After two albums of original work, the latter of which (One Breath) was just nominated for the Mercury Prize, Anna Calvi recorded a covers EP and released it this past July. Strange Weather features reimagined pieces originally by artists spanning the contemporary (FKA Twigs, Connan Mockasin) to the classic (David Bowie, Suicide) and even includes a notable guest spot from David Byrne.
The soft-spoken, ferocious-performing Calvi took the time to catch up with Paste discussing her experience with cover songs, the creation of the EP and what it is like to be in the presence of greatness like Byrne.
Paste: As a music listener, what’s your experience with cover songs?
Anna Calvi: When someone covers a song well, it can be interesting because you think of the song in different ways, and it can bring out different aspects of the song you didn’t know were there. It’s quite an intriguing thing. As a singer, it’s interesting how just a different voice can bring out a different tone to the song.
Paste: Was that the goal or the thought behind doing a covers EP, to try and transform these songs through the filter of “Anna Calvi?”
Calvi: Yeah, it has to do with the idea of bringing these songs that are very different together under one roof somehow and bringing the essence of myself to these works. For me, I try to take the elements of the song that interest me and bring them out, or try to do the opposite of perhaps the intention was of the artist. For instance, the FKA Twigs song is very electronic, and it makes it very otherworldly, so I thought what would happen if I made it very much about performance and very much about organic instruments, with violins playing in the room, and see what it did to the song, and the sentiment, and how it felt.
Paste: The choice of songs, they are not songs that would likely be instantly recognizable to casual listeners. Was that part of the thought, to not do songs that were necessarily on the tip of consciousness, or songs that people have heard a million times, and maybe draw people towards those artists that they don’t listen to regularly?
Calvi: No, I really just choose a song that I think I can add something to it or there’s an interesting angle I can take with it. It just happened that no really famous songs were the ones I wanted to do. But I also think it is harder to hear something new if it is a very popular song. It’s nice to choose a song that the listener can come to and not have any expectation, and just accept that this version is valid.
Paste: Yeah, that’s a more artistic approach. You’ll see, typically in the mainstream, musicians use cover songs for attention. Especially if it is a song everybody knows, you can take a song that people already like and not change it that much. So, the banner of “covers EP” for Strange Weather is almost unfair in way, because though they are covers, they are very original at the same time. There is a lot of creativity put into it, rather than just being rehashes.
Calvi: Yeah, I don’t think there is any point simply replicating a song. I think to do it, you need to be doing it from an artistic point-of-view, responding to the original rather than just playing it.
Paste: It’s fitting, because I think the first time I heard anything by you was a cover, when you released your version of TV on the Radio’s “Wolf Like Me” several years back. And that’s another one that is a real reimagining of the song. So, it made sense to me that even though it is relatively early in your career, that you would do this, because it seems like you have a relationship with the idea of covers and an interesting approach to them.
Calvi: It has become a way for me to learn about how to develop myself as a singer. You have to get into the shoes of the person that wrote it and come from a place that you don’t necessarily feel. It’s become a really important part of becoming better at what I do.
Paste: You had the opportunity to work with David Byrne on this EP, which must have been, uh, amazing. How did that come to be, because I know he has been a fan of yours for a while?
Calvi: Yeah, he saw me perform at the Bowery Ballroom when the first record had come out, so we knew he was aware of my music. So when this project came up, my producer asked if he wanted to contribute, and he was up for it. And he suggested the song “Strange Weather,” which I hadn’t heard before. He thought it would go well with our voices. We sang the song live together, and he was very easy to work with. He was very confident. You could obviously feel how much experience he has in the studio. I think what it does, is he doesn’t have any worries about making mistakes, and as an artist, that is inspiring to see.
Paste: Does it give you confidence because your career, particularly the early part of it, has been notable in getting these cosigns from these pretty major figures. Brian Eno, David Byrne now, Nick Cave has been another one. These are giants of music history showing support for you. That would give me a tremendous amount of confidence in what I do.
Calvi: I find it very humbling, but I still have to trust myself when I’m working. I feel very lucky.
Paste: Your last LP, One Breath, came out around a year ago. And, looking at the numbers, I guess it technically performed better than the first album, but it felt less widely talked about in the media. Talk about your experience with the release and how you think it went.
Calvi: Releasing a second album is always tricky. Because, there is this feeling when you first come out that you are new and there is more support for that. On this one, people are now aware, and maybe if you have a big hit you’ll still be talked about, but that wasn’t what I was going for. I just wanted to make a good piece of work, and I think I did that to the best of my abilities.
Paste: Do you have your sights set on your next album?
Calvi: Yeah, I’m currently writing for it.