It was in April that everything first turned red for Anna Calvi. The south London singer-guitarist saturated every new image on her Instagram page with the colour: bodies, her own face, models of ambiguous gender. Then, last week, she revealed that the title of her third album would be Hunter, unveiled a bright, loud new single called Don’t Beat the Girl Out of My Boy, and made a statement that set out the message of her new music in the clearest terms.
“I want to go beyond gender. I don’t want to have to choose between the male and female in me. I’m fighting against feeling an outsider and trying to find a place that feels like home,” she wrote online as part of a longer essay, going on to describe her new music as “primal and beautiful, vulnerable and strong.”
A few days later I meet Calvi, 37, outside a café in an industrial part of Acton, near the studio where she and her two-piece band are rehearsing for three intimate comeback shows in Berlin, Paris and London. She hugs her girlfriend goodbye on the other side of the street, walks over and orders a chamomile tea in a quiet voice that will prove to be inaudible every time a car passes during the next hour. She’s really tiny. She’s wearing a baggy black Helmut Lang suit and white trainers, complemented with smudged red eyeshadow, but there’s no sign of the vivid scarlet lipstick that she often sports, along with a male flamenco dancer’s shirt, in her live performances.
“Red summons to me the idea of flesh and blood and danger. It very much sums up the colour of the record to me,” she tells me. “It’s more visceral, less cerebral. It’s animalistic.”
I’ve been allowed to hear Hunter before we meet and it is indeed a beast of an album, containing Calvi’s wildest guitar and vocal work. It’s queer, feminist, sexy, very beautiful in places – such as on Swimming Pool, a slow-rippling dream of a song – and also thunderous and powerful – as on Indies or Paradise, which chugs steady and muscular while she whispers about “crawling through the trees like an animal”.
She always had a big voice and a remarkable way with her instrument. Her two previous albums, a self-titled debut from 2011 and 2013’s One Breath, were so accomplished that both were nominated for the Mercury Prize. (She was also invited to judge the prestigious music competition on two other occasions, the years won by Alt-J and Benjamin Clementine.) But there’s a new confidence here, a striking lack of restraint. “I wanted the record to feel really raw,” she says. “I wanted the voice and guitar to really embody that feeling of freedom.”
The clues to her chief subject matter had been there previously. Her debut album contained a song titled I’ll Be Your Man. Last year she released a live EP that contained a cover of iT by the androgynous French musician Christine and the Queens, with its chorus, “I’ve got it/I’m a man now.” In a 2015 interview with The Independent, she said: “When I was a child, I really wanted to be a boy. Not just in an ‘Oh, I wish I could wear shorts and play with cars’ way, because I did that anyway, but in a deep-seated way where I felt wrong in myself.”
Today she clarifies the feeling further: “I wouldn’t go so far as saying I’m trans, because I’ve found a way of accepting this label that we’re all made to say that we are. But as I’ve got older, I’ve felt more and more: why? It’s actually so ridiculous that we’re given two options. If gender isn’t to do with what bits you have on your body, which it obviously can’t be because a woman can still feel like a woman if she doesn’t have breasts, it just makes less and less sense to me.”
On the album, she crosses that divide on Chain, a dramatic, swooping song about a sexual encounter with the chorus, “I’ll be the boy you be the girl I’ll be the girl you be the boy I’ll be the girl.” On Alpha she claims a word generally followed in nature by “male”, and does something similar on the slow-burning title track. “Our culture is so saturated with ideas of women being hunted by men. I wanted to give a new narrative of the woman as a hunter who goes out and takes whatever she wants,” she tells me. “I wanted my voice to be this wild force because often as a woman you’re told to be nice and quiet and smile.”
It’s now almost five years since her last album. These songs have taken a long time to crystallise. Around the time her last tour finished, at the end of 2014, her relationship of eight years ended. She moved out to Strasbourg for a year with her new French girlfriend (they’re now based in Clapham) where she knew nobody and had plenty of time to think. “I was trying to rebuild my sense of self after that massive change. It was like going from a full person to a seed and having to grow again. She was encouraging me to explore myself a bit more, to explore what my sense of gender means to me, which is always something I’ve had a problem reconciling but I’ve always pushed it away. But when I was in this place where I didn’t know anyone, I could be any version of myself that I wanted. And as I was getting stronger emotionally, the music started coming.”
That confidence is reflected in the things this shy person will now make public. She put a picture of her and her girlfriend on Instagram on Valentine’s Day this year, a first open reference to her personal life. “It wasn’t like, ‘And now I’m going to come out.’ I think everyone who follows me knew anyway. I think my music has always been queer, and the people who needed that from me recognised it immediately. Those who didn’t need that in their lives didn’t notice.”
The way that others view her as a female musician has long been a source of frustration. She says that she is constantly asked by journalists what it’s like to be a woman who plays the guitar (not here or in our previous meetings, I might add). “One person asked me how I felt playing a ‘phallic instrument’. It might be phallic for you! Don’t project that onto me! That’s not how I see a guitar at all.” Perhaps prompted by the constant comparisons of her music to PJ Harvey’s, she observes that there are different criteria when assessing women in music. “There can be as many male artists doing as many different things as they want, but with women, the message that you’re given is: there’s only room for one. If you’re another woman that plays guitar, then you must just be copying that woman.”
On the contrary, the more voices like hers the better, she says. “It’s not a competition. Far from feeling like, ‘Oh God, what if someone else is saying the same thing?’ I think that’s great. There are a lot of queer artists getting a voice, more women questioning the game, questioning why women should put up with what they put up with. That’s amazing to me.”
Now her voice is one of the loudest. This year, we’ll hear her roar. “If I’m going to do this, and dedicate my life to it, I want to give all of myself, not play it safe. I really feel these things. It’s not just for an album release. I really believe them.”
Don’t Beat the Girl Out of My Boy is out now on Domino. The album Hunter follows on Aug 31.
Jun 19, Heaven, WC2. heaven-live.co.uk
Feb 7, Roundhouse, NW1. roundhouse.org.uk