Last month Anna Calvi dominated the stage at Wilton’s Music Hall. The show was an enrapturing live introduction to material from her devastatingly beautiful second record, One Breath, out Oct 7 on Domino Records. Dazed premieres the trailer for the album below, soundtracked by her new song "Sing To Me".
One Breath is a portrait by Calvi of recently-trodden emotional terrain, as the singer delved far into a tremulous personal landscape to create her songs. Her musical inspirations also stretched further for One Breath, as she looked to avant-garde musicians such as Steve Reich and John Adams to be able to better understand the manipulation of time within musical compositions. She deploys this knowledge to sensational effect on the title track of One Breath, which forms the centrepiece of the record. It is an audible conjuring of the stillness of air thick with the promise of a tremendous storm. The birds silent, the candles snuffed out by the pressure. The last snatch of oxygen stolen, before you speak and destroy your own world.
Mexico provided the group with much scope to illustrate the heightened states captured on ‘One Breath’, with its ever-present religious iconography set into kaleidoscopic scenery against vast ever-shifting skies. Travelling together they divided their time between the grand, private home of one of Deckker’s acquaintances, and explorations through the poorer surrounding rural land, as their patient local taxi driver became a tour guide of unusual natural spots and local villages. We spoke to Calvi to find out more about their Mexican journey, as well as her own personal one during the making of One Breath.
Dazed Digital: Could you feel the scope of these cinematic arrangements when you began to write the songs for One Breath?
Anna Calvi: I think about what the story is, and how to express it musically, so that leads me in to how to best arrange it. Reveals the atmosphere that it needs. I see the songs very visually, like mini-films. I often draw sketches to feed my imagination.
DD: Are these drawings very similar to the scenes depicted in the trailers and in your music videos?
Anna Calvi: I’ve been working with (photographer and video director) Emma Nathan for years, so we’re really on the same wave length in terms of images. Everything I do needs to be in line with my vision, expressing the sentiment of the music.
DD: When Roger Deckker suggested you travel to Mexico for the shoot, what made you say yes?
Anna Calvi: I was really happy to go because I've always been interested in Mexican art and culture. There’s a lot of rich, cultural heritage there, and the natural landscape of Mexico has always looked very beautiful to me. It really felt like the right place to go to shoot the album cover.
DD: Were there any specific Mexican artistic works or cultural periods that you were drawn to?
Anna Calvi: Visually I love the works of people like Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. I was always really interested in what happened there in the 40s and after the war. This period with all this creativity by Mexican artists and others drawn there. There are some really amazing female figures like Dolores Del Rio. She was the first Mexican star to cross over to Hollywood. She was very dramatic, very passionate and very much about expressing her sexual power. That’s not really what I am trying to get across, but her look definitely inspired me. Also the way Frida Kahlo addressed themes about being a woman in a way that was quite taboo at the time is inspiring. She wasn’t afraid to be a woman, and show her pain at the same time. It’s really important to show vulnerability and strength. That you can’t just be one or another.
DD: Once you arrived what features of Mexican landscape, both natural and human, made a lasting visual impression on you?
Anna Calvi: The landscapes were beautiful. I really love how colourful everything is, and although I’m not religious I love the imagery everywhere. It’s such a great advertisement for God, it almost makes me want to believe. All the altars are really eye-catching, and I like the idea of aspiring for something more meaningful. That’s the most appealing thing about religion, but then I don’t agree with the institution of it.
DD: Did the way religion appeared to be practiced in Mexico perhaps make more sense to you?
Anna Calvi: I guess, I don’t know enough about what it’s actually like to live in Mexico, but it seems to be something that people are a lot more passionate about. You kind of walk past open shops and there’s music playing and people are having a wake and singing. Religion just seems less oppressive there and more about people just allowing themselves to be expressive. The idea of facing death by singing about it, talking about it, seems like the much better way of dealing with it than the European idea of just carrying on silently. I always found it really interesting, how they have the Day of the Dead festival, Día de Muertos.
DD: Are you quite good at facing emotionally difficult situations?
Anna Calvi: Well, my parents are therapists so I’ve done quite a lot of facing my emotions head on. Sometimes you don’t want to know why you do things, but from a creative point of you it’s really helpful as you can explore yourself more. I definitely made a point of not trying to censor that coming out in the music this time, and allowing myself to be more vulnerable in the subject matter was really important. It’s quite a balancing act, this combination of sculpting a song and the technique in that, whilst trying to control this wild animal, your emotions, but it’s the process of doing something creative.
DD: You seem to have found this very unique musical realm to exist in, it seems almost timeless.
Anna Calvi: Yeah. I got asked earlier today about the music scene, whether I was aware that it had changed loads since the last record. It’s just so not of any concern to me what’s fashionable. It’s not how I approach music. I don’t care what some four-piece band are doing in Shoreditch. I’m passionate about being a music listener, but the good stuff will always come to the surface, be it from the sixteenth century or now. Being new is not what makes something good, but that’s not how the industry works.
DD: Having seen you live a few times now it also appears that you’re so completely in your own world on stage too. So much so that perhaps you wouldn’t be that affected by the audience being present or not.
Anna Calvi: I’m actually really sensitive to how the audience is feeling to me on stage, and it definitely affects my performance. When I feel like people are really wanting to engage with me, it just makes everything more intense, and that gives me energy to give even more. I really like looking into people’s eyes when I perform. Sometimes it really scares people and they look away, but sometimes you get people that really want to do it with you and you share this moment where you’re just staring at each other. It’s so intimate, it’s bizarre, but there’s something so thrilling about it. I guess I can’t do that kind of stuff in my normal life. I’m not really good at talking to people I don’t know. If I’m in a bar I just keep to myself, so this is a way of me being able to express this whole other side of connecting with people I don’t know.
DD: Do you mostly find yourself staring back at women or men in the audience?
Anna Calvi: It really depends on the energy I get from the person I’m looking at. I wouldn’t want to do it if I felt the person was like “Oh yeah, they’ve spotted me. They think I look fine.” In a way it’s easier to look at women, same as if you were in a bar and you were to stare at a man, they’d mostly assume that it’s because you fancied them, whereas when you stare at a woman it doesn’t have to be that, it can just be what it is.