It's December in Dingle and a representative from Domino Records introduces the Sunday Tribune to Anna Calvi. Except, this can't be Anna Calvi. In the corner of the hotel bar a petite girl sinks into the couch and her surroundings with shyness, all blonde ringlets and red lipstick.
She stretches out her fragile hand in greeting and almost whispers "hello". No, surely this can't be Anna Calvi. Anna Calvi is the woman who on stage is almost Amazonian, whose guitar playing is as intricate as it is ballsy as it is expert. Anna Calvi is the woman whose silhouette cuts a Chanel matador. Whose slick-backed hair and assured pout command attention. Who possesses a voice so full of lust and drama it could fill every nook of the biggest cathedral. But this tiny unassuming being with a soft London accent who looks barely out of her teens is Anna Calvi. What a difference a stage makes.
Although self-assured about her work, she's slightly awkward. We talk about her debut record, a work of phenomenal beauty and power co-produced with PJ Harvey collaborator Rob Ellis. She makes one joke. It's about how electric guitars have always been a male-dominated sport so sometimes when she goes into guitar shops and the male sales assistant says something disparaging like "now, this is how you hold it", she rips into a crazy riff, leaving them stunned. "It's a fun game to play," she says, smirking.
Aside from that, she's the type of interviewee who answers questions in a couple of short sentences and then waits expectantly for the next. Later, she takes to the stage, or rather altar, in what has become known as the 'Other Voices' church across the road from the hotel we're in. She's a different woman in every sense. She looks different. Her make-up is stark – Robert Palmer backing-dancer stark. Her hair is scraped back and looks much darker. A single spotlight illuminates her and her guitar. And she starts to play.
Jenny Huston, the 2fm DJ, is seated next to us. "Well," she says, eyebrows raised after the first song – the guitar instrumental 'Rider To The Sea', which is also the opening track on Calvi's debut record – comes to a brilliant end with an impossible lick flying up the neck of an electric guitar like a hummingbird frantically grabbing pollen from a bouquet.
"Well," Huston says, "I wasn't expecting that." A session musician in the audience will later remark that Calvi has to have done some serious academic study in guitar to be that good. Not so. She is a natural-born talent, self-taught.
Calvi has seemingly come from nowhere. At an early stage of her performing and writing career, she amassed fans quickly, Nick Cave and Brian Eno among them.
Signed to Domino (home of Arctic Monkeys, Franz Ferdinand and Villagers) she recorded her debut album and supported Grinderman and Interpol on tour, and opened for Arctic Monkeys at the Royal Albert Hall.
A month after the recording of 'Other Voices', she's on the phone. By now, she has been shortlisted on the influential BBC Sound of 2011 list and by all accounts has hypnotised crowds at Eurosonic Festival, Europe's version of South By Southwest. Her eponymous debut album has begun to clock up five-star reviews everywhere. Pressure? What pressure? "The pressure was when I was making it [the album]," she starts quietly, "now I don't feel pressure because I've already made my piece of work."
The first album she really got into was Aladdin Sane by David Bowie. She started playing guitar aged eight or nine, her style inspired by listening to Jimi Hendrix. But Calvi's music is four parts; one part guitar expertise, one part lyrics, one part atmosphere and instrumentation, and then there's that voice which, surprisingly, is only a recent discovery.
"I started singing about five years ago," she explains. "I never meant to sing, but then I made a decision to. I just felt it would be an amazing way of expressing myself." Originally she didn't feel as though she had it in her – "I'm quite shy, but I felt strongly enough to do it."
One of the reasons Calvi's material works is that it simply doesn't sound like anything around at the moment. The album is instantly atmospheric, full and cinematic. Some compare it to a David Lynch or slightly spooky Tarantino soundtrack. It's something Calvi paid a lot of attention to. "I wanted to make music that was passionate," she says. "I wanted not to worry about what was fashionable or commercial or whether or not people would like it. I wanted to make something beautiful that I would like and to create a whole world that my songs could inhabit."
And it works. The hype that now surrounds Calvi and the plaudits being thrown in her direction must be slightly overwhelming. She appears, on the surface at least, unmoved, if grateful. "I wasn't sure how people would respond to it. It's always great when people like something you do. It's a nice feeling… I suppose it's mainly because people can tell when music feels honest. I hope that's apparent in the music, because there was no other motivation for me but to be true to myself as a musician. I think maybe that helps."
But what about the transformation Calvi makes? Off stage, in person and on the phone, she inhabits a completely different character, or rather, on stage she creates something entirely new. There is a definite divide between person and performer. She attempts to explain. "When I'm on stage," she pauses, "I feel I can get in touch with a part of me that I don't know how to access off stage. On stage I feel fearless and empowered. I think it's just the experience of playing music. I go into a trance."
Her physical transformation contributes to the psychological one. She chooses her clothes and make-up carefully. "It's really important – obviously everything you do relates to the musical part of your act and you express passion in the music. My inspirations in make-up and what I wear are about creating drama and romance and passion. Flamenco music is a big inspiration – I'm a huge fan of flamenco and my outfits are inspired by that."
After a quick chat about the experience of playing in Dingle, her Irish debut ("It was amazing, I loved it. It was one of my favourite experiences so far. It was really like nothing else I had done as a performer; the atmosphere, the place itself, it was so beautiful and all of the people were so friendly. I thought it was really magical"), she says her goodbyes and adds she's looking forward to playing in Ireland again next month. She may be looking forward to it, but those who've heard the record and have yet to see the on-stage Calvi are waiting with bated breath.
Anna Calvi's self-titled debut is out now on Domino. She plays Dublin's Workman's Club on 23 February, and will appear on the ninth series of 'Other Voices' on RTÉ Two
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