- 11 Sep 18
Anna Calvi’s Hunter tears up archaic notions about gender and identity. She talks to Peter McGoran about embracing a more primal side, working with legendary post-punk producer Nick Launey, and finding the space to create her best album yet.
If ever you wanted to hear what a passionate howl sounds like when it comes from someone who has completely renounced stagnant ideas about gender expectations, have a listen to ‘Hunter’, track two on Anna Calvi’s album of the same name. Sounding like the awakening of some kind of mythic beast, it’s Calvi at her most liberated.
“Music has always been a way for me to escape any sense of gender,” she says, kicking back in London. “My music is quite genderless. And I’ve also always tried to explore my masculinity in my music and my stage persona. This time I felt inspired to go even further in that direction. I sought to be more open and intimate lyrically; I wanted to imagine that if this was the last record I ever did, that it meant something to me and felt very honest.”
To reach the stage where Calvi was able to do this, Hunter required a longer gestation period. While her self-titled debut album was released in 2011 and the follow-up, One Breath, was out two years later, Hunter took the better part of five years. In the intervening period, Calvi was building up an impressive CV for herself, which saw her record an EP of cover songs with help from David Byrne; releasing a track for 2015’s The Divergent Series film; writing music for an opera titled The Sandman; and appearing on an EP celebrating the work of David Bowie (her own contribution was a flawless rendition of ‘Blackstar’, which she described as a “magical moment”).
Despite everything else that was going on, however, groundwork for Hunter actually commenced relatively soon after the release of One Breath. “It was when I finished touring that record, which was back in 2014,” explains Calvi. “I started work on it quite soon after One Breath, but I took my time because I wanted this record to be something I could truly believe in. I wrote a lot of songs before I could finally find a connection that felt right.”
The album begins with the question “If I was a man and opened my body/Oh, would I now understand you completely?”. Thereafter, the ten songs continue to question – and upend – the notions of what it means to be a “man” or “woman”, or to have a sense of identity at all. To those who know Calvi, this has long been a preoccupation for her. She cut her teeth playing regular gigs at the London LGBT hotspot Candy Bar, and quietly explored queer identity on her early hit ‘Suzanne And I’.
“I started writing songs around the subject of a woman being a hunter,” she notes. “I was exploring gender as part of a spectrum. It was an expression of wanting to be free of any constraints. I wanted the record to feel wild and visceral, So I tried to push my voice and guitar playing in that way to really express those ideas.”
Borne from a desire to be “more emotional than cerebral”, Hunter has an off-the-cuff potency that is truly arresting. Take ‘Don’t Beat The Girl Out Of My Boy’, for example, the first song to be released from the album. It lies somewhere between being an ethereal number and a straightforward rock song – but the contrasting textures work beautifully. Similarly, Calvi’s virtuoso guitar work allows her to both tie down complex themes with simple, beguiling rhythms, and act as a counterpart to the liberated howls that pepper the record.
The influence of Nick Launey, who co-produced the album, was vital here.
Hunter, an album by Anna Calvi on Spotify
“I loved Nick’s work with PiL,” says Calvi. “The visceral production of Flowers Of Romance sounded like nothing I’d heard before. Then I loved his work with Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds as well. Those records feel like they’re alive and breathing. They’re very organic, and I wanted this album to feel like it was a live animal.”
The idea of gender was obviously very personal for Anna, but was she also thinking about the cultural moment we’re living through?
“I was,” she nods. “And I was inspired to see other people making music about it. It definitely feels like a really fertile time for queer artists, and, you know, it gives you strength to see people exploring these ideas.
“There were lots of people I could point to in terms of influencing that, but Perfume Genius was a particularly big inspiration. He is really personal and intimate in his songs. And that idea of taking a risk, as a singer and a writer, is really important.”
On another note, Anna has also been vigilant in maintaining an open dialogue with her fans in the lead up to this release (one of the few benefits of social media!). How important is that for her?
“I wanted to feel more open and share how I feel,” she replies. “In turn, people have been more open with me. I find that dialogue to be really rejuvenating and wonderful. I’ve had messages from people who are thankful that I’ve been addressing issues like gender in the way that I am.”
Anna Calvi showcases Hunter at Empire Music Hall, Belfast (September 27) and the Tivoli, Dublin (28).