Anna Calvi likes the color red; how free she feels when she binds her breasts; the work of Gus Van Sant and David Lynch, although not as much as everyone thinks; and taking her time between album cycles—her most recent album was five years in the making. She dislikes trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs); the film Pretty Woman (she revisited it recently and found it completely unwatchable); being randomly compared to female guitarists with whom she has no real affinity; and, as she puts it, “the tightrope between admiration and humiliation” that all artists must tread when they’re in the public eye.
I can name all these things that Calvi does and does not like and more besides (favorite artist: Jeff Buckley; guilty pleasure: Tom Cruise films), but I still don’t feel like I have a handle on her despite the pleasant hour we spend chatting in her record company’s offices. Getting a read on Calvi is like trying to find purchase on loose, scrabbly rock; she has the inscrutable quality I typically associate with people who are much smarter than me.
Preparing to meet her, I’d been nervous that she might be a difficult interview. In a 2011 profile with the Quietus, one music interviewer described the experience of meeting Calvi: “When I ask a question that's not really a question, she mocks me with a titter." I needn’t have worried. Even though it’s her birthday today and Calvi, wrapped up securely in a fluffy coat, almost certainly has better things to be doing, she answers all my questions with her characteristic thoughtfulness and intensity.
Calvi is currently mid-way through a UK tour to promote her third studio album, Hunter, which was released to mostly four and five star reviews earlier this summer. It’s a big piece of work: big in its ambition, in its swelling, crashing soundscapes, and big of heart. According to the PR notes that accompany the album, it’s a record about “exploring sexuality and breaking the laws of gender conformity… galvanising in its hunt for freedom.”
We live in a time of increased visibility for gender non-conforming, trans, and non-binary people. This is a good thing, and long overdue. But whenever a social movement that advocates for marginalized people breaks through into the mainstream—whether it’s feminism or mental health awareness—there are always celebrities who will trumpet their connections to the cause, however tenuous or recently adopted, in order to leverage the cultural zeitgeist.
Calvi is emphatically not one of those people: she has been banging this drum for a long, long time. In 2011 track "I’ll Be Your Man" from her self-titled debut album, Calvi, who is queer, sings: "I’ll be your man / Walking hand in hand by the side of the road."
She returns to this theme in her new track “Chain”, where she is on swaggering, grandiose form. “I’ll be the boy, you be the girl, I’ll be the girl, you be the boy,” she sings over swelling strings. If Hunter has one message, it’s that gender must be a malleable, accommodating thing. It's a baggy t-shirt to be slung on and off at will—not a corset.
“These issues have always been important to me,” says Calvi of the album’s message. “I get asked a lot, ‘is now the right time to be talking about these issues?’ I say, ‘it’s always the right time.’ Even if it was wildly unpopular, that wouldn’t be a reason for me not to talk about it.”
I tell Calvi that I’ve probably watched the music video for “Hunter,” the album’s title track, dozens of times. Directed by Berlin-based filmmaker Matt Lambert, whose work often explores queer intimacy, the video features androgynous models and dancers dancing and masturbating in a light-filled apartment. “Hunter” is a song, Calvi explains, about “exploring your body and sexuality without any sense of shame.”
She sings “nothing lasts” for the song’s chorus over and over, because there’s comfort in the knowledge that everything will eventually be over—even if there’s fear in there, too. “There’s something tragic about a sexual experience where you can be so in the moment that it feels like it can last forever, and the connection you have with someone feels like it could be forever, but it never can be. I find that quite beautiful,” Calvi says.
Most people would regard that sort of impermanence fairly terrifying, I counter. She smiles. “What would life be if it didn’t have an arc? We need a story: a beginning, a middle, and an end.”
In Calvi’s universe, women are hunters who dress in leather and kill to sate their appetites. In her recent video for “As A Man,” Calvi, wearing a leather chest binder, strides like Joan of Arc down a suburban street at nightfall. “When I was a teenager I used to tape up my own breasts, because I hated them,” she remembers. “A lot of teenagers want to have breasts, but I was horrified when it happened. I’d kind of forgotten that, so it was interesting for me to revisit doing it again, from another perspective, rather than feeling out of control, which is how I felt as a teenager.”
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Taping her breasts also allows Calvi to circumvent gender when she performs. “It’s about deciding for myself what part of me I wanted to show, and how I wanted to be shown. This idea of being a human and not wanting to be a gender is something I wanted to do in my performances.”
Trans rights and broader issues around gender identity are being debated at the highest levels of British politics today, as the government consults on proposals that would allow transgender people the right to self-identify rather than go through a costly and lengthy medicalized process of legal recognition. Calvi is aghast at efforts by TERFs to sabotage trans rights: “Not to be able to see that a trans woman is a woman is the root of all evil, really."
Most people who meet Calvi comment on the dissonance between her onstage and offstage persona. On stage, Calvi snarls and attacks her guitar like it’s a cheating ex, frequently ending sets with a storming cover of Suicide’s “Ghost Rider” before walking off stage, her guitar prone and mewling on the floor. Offstage, Calvi has the polite disposition of a college art teacher and an unexpectedly girlish voice.
“I used to feel guilty that I’m not more the person I am when I sing,” Calvi says. “But I actually feel like the ‘me’ on stage and the ‘me’ off stage need each other. Having that quietness and being reserved means that I save enough energy to be able to explode on the stage. I find it a beautiful thing and I’m not ashamed of it any more, and I don’t feel like I have to be like," she puts on a deep, booming voice, "'Hi, I’m Anna Calvi.'"
As it's Calvi's birthday, I ask whether she’s achieved what she’d hoped for by this point in her life. “I don’t really care about being well known,” the twice-Mercury Prize-nominated artist tells me. “I just wanted to feel that there were people who respected me as a musician, and that was my goal.” She allows herself a brief smile. “There are at least some people that do. So I guess I’ve done all right.”