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Anna Calvi
Anna Calvi Ben Hewitt , January 18th, 2011 07:55

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In 1928, Virginia Woolf delivered a lecture at Cambridge University about female writers and fiction. Amongst the major obstacles hindering them - patriarchy, a forced domesticated existence and a lack of financial independence being the most prominent - she identified a need to throw off the shackles of the past. "I have said that a woman writing thinks back through her mothers," she declared, believing Samuel Coleridge's vision of the great androgynous mind the state most conducive to creativity.

Were she alive in 2011, one imagines that Woolf would still be agitating - not because her ideals haven't been met, but because of the dogged persistence with which all manner of female artists are chained to their forbearers. Take Anna Calvi, for example: the half-English, half-Italian singer whose self-titled debut album showcases finger-picking skills worthy of Django Reinhardt and an Ennio Morricone-like ear for sweeping cinematic scores, and yet is still laden with those blessed, blasted comparisons to PJ Harvey. It's baffling, because despite some tangential links between the two - most obviously, Calvi's co-producer Rob Ellis moonlights as Harvey's drummer - they're tenuous at best. And there's certainly little common ground to be found in-between the bruised ruminations of Let England Shake and the swaggering, smouldering Anna Calvi.

Instead, the record that Anna Calvi recalls most strongly - in tone rather than aesthetic - is Two Dancers by fellow Domino cohorts Wild Beasts. Like the Kendal troupe, Calvi has a fine knack for combining the beautiful and the bawdy, and milking romance from the most steamy of moonlit assignations. There's something less playfully rambunctious about her delivery, and less emphasis on arched eyebrows and sly innuendo, but the intent is no less seductive. On 'No More Words', she breathlessly implores a lover to "Hold me down, and hold me close tonight" as a sultry guitar lick reminiscent of Television's Marquee Moon plays in the background, while on 'I'll Be Your Man' she resembles a singer in some dimly lit cabaret, huskily promising to "be your lover in the night". Yet as lascivious as it may sound, there's something elegant about Anna Calvi, too; she sounds more like a heroine from a classic black-and-white flick than a rowdy dame on 'First We Kiss' as she sings, amidst a backdrop of strings, "First we kiss… and then we lock the door".

Just as Luke Turner recognised that all of Wild Beast's hooting and howling would ring hollow without the tunes to match it, too, so Calvi's roving spirit is given substance by her deft hand for instrumentation. There's a filmic feel that runs throughout Anna Calvi_, as showcased by opening track 'Rider To The Sea', in which her voice is only heard for the briefest of moments while the foreground is dominated by windswept pearls of guitar and gently crashing percussion. When her vocal is dropped into the mix, there's something chameleonic about it, effortlessly switching guises between Bond-movie femme fatale on the rich and brassy 'Suzanne And I' and soul-searching loner on sparse centrepiece 'The Devil'. And fittingly, it ends with 'Love Won't Be Leaving': a fiercely triumphant close in which Calvi invites a paramour to "Draw my name in the sand, and hope you'll find me", remaining defiant as the final curtain comes down.

There are moments when the sparkle fades, of course - ironically, the plodding 'Desire' is as likely to serve as appropriate accompaniment to the throes of passion as an old re-run of Top Gear - but Anna Calvi still oozes sophistication. Ignore the baseless comparisons: right now, by proving it's possible to be class rather than crass without being any less enticing, Calvi is in a league of her own.

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Jan 18, 2011 1:26pm

My housemate and I put on Anna Calvi two nights ago in the living room for a first listen. Within five minutes one of us said, "Sounds quite PJ Harvey". Ten minutes later the other said, "Very PJ Harvey." What you're trying here is an old trick, of attempting to wed (hurh hurh) an artist to a greater social movement, in order to paint any criticism of the artist as some kind of violation of the movement, thus stifling doubters. If we think she sounds like PJ Harvey, then we must fundamentally believe that all women are PJ Harvey. Or maybe that PJ Harvey is her mum? Whatever. But notice how hardly anyone ever accuses Joanna Newsom or Karen O or Annie Clark of sounding like PJ Harvey? The reason is because they don't. Whereas Anna Calvi does. So stop obfuscating.

