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Anna Calvi: "I was hoping to reimagine my identity and start again"

Anna Calvi uses her striking new album 'Hunter' to explore ideas of sexuality and gender conformity.
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Published: 10:20 am, September 04, 2018Words: Liam Konemann.
Anna Calvi: "I was hoping to reimagine my identity and start again"

'Hunter''s arrival is heralded by a stalking, patient guitar riff slinking out of the speakers. Then, Anna Calvi’s full, rich voice; "If I was a man in all but my body..." It’s an uncompromising opening that leaves no doubt about the extent of its power. This record is a predatory beast.

Anna’s first two albums – her self-titled 2011 debut, and ‘One Breath' in 2014 – earned her all kinds of praise, with comparisons ranging from Patti Smith, to PJ Harvey, to Nick Cave. The latter was said to be a fan, as was Brian Eno. So it’s no small thing that her third record sounds like it could devour both previous releases for breakfast. 'Hunter' is a staunchly feminist, unflinchingly queer album, powerful and bold but also intimate, tender. It has come from a period of reckoning and re-evaluation, and as a result is possibly Anna Calvi’s most open work to date.

"I’d had a breakup after eight years, and I was with someone new, and when I was writing the record I was hoping to kind of reimagine my identity and start again," she says. "And I didn’t want to have to hide anything."

"Not that I really feel that I had," she clarifies, "but these themes, queerness and feminism, are really important to me and I wanted to share how I felt about it.’

There are no accusations of shying away here. 'Hunter' rejects the patriarchal notion of women as prey and recasts them as the "alpha’, the driving force. The hunters, if you will.

"Partly I was feeling very frustrated at the depictions of women that I see in culture and the way that these false stereotypes are drilled into everyone of what a man or woman is meant to be," Anna says of the album’s genesis.

"The way that culture depicts women is often nothing like the women that I know. So instead of seeing a woman as being hunted, which is often what we see being depicted, I liked the idea of a woman as the 'Hunter' who’s the protagonist of her own story, going out seeking pleasure for her body - or any other way - without a sense of shame."

"This myth that women are weaker in some way, it frustrates me a lot"
Anna Calvi

Cultural depictions of women come into play a lot across 'Hunter'. Tracks like ‘Alpha’ – on which Anna takes full advantage of her vocal range to communicate a sense of primal power – lean into the fact of strength as a non-gendered trait. On the surface, something so simple shouldn’t feel radical, but as Anna points out society’s understanding and use of language has a long way to go, even in 2018.

"I think that language has a real effect on how we feel about ourselves, even if it’s subconscious. Men are always being described as hunters, which I think is negative, for women," she says. "With the idea of an alpha, we just automatically assume it's referring to a male. I like the idea of it being more ambiguous, and that it could be a woman or a man. It’s not gender-specific."

"A lot of the strongest people I know do happen to be women. The idea that strength is a masculine trait, I don’t think it’s helpful for men either," Anna continues. "I find when men and women are pushed to this extreme of performing a stereotype of their gender, it can be very limiting."

For Anna, this limitation is not only frustrating a feminist standpoint. Her irritation also springs from the relationship between her body and identity, and the ways that the two chafe up against each other.

"I s’pose for me I never really completely identified as female, from when I was little. Although I never felt that my body was so wrong that I felt I needed to change it, I did feel a disconnect. And I found it really hard going through puberty, and getting this female body felt quite alien to me," she considers.

"It’s always been there for me, this frustration of just because what my body has on it I should have these particular characteristics. I never felt completely right about that. This myth that women are weaker in some way, it frustrates me a lot."

The alpha figure throughout the record’s narrative has become an outlet for these concerns, while also serving 'Hunter'’s story independently of such themes.

"I also like the idea of, whichever gender [the alpha] is, how even if you are full of bravado you must go home and feel very paranoid and insecure and sensitive. The extremes of this kind of person, who is outwardly full of confidence but inwardly very insecure," says Anna. "I thought it was quite an interesting character study."

The alpha’s story is not the only character study that 'Hunter' made space for. Although that sense of disconnect has been ever-present, the process of writing and recording the album allowed Anna to view her identity and her gender from other angles.

"[The record] enabled me to question myself in a way that I haven’t before, and I guess there’s a lot of suppressed thoughts and feelings about my gender that I never really explored before making this record," she says.

'Hunter' also allowed her to express her beliefs "from a feminist point of view too," she explains. "It’s so important to me, it’s what I talk about and think about a lot. It couldn’t not come into my work because it was so important to me."

Feeling so passionately about the issues the record addresses can make a musician uniquely vulnerable. To put so much of yourself into an album is essentially like walking out into a battlefield; it’d be devastating to turn around and find that you were alone out there.

"When I was writing it, and when I was thinking about it, sometimes I did wonder like, ‘Does anybody feel the same way that I feel?’ I did feel a bit alone in it," Anna says.

"But I guess having released that first song and having explained how I feel about these subjects in an open and emotional way, I was encouraged and moved by people’s response, and it felt like people were being more open with me back."

"I never really completely identified as female, from when I was little"
Anna Calvi

This shared openness is particularly crucial when the album’s softer side comes into play. On 'Hunter', everything has a flip side – the alpha’s bravado meets insecurity, power begets vulnerability. In some cases, Anna Calvi has taken these contrasts further, to present alternative versions of common narratives. ‘Eden’, for example, presents a teenager’s first queer experience in a softer light, shielding the characters from the social stigma that so often can lead to the fear or shame that taints or tinges these moments.

"I guess for straight people, their first experience sexually with someone it’s all just about, ‘Oh do they like me?’ They don’t have to question their identity and think, ‘Oh is this wrong?’ and ‘What does this mean?’, all these things that we shouldn’t have to think about. We should just have the purity of this beautiful moment."

She explains, "it’s just reimagining that beautiful first time where you really like someone, and you’re with someone, and taking away all that negativity and seeing it as this pure Eden-like experience."

The dream of paradise found forms the backbone of the album’s more tender side. Along with ‘Eden’, there is the fluid, lush ‘Swimming Pool’, inspired by the defiant pleasure of David Hockney’s homoerotic painting of the same name. Anna’s interest in the painting, she says, comes from an appreciation not only of the art itself, but also of the shamelessness with which Hockney expressed gay themes in his work in a time when that was a much greater risk than it is today.  

"I love David Hockney’s paintings of swimming pools, and that even in the 60s when it was a lot more taboo, homosexuality, that he’s doing this thing of defiance of happiness and pleasure, he’s just shamelessly drawing these beautiful pictures of men and enjoying the male form," she explains. "The feeling of desire is just so beautiful. I love the idea of trying to do a musical version of how beautiful his swimming pools look."

This sense of shamelessness comes out right through the record, but is probably best summed up by the title track. 'Hunter' is about the joy of finding a community in gay clubs and queer scenes, safe in the knowledge that you are among your people.

"There’s a sense of transcendence and beauty about being with somebody without any kind of worry or outside negative force, similar to ‘Eden’. In my own experience of when I was a teenager I didn’t know anyone gay, and the first times when you’re with other people like you, it’s such an incredible feeling. It’s really really exciting, and very powerful.

"I just wanted to have a song that held you, emotionally, in the way that I feel those moments have," she says. "You open the door, and you go in, and suddenly you feel like you’re home."

For some, that’s precisely the way 'Hunter' will feel. Like a home in which strength, shamelessness, feminism, and queerness are utopian and true.  

Taken from the September issue of Dork. Anna Calvi's album 'Hunter' is out now.

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