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Opinion | Anna Calvi’s songs explode gender stereotypes

Anna Calvi has established her own distinctive style. Her songs have often dealt with sexuality, sensuality and gender

Anna Calvi performing at a music festival in France in July 2015. Photo: AFP
Anna Calvi performing at a music festival in France in July 2015. Photo: AFP

British singer, songwriter and guitarist Anna Calvi likens the record producer’s role to that of a ship’s first mate, someone who, as the skipper’s right-hand man, can fill in for him and ensure that the ship stays on course even if the captain takes a break. On her just-released third album, Hunter, Calvi sought out the celebrated Nick Launay to be her producer. Launay has worked with a staggering array of musicians, including Nick Cave, Arcade Fire, Kate Bush, and earlier with Lou Reed. His influence on Hunter’s songs is evident: big, bold arrangements that make for a massive soundscape that is theatrical and cinematic.

It perfectly complements Calvi’s virtuosity, both as a singer and a hugely talented guitarist. When Calvi released her first, self-titled album in 2011, she quickly earned critical acclaim—for her operatic singing as well as the way she shreds her guitar. She was compared to Cave, to Patti Smith, and to P. J. (Polly Jean) Harvey. Her style is chameleon-like, embracing genres as varied as cabaret and flamenco, blues and dark Gothrock. On stage, she often favours bright red costumes and her performances are dramatic. On her first album, she refreshingly eschewed formulaic compositions, opting instead to be unpredictable. Her hauntingly dramatic vocals and complex manner of playing the guitar quickly made her a critics’ darling and she was nominated for Britain’s prestigious Mercury Prize for the best album of the year. Two years later, she released her second album, One Breath, grander and more dramatic than the debut album.

Hunter, which has come out after a five-year interval, is the 37-year-old’s best work till date. While her two earlier records quite clearly showed how talented she is, there were also constant comparisons that people made—to Harvey, and Cave, of course, but also to the late American singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley, and to the French singer Edith Piaf. With Hunter, Calvi has established her own distinctive style. Calvi’s songs have often dealt with sexuality, sensuality and gender. But Hunter is like a concept album that explores sexuality by breaking the stereotype of gender conformity. “I want to go beyond gender," she said of her new album, “I don’t want to have to choose between the male and female in me."

Several of the songs on Hunter go beyond the gender binary. The first half of the album comprises tracks that can seem related. On As A Man, the opening track, Calvi sings angrily about the constraints of not “walking and talking as a man". On the second, and title, track, Hunter, she sings about dressing in leather and flowers and of the freedom of enjoying sexual pleasures. On the third, and what I consider the standout, track, Don’t Beat The Girl Out Of My Boy, she explores gender fluidity, the freedom of not being either male or female but somewhere in the middle of the spectrum.

Calvi wrote the album during a period when she ended a long relationship and moved to France to begin a new life with a French woman. During this period she did a lot of introspection on her sense of gender and sexuality and of breaking the stereotype of the male protagonist. “I wanted to write an album where the woman is seen as the hunter, rather than her usual stereotypical role in our culture as the hunted," she said in a press statement that announced her album.

Hunter’s sound is a contrasting mix: primal and raw but also vulnerable and quiet. Calvi sings passionately but her vocal style can be mercurial—soaring aggressively at one moment and then dropping down to a gentle whisper. Her guitar riffs are similar. Her licks can be edgily aggressive and loud but also exquisitely elegant and soft. Critics have always lauded her guitar skills but on Hunter her talent is showcased at its electrifying best. On Alpha, another song that deals with the theme of gender, she questions why strength should be a masculine attribute. “The lights are on the TV is on/ My body is still on/ Electrified statuette against the high rise/ I wanna know if I can feel alive/ I wanna know cause I’m an alpha/ I divide and conquer," she sings. In the second half of the album, there are songs that are more reflective. On Swimming Pool, inspired by the British artist David Hockney’s paintings of the swimming pools of 1960s Los Angeles, which celebrated homosexuality, she sings of defiantly experiencing pleasure without shame.

Hunter is an album that comes at you in waves: powerfully aggressive at times but quietly unguarded at other times. In a recent interview with British post-punk band Savages’ front woman, Jehnny Beth (who does a weekly radio show on Apple Music’s Beats 1), Calvi talked about how, although she was classically trained as a violinist and has been playing the guitar since she was 9, she taught herself to sing only five years before her first album was released. That album, as I mentioned, got instant acclaim. Since then Calvi has collaborated with ex-Talking Heads co-founder David Byrne, earned the praise of veteran English musician Brian Eno, and has composed music for American experimental theatre director Robert Wilson.

For a listener, all three of Calvi’s records are highly engaging but on Hunter, that engagement is more intense. The swooping and ebbing of melodies; the ability to be strong and vulnerable simultaneously; and all of it delivered with Calvi’s captivating vocals and guitar riffs make the album one of this year’s best.


The Lounge List

Five tracks to bookend this week

1. ‘Don’t Beat The Girl Out Of My Boy’ by Anna Calvi from ‘Hunter’

2. ‘As A Man’ by Anna Calvi from ‘Hunter’

3. ‘Bleed Into Me’ by Anna Calvi from ‘One Breath’

4. ‘Hunter’ by Anna Calvi from ‘Hunter’

5. ‘Suzanne & I’ by Anna Calvi from ‘Anna Calvi’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

He tweets at @sanjoynarayan

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