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David M
Jan 18, 2011 5:12pm

In reply to somethingmissing:

Damn, I came down to the comments to say what you said less eloquently. So yeah, what PJ said.

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Jan 19, 2011 5:33pm

Have been checking out AC today, as a woman who loves to find strong new female voices I was looking forward to her music (from what I'd read she sounded like the real deal).

I'm disappointed though. I agree Calvi is def v influenced by PJ despite her comments to the contrary and this review. I am interested to notice that Calvi in an interview I've just read says, unenthusiastically, that she 'likes' PJ, but Nick Cave she describes as one of her 'musical Gods'. She talks about Eno offering himself as her 'protector' and how he texted Cave to tell him to 'treat her well' or some such, how they are both 'gentlemen' treating her like a 'lady' no doubt..she is described as 'girlishly polite' and is positively 'gushing' when she talks about Eno. ugh. The picture I am beginning to get is that she is effusive in her praise of alpha males (especially the ones backing her) but less forthcoming in her adulation of women who clearly influence her (unless they're dead). One of those 'strong women' who don't discourage alpha males from seeing themselves as protectors (or at least to appear to which is good enough to melt the hearts of alpha males) and is a bit of a Margaret Thatcher when it comes to acknowledging her female forebears ..what a bore, no wonder the music is anaemic at heart, it's dressing up as 'powerful' rather than the real thing, she's correct when she says she can only access power on stage, she doesn't do it in interview. She's irritating.

PJ on the other hand wouldn't be caught dead talking about protectors and nor, indeed, would the wonderful Virginia Woolf in her day! Calvi is a chameleon indeed, great at what she describes as 'taking' from diverse musical styles but there's no heart or soul there and the power is pretence. Oh well, what does she care, everyone's falling for it, which shows how x factored we've all become

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Jan 26, 2011 9:51am

Have just listened to the new Joan As Policewoman album (someone else who doesn't sound like PJ). Why doesn't she get the attention and praise that Calvi does?

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Mar 4, 2011 7:13pm

I've been listening to the Anna Calvi album for the last hour or so and have been having a little look around the internet. What I've read has tempted me into the debate.

She's an interesting case in the current music scene, she cites references like Nina Simone, Edith Piaf, Maria Callas etc and says listening to them has taught her to sing. You can certainly hear the shapings and phrasings (along with the likes of Elvis, Jeff Buckley, Roy Orbison, Antony and the Johnsons etc) but the question remains, does her voice convey any of the 'soul' of singers like these? In the end I think no, although she's no doubt talented.

Maybe it's because of the lives that fueled these others, they are probably of a different order then that which has generated the 'dark forces' driving Calvi's singing. That Nina Simone came out of the cradle of the violent struggle around racism in the US, that Edith Piaf's childhood involved being dragged up on the streets, in a brothel and in a traveling circus, or that Maria Callas grew up in brutally tough and poverty darkened wartime does, I suspect, produce a different order of dark forces and will to fight back and survive. Real beauty can come, it seems, from those sorts of dark times.

It's great that there are young singers trying things out and making very appealing music but I do think it's important to maintain a sense of perspective about the really great. Even in the case of PJ Harvey, she seems to be deeply rooted in her world and in her land (in terms of nationhood as well as the natural environment of her home, its sea and white cliffs). Her latest work is digging even more deeply into real beauty I think.

I suspect the more negative reaction I've read to Anna Calvi's music is caused by an almost visceral response to an over glib association of her with really great music. If her music was being presented less grandiosely but as, instead, the enjoyable and well put together pop music it is, I'm sure everyone would be happy to agree. I find the album a little thin in the end but it has some good moments and is, over all, enjoyable and rich in drama and Calvi is a very talented guitarist.

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Mar 9, 2011 1:34pm

I like her but she wears her influences too much on her sleeve. She says she writes music quickly when something 'moves' her. It's not too hard to hear what moves her. TV on the Radio, for example, compare and contrast the last 30secs - 1min of 'family tree' and anna calvi's 'morning light'. She mix and matches from diverse influences and it can be hard to hear beyond them. Nice tho. I like Tv on the Radio

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Apr 3, 2011 10:03pm

Yeesh, everyone's a fucking critic. You'll whine and moan about how music these days is shit, but then when someone who is genuinely talented and creative comes along to change things, you'll nitpick everything about them and deem them shit as well.

