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Anna Calvi: There's still a tendency to see women as a genre

Singer-songwriter and guitar virtuoso Anna Calvi is at the top of her game, having had all of her studio albums nominated for the Mercury Prize. She talks to Lucy Mapstone about her latest project and the difficulties that female artists face today


Centre stage: Anna Calvi is arguably one of the UK’s most talented artists

Centre stage: Anna Calvi is arguably one of the UK’s most talented artists

Centre stage: Anna Calvi is arguably one of the UK’s most talented artists

Centre stage: Anna Calvi is arguably one of the UK’s most talented artists

Centre stage: Anna Calvi is arguably one of the UK’s most talented artists

Anna Calvi has had enough of female artists being treated differently to their male counterparts.

She's sick of women, herself included, being considered an "anomaly" or being relegated to whole other category.

"There's still a tendency to see women as a genre, and there's this idea that there are artists - and then there are female artists," says Calvi, her softly-spoken tone slightly at odds with her condemnation of the business.

"I mean, it's definitely getting better though," she continues.

"When I think back to all the questions I got asked on my first album compared to now, there's a lot less underlying sexism.

"But I still feel that, if you're a woman, you'll get compared to a woman, just because she's a woman, not because your music sounds remotely the same."

The singer-songwriter and guitarist, who has three Mercury Prize nominations under her belt, reveals some of the queries she faced back when she released her critically-acclaimed eponymous debut album in 2011.

We're conducting our interview over the phone, so I imagine she's shaking her head as she recalls people asking her: "When are you going to have children, and when are you going to get married?"

She laughs: "It was like it was the 1950s. And there were a lot of questions about the guitar being phallic and how did I feel about playing a phallic instrument, what's it like being a woman playing a guitar? You know, questions like that."

It's a much-discussed topic, but I want her take on the matter: why does she think women continue to have such a hard time, even in 2020?

"I think it's because, in general in our society, men are trusted until they are proved not to be trusted, and women aren't trusted until they prove that they can be," she assesses.

"People don't want to take a risk and put a woman as a headliner at a festival, for example - they're more likely to do that with a male artist.

"Because, you know, sometimes you do you have a take a risk with an artist. Why someone like St Vincent isn't headlining festivals or Christine And The Queens, I can't understand that. They have such huge followings. It's so strange."

It's not all bad, though. What she does love about the current state of the music industry is how inclusive it is for artists that are "less mainstream, and with music that's a bit more challenging".

"They are all getting coverage and people are really interested in what they're doing," she adds.

"For example, FKA twigs... I don't think you can really call her music pop music, and yet she does really well and she's highly respected.

"It's so great that more left-field artists have more of a platform to get their music across, and that there's an audience that wants to be challenged in that way. It's great and I hope that continues."

It's almost like Calvi (39), is describing herself. While the London-born star's crowd-pleasing music, reminiscent of the likes of David Bowie, PJ Harvey and Jimi Hendrix (among many others) combined with her powerful, operatic-style vocals could hardly be described as challenging or left-field, her clever sidestepping of the very top end of the mainstream is a sign of a true pioneer who has so much more to give than identikit chart-friendly bops, or watered-down versions of her sound.

A varied artist, covering gender, sexuality and female power on her most recent album, 2018's Hunter (another Mercury nominee), Calvi is arguably one of the UK's most talented musicians of the moment.

Although perhaps not a household name to some, there's a chance you will have experienced her sound if you've turned on the TV over the past few months, as she wrote the score for the most recent series of small screen juggernaut Peaky Blinders.

Calvi is looking ahead to album number four, but she says there is pressure over putting out another critically-acclaimed, Mercury-friendly record.

If anything, her next collection going to be her easiest yet.

"I feel like the more you do an album, the more you realise it doesn't have to be everything that you are," she explains.

"It doesn't have to encapsulate your whole life - it's just a period of your life that you're putting to tape."

For now, her passion project is championing small music venues as the ambassador for Independent Venue Week (IVW), a national campaign that will see more than 800 gigs taking place in more than 230 locations across the UK.

Smaller venues are struggling to open their doors because of poor funding and low attendance, particularly in January ("Maybe because it's so cold, nobody wants to go out?" Calvi suggests), but they are a vital part of the UK's music scene, culture and identity.

Calvi will aid IVW, now in its seventh year, by performing an intimate, one-off show at The Windmill in Brixton, London, which will be broadcast on BBC 6 Music as part of radio presenter Steve Lamacq's Homecoming Tour.

For Calvi, it's a subject close to her heart, and one she was keen to support from the off.

"It's such an important cause," she stresses.

"From an artist perspective, being able to play these small venues and really learn your craft is incredibly important, and it's also where I've met other like-minded musicians.

"There's a cross-pollination of ideas that is so essential for developing as an artist. And to see these artists, they need to be given space to realise their full potential.

"To be able to play in these smaller venues is an integral part of that process."

  • Independent Venue Week takes place from January 27 to February 2 across the UK, including the Oh Yeah Music Centre, Belfast. Find out more at independentvenueweek.com
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