OLYMPIA (aka Melbourne singer Olivia Bartley) is a self-described Anna Calvi super fan, so much so she nearly pulled off a citizen’s arrest at the English singer’s Thornbury Theatre show in 2014.
“I actually told a couple off at your Melbourne show for having too much fun,” she confessed to the singer in a warm interview conducted before the release of Anna’s third album
Olympia then goes on to describe to Anna her recollections of watching her live. It’s worth including verbatim because it sums up the all-encompassing, almost holy experience of an Anna Calvi show better than most.
“Watching you perform is like watching someone on a high wire,” she tells Anna, “And for me, great artists soak in the world around them and interpret it and they offer a new perspective on something. But it’s usually over the course of an album where there’s time to distil and revise. But with you that synthesis appears to happen on stage, in the moment. And you seem to draw in so much from the crowd. It’s just an unbelievable risk to see an artist undertake, and it’s an absolute privilege to witness.”
Produced by Nick Launay (Nick Cave,
Olympia: This is such a confident, uncompromising work. It takes you by the throat, and one of the first words I thought of was beastly. I’ve seen other people write that too, but it’s also so tender. Like
Anna: Well, I guess when I wrote that song it came out very naturally and easy. I was just playing keyboard and I just sung these words. And for some reason, I titled it, ‘Huntsmen’. And then when I went back, and listened to it again, I saw that I’d called it ‘Hunter’. I thought that was a really beautiful word and I kept coming back to it … The record is very much about – I guess seeing a woman that’s being the hunter, rather than being hunted, which so often we shame women into being in media, in films, or television. And I really wanted this to represent this woman that goes out into the world and sees that it’s hers.
She’s the protagonist, and is searching for pleasure in all possible ways without any sense of shame. And it felt like it summed up all of that … There’s something about that animalistic imperfection that I find really beautiful. And that also kind of made me think of the word “hunter”.
"I know when a song is working for me if I can see it visually. And so every song, every production decision is made for me so that I can see it as a film as much as possible."
Olympia: Sonically there’s such a natural evolution in the record. I’m interested in how you approached this album, whether you approached it differently, how it came about.
Anna: I guess I was much more focussed this time. I know when a song is working for me if I can see it visually. And so every song, every production decision is made for me so that I can see it as a film as much as possible. Everything that is on there. On ‘Indies or Paradise’, I really wanted the riff in the film to feel like crawling through a jungle covered in mud, and being desperately convinced of the journey you’re making, but it’s messy and dirty. And this is why the riff sounds the way it does. We took it an octave lower and Nick [Launay, producer] did lots of stuff to it, because I was saying this is how I want it to sound, so that I could really see it, not just hear it.
I’ve always had that way of wanting to create music that feels visual – I guess impressionistic. And this time, I got even more obsessed with it. And because I was always just asking myself, “How is this making me feel?” And “Is it making me feel what I intended it to?” I think that’s a really important question to keep asking yourself in the studio. Because it can be quite easy to get lost in all the pressure. I just had to keep asking myself the most basic things like, “Is it moving me?” And I think I did that more this time.
Olympia: Do you feel like you had time to analyse whether you were being moved?
Anna: I guess I did a lot of work before I went into a proper studio. I did a lot of work in my own little studio at home … My studio is an attic and I just covered all the walls of the attic with notes and pictures. I became obsessed really. I wanted to just know the material and know the songs completely, intimately, so that I could give them the best shot when it came to recording.
So I guess I was really prepared. But at the same time I always made sure there was a space between what I thought it should be and what it could become. Because if you’re too prepared then there’s no room for capturing a moment…
Olympia: Were there any sort of surprises that came out of the recording process? Especially introducing other musicians into the room?
Anna: I guess for some reason I’ve always been really suspicious of bass guitar, and I don’t know why. [Laughter] It’s always a bit weird to me. I had Marty [Martyn P Casey] from The Bad Seeds play bass guitar, and I was just so impressed at how melodic he was and the soulfulness of his playing. And I guess it made me reevaluate my suspicion of the bass guitar, because he definitely showed me that it can be cool, you know? That was the biggest surprise.
Olympia: I think a lot of people are going to quit their bass lessons now. You’ve spoken about loneliness during writing before. Has it changed? Has the writing process evolved, or got easier?
Anna: I don’t think it’s got easier. But I find that it’s really helpful to have somebody to play stuff to. Maybe I didn’t have that before. But with this record I have shared a lot of it with my girlfriend. That really, really helped me … It can be quite lonely so I guess it’s helpful having someone who really knows you, and knows what you’re trying to achieve with your work. But she’s not a musician, so she’s not listening to it with musician ears, because sometimes you can’t really trust other musicians in that way. They’re a bit too intellectual about music. You want somebody who just likes the song because they like it and it’s this pure, beautiful way of just hearing music without knowing anything about it. So I feel like that definitely helps.
Olympia: That’s really interesting. That’s really brave as well.
Anna: Yeah, it took some time. At the beginning, there were a few arguments [laughs] … I mean I hate it when I play something to her and she doesn’t like it. It makes me really annoyed, but she’s learned to deal with it.
Olympia: All the press is saying how raw and emotionally charged the album is. I was just wondering, can you listen to the album?