You people need to get the stick out of your asses.

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Apr 9, 2011 4:57pm

In reply to teena:

Do you really think Anna Calvi has come around to "change things"? I think not. Most reviews have been positive but what I hear - and feel - is that she is very accomplished, but cold. In other words, studied, but soulless. It's fantastic to have a wide range of female musicians but please the praise in this case, seems a bit too PR-centric.

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Caterina Velasco
Aug 18, 2011 8:56pm

At last, thank goodness, some common sensen in a review. Virtually any female artist coming out since the 90s has been compared, sometimes unfavourably, to PJ Harvey. Quite right, Calvi is in her own league and deserves far more than the clannish sniping from some 'music' fans. At last, it looks like someone may run away with the crown.

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Jan 8, 2012 6:05pm

In reply to teena:

I completely agree, teena. The silly snobbishness on display here by the PJ Harvey fan club is something else. I doubt if any of those carping on this thread could come up with anything like Anna Calvi has managed. Proof that great artists often have an unfortunately high proportion of pretentious, swivel-eyed folk among their fans.

As for Colette's daft rating of artists according to 'suffering', try this Colette: Anna Calvi spent the first couple of years of her life very ill in hospital. I personally doubt if it makes her music one bit better or worse, but perhaps that will earn her some more grudging respect from an expert like yourself who appears to need accompanying biographical notes in order to evaluate whether art is any good or not.

There are plenty of artists who have fascinating and gruelling lives who are still not great artists, and equally ones who've had unremarkable and not particularly hard ones who ARE great artists. Evidently the thicko self-appointed critics on this thread can't get their heads round that uncomfortable but unremarkable fact.

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Feb 12, 2013 8:05am

Okay, first off. I love Anna Calvi, and I love PJ Harvey too. You know what they are? Great MUSICIANS. I think the biggest mistake people make is assuming that every single woman in music is only there to make a statement about gender. That just reinforces sexist attitudes in the music industry, as it presents female musicians as a novelty. Calvi has no obligation to make a feminist statement in every interview, just as a male artist doesn't have to talk about his masculinity all the time in relation to his music.

It's extremely unfair on Anna Calvi to judge her based on her interview persona. She would be the first person to admit that she is extremely shy, and that music offers her a way to remove herself from her reserved nature. It is ridiculous to imply, as some have above, that she looks to men as her protectors, and only cites males as her musical influences. Watch any interview and chances are you'll hear about Maria Callas, Edith Piaf or Nina Simone.

I think Anna Calvi is interested in creating great music more than anything else. Her album is atmospheric and her guitar abilities are outstanding. I can't believe how many people are looking down on her ability to make music, because anyone that does so has clearly not truly listened to the album, only judged it unfairly based on her gender and personality.

I would agree that at times Calvi has a similar voice to Harvey, and I think this is irrelevant and something that cannot be helped by either person. PJ has a great voice, and so does Anna! All voices are bound to sound like other voices sometimes. I would attribute this similarity to their similar physical size, accent and preferred range. I don't think that PJ would even claim to own a particular voice, as she changes her vocals on every album.

It's plainly just disrespectful to a great musician to rag on this album because you can't be bothered to give it the time of day. To the right set of ears this is a piece of art, and Calvi has done a great job. I feel sorry for anyone that hasn't given this a chance.

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Oct 5, 2013 6:32am

i find this article rather silly to deny the obvious similarities between calvi and harvey. It does not devalue either to notice these.. in fact if anything it is a wonderful compliment. Harvey a female artist whom is searching always for new ground and finding her authenticity and the same for calvi... the fact is they do have a darkness alike, both an avant-garde taint, a deep resonating vocal range, a strong presence subtle presence on stage... They also have many differences... but to ignore the similarities is a little odd... both songwriters are incredibly talented in their own ways... I look forward to hear more from calvi and to see what roads her music develops into...

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