Anna Calvi: 'I'm not afraid to be vulnerable and strong at the same time. You have to have those two opposites'

The songwriter on her Mercury prize nomination, working with Brian Eno – and dressing Flamenco

Congratulations on being shortlisted for the Mercury music prize. Where were you when you found out?

I was lying in bed in a hotel room in France and I was in a really bad mood. Then my manager called me with the news and my mood completely changed. I was ecstatic. I think the prize is very important, especially for musicians outside the mainstream. It's not about being commercially successful, it's about doing good work, and I'm really happy to be recognised. It was difficult though, because the band found out a few days before the announcement and we couldn't tell anyone else. So we had to celebrate in secret.

Where are you right now?

In Venice to play at a festival called Sexto 'Nplugged – funny name. Tomorrow I'm going to Switzerland, then back home to London for a few days, and then I'm off to New York for a show. I'm going to be on the road for a long time. It's festivals for the rest of the summer and then I'm doing an autumn tour.

Your shows are very intimate and intense. Doesn't it get exhausting, baring your soul night after night?

No, not really. It's the equivalent of doing a sport that could be exhausting but actually leaves you feeling energised. Playing music just feels like a really natural way to express myself. I get in touch with a side of me that I'm not sure I can express in any other situation. I have a kind of fearlessness on stage, and I'm not afraid to be vulnerable and strong at the same time. You have to have those two opposites really, to engage fully as a musician and a performer.

Did it take a while to achieve that fearlessness?

As a singer, yes. I started singing only about five years ago, and at the beginning I was really secretive about it. I'd only practise when I was sure no one else was in the house. I worked on it five or six hours a day, and listened to singers I love like Maria Callas and Édith Piaf, until I found that I had the strength to do what I really wanted to do. It's an amazing feeling, being able to express yourself in such an elemental and intimate way. Even if I don't feel strong in other ways, at least I always have this voice.

Your music has a very cinematic feel. Do you think of it in a visual way?

Yes. I've always been drawn to the visual side of creativity. I've always painted – I nearly went to art school. It definitely affects the way that I write because I really see music as well as hear it and I always try to make sure that the music is telling a story as much as the lyrics are.

Have you drawn on specific films for inspiration?

There's a film called My Winnipeg about a guy who really wants to leave a town but he can't because everyone keeps falling asleep. It's a really dreamlike film with surreal images of frozen horses in white snow. I had that in mind when I wrote "Suzanne and I", but that's the only time I've taken literal reference from a particular film.

Your visual sense also comes through in the way you dress. What was the thinking behind those striking red-and-black flamenco-style outfits you wear on stage?

I always make decisions based on what I feel the music demands. When I was thinking about how to dress I really wanted to express the passion and drama in the music, which is why I took inspiration from flamenco outfits. I've always found flamenco very beautiful and moving. I wouldn't dress like that if it didn't feel right for the music.

Do you have a style guru?

Not really. My interest in fashion is purely from a musical point of view. I don't have a clue about fashion, really – I'm very new to it – but it definitely intrigues me. I've met some really nice people in that world and had only good experiences, and I got to work with Karl Lagerfeld…

Really? Doing what?

I was asked if I'd be up for him taking some photos of me. It was for a collection of his that hasn't come out yet, so I don't know if I can say too much about it, but it was an interesting experience. It felt very much like two artists collaborating.

Given that fashion isn't your area of expertise, did you feel under pressure to learn about his work?

No not really. I was doing it because of my music and that perspective was all I needed. It's like being very sure and direct with your vision and nothing can sway you from it. That's how I feel and that's what gives me the strength to go into situations like this. I'm quite a shy person, and if I was to go in there without my music to hold me up I wouldn't be able to do it.

What's been the most surreal experience of your career so far?

Meeting Brian Eno, probably. His friend saw me play at the Luminaire in Kilburn and told Brian about me, and then he just looked me up on YouTube, I think, and asked if I wanted to meet up. It was great because he was exactly how I hoped he would be: very intelligent and really interesting. He has a passion for music that's almost naive, and very pure. It's really rare to find that.

Did he offer you guidance?

He's not really a "you should do this and this and this" kind of person. He felt that I'd already kind of got it happening, so he didn't really need to come in and change things. I think he liked the music the way it was. I got him to do some backing vocals on the album and play piano on a couple of tracks, which was great.

A lot has changed for you in the last year: signing to Domino, getting on to BBC's Sound of 2011 poll in December, releasing your debut, and now the Mercury nomination. What advice would you give yourself 12 months ago?

Just continue to be brave. There were moments before I was signed when I wondered: "Who on earth is going to listen to this?" The music was making me happy but I felt it was completely out of sync with everything else. I thought: "I could do all this and no one would ever hear it and what would be left of me?" Because I completely gave my soul to it. So I'm relieved that I can stand behind what I made and feel proud of it. I did the best that I could and that's all you can really ask of yourself.


Killian Fox

The GuardianTramp

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