Anna: No. I don’t tend to listen to my songs after they’re done. I think it was because I was finding it hard to let go. But at the end I actually drove myself crazy trying to decide the running order. You can’t really decide the running order without listening to the whole thing. So I had to listen it to it like five times a day to decide the running order. That went on for three weeks. I feel like I still need to get over that experience. It was such a long time and I put so much into it, just that last bit – the last moment you have control – is deciding the order of the songs and I couldn’t let it go. I actually had an intervention. My producer and my girlfriend had to step in and tell me to stop because it was getting insane.
Olympia: But it is so important the tracklisting.
Anna: Yeah, it really is. It can change a record.
Olympia: Well, it’s very good. I have never listened to it and thought the songs are in the wrong order. Another friend of mine – she’s a bass guitarist, so I probably should be suspicious of her from what you said [laughter] – she was describing how when she makes records with her band, she feels terribly possessive of it. Especially in that period between when the record is finished and released, sort of not wanting people to hear it. Is that something you can relate to?
Anna: I don’t know for the same reason as your friend, but for sure. At the beginning, it’s the people that you trust that have heard it. And then it starts spreading out to people you don’t know, or maybe half know. The first interviews you do, I find that really, really uncomfortable … It’s not a safe space anymore, and you haven’t had enough people saying, “Oh yeah, we like it, to feel safe that it’s okay.” It’s really, really difficult. But now it’s like I’ve done enough interviews and I feel a bit safer. I haven’t done an interview where someone’s gone, “Oh I really don’t like this album.” But you can tell when someone’s interviewing you and they don’t really get it. At the beginning, that can be really difficult.
"I really wanted this to represent this woman that goes out into the world and sees that it's hers. And she’s the protagonist, and is searching for pleasure in all possible ways without any sense of shame."
Olympia: I’ve noticed that – and I say this tongue in cheek, because this stuff really frustrates me – but I noticed that you get compared sometimes to St Vincent and PJ Harvey. Who do you think you should be compared to? If they have to.
Anna: If they have to compare me, I’d say the person that definitely influenced me, more than anyone else would be Jeff Buckley right down to why I have the guitar in my hands, why I play guitar the way I do, what I do with my voice. He’s like the older brother that really, really showed me what music could be. Him more than anyone else. I don’t really listen to him anymore because I know that music so well from growing up. It’s in me now, I don’t need to listen to it.
And then I guess the other one, in terms of singing, would be Scott Walker. He does this impressionistic thing. His music is very visual. There’s this song, ‘It’s Raining Today’, and the strings just sound like rain. I find that just incredible. And just the tone of his voice, it’s a kind of deep crooner kind of voice. I just want to sound like him. I guess those are the two that I’ve pinched the most ideas for sure. St Vincent, not at all. And PJ Harvey, I like the energy of her earlier work … but I think we’re coming from different places. I respect them both, but I haven’t been like listening to them and going, “How do they do that?”
Olympia: Has anyone picked the Scott Walker reference?
Anna: Occasionally, yeah.
Olympia: That’s like the best feeling.
Anna: Who do you get compared to?
Olympia: I get St Vincent and PJ Harvey, and they should probably be offended by that more than me because they’re a lot more accomplished. [Laughter] Because with females that’s the extent of people’s logic. And I honestly think I get away with blue murder … They’re amazing but there are so many other artists out there that are incredible that I know feel me and feed me as an artist, but no one’s asking about. So I’m lucky me for a little while until people dig a bit further. Lyrically, there’s a couple of references to mirrors in the album. I don’t know if this is a coincidence or not?
Anna: I always find there’s one word that just keeps coming back in different albums – and I don’t really know why. And I did notice that. Like whenever I would start writing a song, somehow, a mirror would arise in the lyrics. I’d be like, “Why is that? Why is it happening again?” And then the other one is talking about someone’s eyes for some reason in this record. I don’t really know why. I guess maybe it’s to do with me always questioning my sense of identity. I think maybe that’s why. And I think there’s something about looking for something really truthful – even if it’s a bit ugly. There’s something about when you really look into someone’s eyes, that’s the closest you’re going to get to knowing the truth…
Anna: Yeah, I guess I also like the idea of it being broken. But actually if you look at a broken mirror, it’s so much more beautiful than when it’s just clean and perfect. I find that quite poetic.
Olympia: I just want to ask you finally, what artists excite you at the moment?
Anna: The new Perfume Genius is really amazing … I’m interested to see what the new Christine And The Queens record is gonna be like. Who else? There’s an artist called Sophie who put out a record a couple of months ago. It’s pretty electronic, but it’s really interesting and with really amazing production. I guess those two are the records I’ve been listening to.
Olympia: I noticed on your pride playlist, there was Micachu & The Shapes’ ‘Oh Baby’. Incredible Song. I definitely took that into the studio. Not to rip off, I just revere the production on that. I think there’s something really special in that song.
Anna: She’s amazing. She’s the real deal.
Olympia: That’s high praise … I don’t want to take anymore of your time up. Thank you so much.
Anna: Thank you. It was lovely to meet you. Have you got a record coming out soon?
Olympia: We’ve just
Anna: Well, good luck with all of it. I’ll keep an ear out for sure.