Anna Calvi: One Breath

by Michael Pearson


In hindsight, it feels as though British music had been patiently waiting for a female figure to follow in the independent footsteps of the likes of Kate Bush, Annie Lennox and PJ Harvey; an artist not afraid to provoke unsung emotion and embrace musical unorthodoxy.  Whilst the modern music world is spoilt for choice in terms of female icons, few seem to reach the masses without becoming consumed by mainstream popular culture and celebrity status.

In late 2010, our persevering prayers and patient ears were rapturously greeted by sounds of Anna Calvi.  The English singer and guitarist extraordinaire was nominated for the BBC’s Sound of 2011 poll, and early that year released her Mercury-nominated, self-titled debut.  Calvi’s music falls somewhere between rock, contemporary classical, chanson, cabaret, flamenco, and a Spaghetti Western soundtrack.  Or, better put, one could say that these genres fall somewhere between her songs.


Amica Magazine (Italy), Sept 13 issue. Photography by Amelia Troubridge

“For me, being creative is about going into the depths of your psyche where things are going to get a big strange and a bit ugly, and a bit just… weird.”[1]

Few artists seem to convey the sincere emotion and modest intelligence that Calvi’s music carries.  With a modern Impressionistic style – reminiscent of a range of her contemporary classical forebears – her music is laden with imagery and emotion.  Though I would suggest that Calvi expresses a subtlety and ambiguity that that surpasses mere Impressionism, and perhaps it would be more fitting to consider her a Symbolist.  The same has been said of Claude Debussy; a key influence on Anna.  As writer Cecil Gray commented on Debussy’s music, his purpose was ‘not to evoke a definite picture, but to suggest the mood or emotion which the particular image in question aroused in the artist’s mind’.[2]  Many critics have compared Calvi’s music to that of a Quentin Tarantino or David Lynch soundtrack, which seems to me merely a modern equivalent to Gray’s words on Impressionism; a modern response to visually provocative music.

Early on in her career, Calvi found herself in an extraordinary position of having legendary producer Brian Eno as a sort of unofficial mentor.  Eno spoke very highly of her art, which no doubt helped spread her name throughout the underground British music and art scene.  However, the pressure of critical acclaim is something that Anna has done well to ignore: “I just have to make something that I feel happy with, and then be able to stand behind [it] and say ‘this is what I wanted to make and it doesn’t really matter what anyone else thinks’”.[3]

Released October 7th on Domino, One Breath, has promised a fresh bank of songs, with perhaps an air of confidence that the debut lacked.  The production of her first record was modest yet consistent, giving her sound a sense of unity and space for her songs to breathe.  However, the new record covers a far wider range of arrangement and production techniques, allowing a mass of sounds and emotions – both desirable and adverse – to shine through.

“I did want to experiment with a broader spectrum of sounds because I wanted there to be a broader spectrum of emotion.”[4]

Perhaps the most bold array of emotions are expressed in “Cry”.  This song comprehends “trying to get a reaction from someone”[5]; the paradoxical sensation of wanting to make someone that you care about cry.

Sweet is the sound;

It’s the sound that I hold

When I see in your eyes

That it’s wrong.

But if you love me, won’t you cry.

Calvi manifests this feeling in a heavily screeching slide guitar part, with an atonal nature that depicts the duplicity of the situation.

“I definitely wanted to experiment with heavier sounds. I really wanted to use the guitar as a dramatic device, rather than just using it as an accompanying instrument.”[6]

One Breath is twofold in more ways than one, and seems to have achieved a sensitive stability between pop and art.  This becomes clear within the first song, “Suddenly”, with a quirky-pop chorus that is repetitive in nature and catchy in melody, carefully contrasted by an tense gothic resonance.

“You could go on an experimental journey with your music whilst people still liking it.  To get that balance is really tricky but I think that’s the answer to being creatively satisfied”[7]

The first single, “Eliza”, proved to be a slow-burner.  In comparison to the spacious arrangements characteristic of her debut, this song is driven by high energy and rhythmic monotony, though – as I later realised – to great effect.  This arrangement allows room for elusive yet powerful dynamic shifts and a blissful sense of release as the song ends.

The first track to offer a complete shift in direction is “Piece By Piece” – sounding like Kid-A-era Radiohead song – which moves abrasively from an experimental pizzicato doodle to a form of musical paradox, somewhere between musique concrète and dream pop.

With “Sing To Me”, Calvi seems to be picking up where she left off, with a broad and grandiose sound akin to the final track off her debut, “Love Won’t Be Leaving”.  This piece boasts a bold and dynamic arrangement, moving dreamily and seamlessly from a tentatively fragile first verse to an epical instrumental finale, embracing a sweeping orchestral arrangement.

The album’s title track, “One Breath”, is a telling sign of Calvi’s true intent with this record.  The lyric is clear in message, depicting the intake of one last breath before a life-altering moment.

“It’s that idea of going microscopically into the situation, and kind of drawing as much from it and as much detail as you possibly can.”[8]

I’ve got one, one breath to give.

I’ve got one, one second to live.

Before I say

What I’ve got to say.

Before I breathe,

It’s gonna change everything.

Nevertheless – and boding well with Gray’s analysis of Symbolism over Impressionism – the details remain ambiguous; the listener is engaged with the artist’s reaction, whilst able to relate personally to the situation.

The song builds with a dark yet subtle intensity.  The music slowly consumes Calvi’s tentative vocal, before a wonderfully dramatic shift into a late-Romantic-esque classical piece.  This transition feels unexpected, yet long-awaited; overwhelming, yet contented; much like “when you’re about to do something that you’re really scared of, or is gonna really change your life, for the better or for the worst.”[9]

“Love Of My Life” provokes a sentiment that does not exist in your average love song; a powerful and quite aggressive statement that ‘you must be the love of my life’, coupled with a heavily distorted guitar and vocal, and yet more squealing, dissonant solos.

“With that song I just wanted it to be loud and abrasive because of the content of the song”[10]

“Carry Me Over” contains the album’s most compelling and mature use of orchestration, a truly dream-like composition that does not deserve to be crudely deconstructed by myself.  In fact, the same goes for the whole record.  Despite my fascination for the fine details and wider context of this album, I will conclude with one simple recommendation:

Listen to the album and let it provoke whatever weird and wonderful emotions that we all sometimes forget to feel.


[1] October 7th, 2013. BBC Radio 6 Music, “Anna Calvi Live In Session For Lauren Laverne”

[2] A Survey of Contemporary Music, (London: Oxford University Press, 2/1927), 98-9

[3] October 7th, 2013. BBC Radio 6 Music, “Anna Calvi Live In Session For Lauren Laverne”

[4] Gumble, D. September 23rd, 2013. Musical Instrument Professional, “INTERVIEW: Anna Calvi on the making of One Breath”.

[5] October 7th, 2013. BBC Radio 6 Music, “Anna Calvi Live In Session For Lauren Laverne”

[6] Gumble, D. September 23rd, 2013. Musical Instrument Professional, “INTERVIEW: Anna Calvi on the making of One Breath”.

[7] Bianciardi, M. September 24th, 2013. iCrates, “Straight to the core of an undefined place: a talk with Anna Calvi”.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Gumble, D. September 23rd, 2013. Musical Instrument Professional, “INTERVIEW: Anna Calvi on the making of One Breath”.