of the Film Tribeca Festival.
Some 7” vinyls published by Anna for Domino Records: Jezebel/Moulinette (2010), Desire/Joan of Arc (2011), Suzanne & I/Baby it’s you (2011) and Suddenly/Fire (2013). Each one contains a fabulous cover song.

Nowadays music has become a very strange thing. We observe a triumph of the digital and liquid supports but also a revival of the vinyl. I have a weak for the CD-single format from the Noughtiest but I strongly miss your 7” vinyl singles that Domino Records used to release from your two first albums. They were amazingly packed and had excellent b-sides!

A: I know, I miss those vinyl singles too! I do think I will release another in the future, I can’t say more but I don’t think it’s the last.

What are your habits as a listener? Are you a collector?

A: I have all my dad’s vinyl but I’m enjoying listening to CDs since lockdown. I have a CD player in my kitchen, and I’ve been cooking to Mina’s and Maria Callas’ CDs. There’s something special about holding this body of work in your hand, even if it is a CD and not a vinyl. I feel like Spotify adds to the feeling that music and the work of musicians is somehow disposable.

Your musical tastes are very ecletic and sometimes you quoted the Italian singer Mina. When will you cover Il cielo in una stanza?

A: I’m listening to this song now – I hadn’t heard it before – I love it!

I dare to suggest you a book, a movie and an album that I think could meet your taste:
– Merri Cyr: 25 YEARS OF GRACE 
– Luca Guadagnino: A BIGGER SPLASH 
– Gavin Friday:  SHAG TOBACCO 
Can you recommend some to me?

A: Oh yes, Merri Cyr has taken all the best shots of Buckley for sure, I’d love to see this book. I loved A Bigger Splash! This is a great film, and I will listen to Gavin Friday! I saw the film Portrait of a Lady on Fire the other night and I loved it. It’s quite special. Did you hear that the yesterday Hal Willner* has passed away from Coronavirus? I’m really sad about this. I met him once, he was lovely, and he was instrumental in Jeff Buckley’s career. So in memory to him I’m going to spend the day listening to the records he produced. Do you know Margaret O Hara? I’m really enjoying this performance of her at the moment’m also listening to The Hissing of Summer Lawns by Joni Mitchell. The Jungle Line is such a crazy song, it sounds like it was made yesterday. It’s quite a tough album to listen to, but I love it and imagine how horrified her label must have been when they heard it! I like hearing artists when they go out into space with their records and not worry about how they’re going to get back to earth.

On the left Jeff Buckley with Hal Willner, on the right the wild side of Jeff on stage. Both pictures by © Merri Cyr, who also provided the cover photo for Grace
* Hal Willner has been a great American producer who collaborated with dozens of  amazing musicians like Iggy Pop, Debbie Harry, Paul McCartney, Michael Stipe, Nick Cave, Lou Reed… for recordings, live events, films and TV. He had the talent to match different music genres and to engage a wide variety of artists for unique projects. He launched Jeff Buckley’s career through the live tribute Greetings from Tim Buckley (1991) and later he produced Jeff in studio twice, for Jazz Passenger – In Love (1994) and E.A.Poe – Closed on Account of Rabies (1997). Willner died on April 7, 2020. 

Thanks for this interview Anna!

A: If there’s anything I can do for you, as an artist, I am here for you! I send all my love to you. I look forward to seeing you on the other side.


Thanks to Hiroki, to all the photographers who helped me to provide this article with some of their (some unreleased) photos of Anna and to Merri Cyr.

Interview conceived and realised by Matteo Tonolli, exclusively for Anna Calvi Unofficial Fansite, © 2020.

Photos of Anna: © Adriano Russo, © Simon and © Gary Manhine, photo of Jeff Buckley: © Merri Cyr.

Another shot by Adriano Russo. He took the photos of Anna in the the backstage of Alcatraz (Milan) in 2011.