It’s been a busy 18 months for singer and guitarist Anna Calvi. She spoke by phone to Young Post about her 2018, third full-length album Hunter (which earned her a third Mercury Prize nomination), scoring music for the hugely popular TV series Peaky Blinders, and touring Hunter around the world. But she isn’t taking any time off.
“When I came back from tour, I hadn’t listened to the very first recordings I made of these songs, which I’d written and recorded on my own,” explains the singer. She is now releasing Hunted – a reworking of the Hunter demos.
“I guess the songs naturally evolve over time, and playing them live, they can become a bigger beast than they were originally which is fun – to see them grow,” says Calvi.
She adds, “I liked the fact they had a rawness and vulnerability about them, because I felt that it gave another side to the songs.”
Calvi roped in some of her favourite singers to feature on these reworked tracks; Courtney Barnett appears on lead single Don’t Beat the Girl Out My Boy, while other singers include Charlotte Gainsbourg, Julia Holter, and Joe Talbot from punk band Idles.
“It was quite nerve-wracking, sending early demos of your songs to your favourite singers,” says the softly-spoken virtuoso, “but I feel really honoured that they said yes to singing on them.”
Calvi whose music has been consistently described as “cinematic” by critics, was approached by 20th-century gangster TV show Peaky Blinders to write music for its fifth season, giving her a creative opportunity she couldn’t refuse.
“I had to work incredibly quickly, and it wasn’t about what I had to say,” says Calvi, who took five years between 2013’s One Breath and Hunter.
“It was about what the image is saying and how to represent in music what the emotion of the image was saying, so that’s a very different way of working.
“I found it very liberating for [the music] to not be centred around me. It was a great feeling being more collaborative because I usually work very solitarily, but with this it was a constant dialogue with the directors.”
Not only was it an exciting project to be involved in, Peaky Blinders also helped her learn more about her own writing process.
“I learned that it’s okay to trust your instincts and to work quickly. You don’t have to always ask yourself so many questions before deciding on something, and I think that’s a really good lesson for me.”
In February, Calvi was selected as Ambassador for Independent Venue Week 2020, a seven-day celebration of small venues around Britain, where live music spaces often face similar struggles to those in Hong Kong.
“I think it’s a really important cause, as I’ve watched all my favourite venues in London close down, and I think it’s such an important way for artists to develop their craft and skill, and to also work on what kind of performer they want to be – away from any kind of pressure to be a perfect version of yourself.”
Calvi herself spent years perfecting her almost-operatic roar of a voice.
“I would listen to singers that I really loved, like [late US musician] Scott Walker, and try to emulate their sound ... I would sing along or I would play a phrase, stop the record and then see if I could match it.” It fits in to her mantra of hard work and an unrelenting drive to succeed.
Her advice to aspiring musicians? “Focus on making the most of the things that you feel you’re naturally good at, and spend time working on the things that you’re that you’re not so good at,” she says. “And have a vision that’s strong enough that nobody can come along and tell you that you should do it any other way.”