This singer/songwriter is causing a stir in the music and fashion worlds. Portraits by Calvin Sit
In Anna Calvi’s world, you’re the odd one out. Your concept of ‘character’ in the conventional sense doesn’t exist. She is neither welcoming nor alienating, excitable nor impassive, joyous nor miserable. The English singer/songwriter, who sports an androgynous look, is hard to quantify. It’s this fact that makes her so damn interesting to look at and listen to. She peeps at you like a new-born kitten and talks breathlessly like a never-ending jazz ruff. Her gravity is also unquantifiable – and her magnetism can fluster even the coldest of hearts. In short, she’s a unique personality, be it in music, art or fashion. She may have been about the music in the first place, but now, with big fashion names behind her, she’s very much about the style as well.
Calvi has become a Gucci ambassador and she sang at French Vogue’s farewell do for Carine Roitfeld. She’s also been a subject for photographers Jean-Baptiste Mondino and Rankin – and, early last year, she received a call from Chanel’s often-controversial creative director Karl Lagerfeld. He wanted to photograph her alongside French actress Clemence Poesy and supermodel Sasha Pivovarova for French milliner Maison Michel’s lookbook. “[Karl] had people approach me and I said ‘yeah’, obviously,” she says. “I didn’t expect I’d get any attention from these people. I feel like my strength is in my music and all my decisions are made because of it.”
The 30-year-old violinist, guitarist, singer and Brit Awards nominee speaks fondly of her experience with Lagerfeld. She finds it amusing that he photographs with his sunglasses on and thinks he definitely lives up to his eccentric image. Calvi recalls: “He put on some Django Reinhardt while I was being photographed, which I felt was touching because he knew I liked [Reinhardt] music.”
We ask Calvi about Lagerfeld’s choice comment towards fellow Brit singer and winner of countless awards, Adele, after he labelled her ‘a little too fat’. Calvi says: “I don’t know Karl well enough to say whether it’s a typical thing for him to say. But I think he says his mind. He says what he thinks he likes. I think it’s refreshingly good. People are interested in creative people. I think it means more to have someone who knows more and isn’t just a model. You know more about their history and artistry and… maybe it brings depth.”
Calvi’s debut album was released in January last year and, in less than 12 months, she’s garnered multiple nominations at major music awards such as The BBC Sound of 2011, the Mercury Prize and the Brit Awards. Her rasp voice is often compared to PJ Harvey’s, and her stage persona is highly recognisable. All red lips, red silk blouse, high waist trousers – and she’s never seen without her signature gold necklace. “My good friend from London found it in Barcelona and bought it for me. I just like wearing it. And you know when you start wearing something it is sort of bad luck not to wear it.”
Before our photoshoot, Calvi’s management dictated that: “We absolutely must stick to no nudity. Partial or otherwise. No bare arms and legs. No skirts or dresses.” But it hasn’t always been like this. She bared all but a cigarette and a headpiece for Lagerfeld, and she used to wear dresses on stage all the time. So why the strict dress code now? “A couple of weeks ago I had a bad experience at a photoshoot,” says Calvi. “They made me wear clothes that you feel stupid in and I said ‘fuck this’.”
Calvi has come a long way to find her signature style. “When I started my own project I wanted to dress differently from how I had been dressing,” she says. “I wear high waist trousers because it’s the flamenco style I go for. When I’m playing the guitar, it just feels more comfortable being in trousers than in a dress.”
Her famous androgynous style highlights her lioness stage persona and, despite the slight masculine fierceness, a powerful sexiness comes through. “I think everyone has a combination of femininity and masculinity. People shouldn’t be scared to express that. I think it’s nice to just be able to ‘be’ and not be defined by your gender. I really like the 1940s when a woman’s natural body shape was celebrated. It wasn’t like you’ve got to be as thin and shapeless as possible.”
When it comes to fashion, Calvi’s got the last word. “Don’t force yourself to wear a style of clothing that wouldn’t naturally fit your body just because it’s fashionable,” she tells us. Never a truer word said.