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Artist to Watch: Anna Calvi Combines Dark Romance and Virtuosic Guitar Skills

The U.K. singer-songwriter's diverse influences include Edith Piaf and Jimi Hendrix

April 27, 2011 11:00 AM ET
Artist to Watch: Anna Calvi Combines Dark Romance and Virtuosic Guitar Skills
Dimitri Hakke/Redferns/Getty Images

Click here to listen to Anna Calvi's "Desire" and "Blackout"

Who: Twenty-eight-year-old Londoner whose self-titled debut has garnered huge raves in the UK. Calvi has drawn comparisons to PJ Harvey, with whom Calvi shares a producer (Rob Ellis) and a taste for torchy romanticism. But her songs – languorous ballads with reverb-heavy guitar atmospherics and bursts of clattering rock & roll – have a style, and a strangeness, all their own.

Early Start/Late Start: Calvi began taking violin lessons at age six and started teaching herself guitar two years later. "I got really into Jimi Hendrix," she says. "I used to listen to his records and try to play along." She developed into a skilled player – but shied away from singing until recently. "I knew I wanted to make my own music, but I had to get over my fear of singing. So about five years ago, I locked myself away and practiced singing for six hours a day." On Anna Calvi, her voice moves from hushed and confessional to a full-throated lioness's roar, calling to mind singers such as Nico and, yes, Polly Harvey. But Calvi's vocal heroines are divas of an older vintage. "I love Maria Callas and Edith Piaf," she says.

Guitar Heroine: Anna Calvi is first and foremost a showpiece for Calvi's intensely lyrical, inventive guitar playing. The album's 10 tracks touch on blues, rockabilly, psychedelia, flamenco and even spy movie theme music, but are still sonically and thematically of a piece. "I really, really believe in the idea of an album," Calvi says. "You know, not just a random collection of songs. A journey from start to finish."

Famous Fans: Calvi's unique sound has won her some influential boosters. Brian Eno was an early devotee, and remains Calvi's self-appointed mentor. Nick Cave, who shares Calvi's taste for musical noir, invited her to be his supporting act on a recent Grinderman tour. But Calvi is most gratified by the "amazing response" of regular music fans – especially in places where passion for torch balladry runs high. "The record has really taken off in France," she says. "It's been just amazing to play Paris."

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Song Stories

“Try a Little Tenderness”

Otis Redding | 1966

This pop standard had been previously recorded by dozens of artists, including by Bing Crosby 33 years before Otis Redding, who usually wrote his own songs, cut it. It was actually Sam Cooke’s 1964 take, which Redding’s manager played for Otis, that inspired the initially reluctant singer to take on the song. Isaac Hayes, then working as Stax Records’ in-house producer, handled the arrangement, and Booker T. and the MG’s were the backing band. Redding’s soulful version begins quite slowly and tenderly itself before mounting into a rousing, almost religious “You’ve gotta hold her, squeeze her …” climax. “I did that damn song you told me to do,” Redding told his manager. “It’s a brand new song now.”

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