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‘I wanted it to be quite brutal sounding’: Anna Calvi on her Mercury Prize-nominated album Hunter

Daniel Gumble speaks to Anna Calvi about her sonic inspiration, David Bowie, working with Nick Launay and the power of telling stories through sound

When Anna Calvi’s 2018 masterpiece Hunter appeared on the 2019 Mercury Prize shortlist, she joined an elite club of artists to have amassed three nominations; a club that includes David Bowie, Coldplay, Bat For Lashes, Elbow, Florence and the Machine, Pulp, Foals, Laura Marling, Primal Scream and Dizzee Rascal. It also means she has now been shortlisted for each of her three albums to date.

Her 2011 self-titled debut placed her show-stopping combination of operatic vocals and elegantly virtuosic guitar playing front and centre, while 2013 follow up One Breath built upon its predecessor with a greater emphasis on sonic experimentation and the adoption of more complex rhythms and arrangements.

While brimming with brilliance and worthy of a place upon any Mercury Prize shortlist, each record evoked a sense of an artist in search of her sound, as Calvi pursued a variety of artistic avenues down which to drive her formidable talents.

Hunter is a different beast altogether. Thematically bound with lyrics confronting, discussing and eviscerating gender norms, it’s a record that oozes confidence and drips with defiance. Musically and sonically, it’s as richly textured and precisely nuanced as any of her previous works, shot through with a prowling intensity that had been hinted at but never previously revealed. There are moments of breathless lust, such as on the thrillingly overdriven ‘Alpha’, while the album’s mournful title track, ‘Swimming Pool’ and ‘Eden’ find Calvi at her most vulnerable.

Almost a year to the day after its release, PSNEurope editor Daniel Gumble caught up with Calvi to reflect on the making of a modern-day masterpiece…

Congratulations on the Mercury Prize nomination. How does it feel not just to be nominated for Hunter, but to have had all three of your albums so far nominated?

It’s great! I feel very lucky and honoured to have been nominated three times.

What did you make of the rest of the list nominees?

I think they’re all really great artists. It’s a really strong list. It’s not just very mainstream bands. They’re all such great records.

You’ve spoken a lot about the lyrics and the themes that are explored in the album. Did you have a similarly direct and specific idea of what you wanted sonically for the record?

I wanted it to be quite brutal sounding – for there to be moments that felt very strong and moments that felt vulnerable. And in terms of the strength, I was listening a lot to [Public Image Ltd’s] Flowers Of Romance album. That’s one of the reasons I asked Nick Launay to produce it because he produced that record and I thought the sounds on that record were amazing and quite groundbreaking. He was really excited about the idea of being playful in the studio with sonics. He wanted to make a record where there was a wide spectrum of colour for the sound.

Do you think consciously about the sonics when you’re writing an album?

Very much so, because I want the music and the way it sounds to really light the imagination and tell the stories as much as the lyrics. So I want the music to sound almost like you’re seeing the song – like a mini film. The sonics are very important in expressing that.

Tell us about your working relationship with Nick Launay. What did he bring to the record?

It was an amazing experience because he’s got such a talent for sound and he really goes that bit extra to make something stand out. He’s very good at making the most out of happy accidents and being creative in the moment, which are often the most exciting moments. You plan and plan before you make a record, but those moments that you didn’t expect to happen are often the best moments. He was really good at harnessing that. If something went wrong but sounded really cool, he knew how to make more of that. He was just so inspiring to work with.

Do you have any examples of those happy accidents?

I remember on the song ‘Indies Or Paradise’ I wanted the guitar line to sound like I was crawling through a jungle. I was playing the guitar riff and I think I said I wished it could be lower and more ominous-sounding, so he got me to play it really, really fast, and then slowed it down so much that it became like a bass sound. And that wasn’t an idea that I had, initially, but it actually worked really well and sounded a lot better than just the normal sound of the guitar.

Each of your records sound very unique to you, but they also have quite distinct sonic identities. How different has your approach been in the studio from album to album?

The first record was my first time properly in the studio, so it was all very new. I already had a very strong idea of what I wanted, but I was learning as I was going. And then the second one, because I’d learned a bit more, I wanted to try lots of different things. I wanted there to be a moment that felt very classical, and then a moment to be more aggressive. It was like having lots of colours to play with. With this record, I wanted to be a bit more direct with how the songs sounded and to have a stronger and more identifiable palette of sounds.

What do you look for in a producer?

Making a record is like sailing a ship to a destination. You know you want to get there, but maybe you don’t know exactly what the route should be. Sometimes you get tired and you need a co-captain to come and take over when you’ve been out there too long and you need some space. This person also needs to completely understand what your destination is, and want to do everything they can in order to get you there. And as a solo artist, it’s like having a companion who believes in your vision as much as you do.

How difficult and how important is it to get the right person on board?

I think it is quite difficult to find. It’s a bit like being in a band for that time. So when you find someone that you do feel is on the same page as you it is something you have to hold on to. So I’m really happy that I got the chance to work with Nick and I would definitely like to do more with him.

Were there any other sonic influences around the making of the album?

The sounds on Iggy Pop’s The Idiot – it’s such an amazing sounding record. I love how loud the vocals were. That was a record that I kept coming back to. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) by David Bowie was another one, Flowers Of Romance… They’re all records that have a very strong identity in their sound. I listened to lots of Grace Jones as well.

Can you remember the first time you began to take notice of sounds and music production?

I think I was aware of it when I bought my very first record when I was around eight or nine years old. I bought Aladdin Sane by David Bowie and I remember really loving the sound of the piano, the way it almost sounded like water, and how weird the notes the pianist was playing were. He goes from avant-garde notes into blues – I was just amazed by the sound of that record.

How much thought went into the live presentation of these songs? Your performances feel more visceral than ever before.

Because it’s a more raw, visceral record than anything I’d done before, I needed to make sure that those elements were even more evident on stage. It’s a very physical record. It’s a record of the body, so I didn’t feel that I could just stand still and perform. And the songs don’t want that either, they demand more.

It has definitely helped me develop myself on stage. It’s not like I’m playing a character, it’s just a more extreme version of what I always was.

Find our exclusive interview with Fraser T Smith on the making of Mercury Prize-winning album Psychodrama by grime star Dave here.