‘I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for independent venues’
Ahead of her Homecoming Tour show at Brixton’s Windmill, 2020 IVW ambassador Anna Calvi explains how grassroots gigs made her the kind of artist who scores Peaky Blinders, croons with Jeff Goulburn and makes “quite intense, in a good way” Mercury Prize-nominated music.
Ambassador for IVW 2020, Anna Calvi is keenly aware of the debt she owes the UK’s grassroots venues – not just for building an audience but for making her the evocative, heart-stirring virtuoso she is today.
“Playing small venues is how you become an artist,” she declares. “A lot changes when you practice a song in your bedroom compared to when you’re playing it in front of people. It’s like a completely different game. Everything is heightened because of the adrenaline and I guess the kind of anxiety of playing in front of people, so it’s very different. And you can only get used to that by doing it a lot.”
Along with taking a lead role in this year’s celebration, Calvi will also be returning to her south London roots to perform anintimate show at Brixton’s Windmill on 31 January 2020 as part of Independent Venue Week’s Homecoming Tour in collaboration with BBC 6 Music’s Steve Lamacq. Though currently busy writing – the singer-songwriter scored the soundtrack for the last season of Peaky Blinders – Calvi spoke to writer, broadcaster and friend of Independent Venue Week Paul Stokes about her art, her ambassadorial duties and her impending trip ‘home’.
You are playing the Windmill in Brixton for Independent Venue Week, this must be one of your smallest shows in years?
I’m really excited about it. It’s nice to go back to play a small venue again, especially in London where it all started for me.
Your latest album Hunter is a very intimate and personal record, will it be interesting to perform those songs in a very intimate and personal space like the Windmill?
Yeah, definitely! I think it’d be really exciting to get to see everyone’s face and make it a more intimate show. I’m really excited about it. It’s probably going to be quite intense, but in a good way. I think it is going to be a really great show.
What were the grassroots venues you played before getting signed?
I remember playing at The Shacklewell Arms, Notting Hill Arts Club, and The Old Blue Last. But a lot of the places I played have closed, which is why we need Independent Venue Week. The Spitz was a really lovely venue in east London which doesn’t exist anymore.
How much work did you have to do at that level before you were ready to record your music?
I did a lot of playing for several years before I was signed, mainly playing band nights. Often the best shows when you’re at that level is when you’re part of some kind of scene and there’s a band that’s choosing the other artists [on the bill] so it’s more about a musical integrity rather than just trying to get people to the door – it’s not great when you have to get 30 people to turn up to see you and you end-up inviting your whole family, that’s quite sad. [laughs] When it’s driven by artists for artists, I think that makes for the best music nights.
What was your show like at those early gigs?
I was in a three-piece punk band initially, that was my first experience of playing live. When that broke up and I started going solo it was really important for me to develop my persona, I suppose, on stage. Just trying things out and being playful helped me figure out what worked and what didn’t. It let me work out who I wanted to be and what I wanted to be in my music. Playing those shows was how I figured it all out.
I remember seeing you play Madame Jojos in Soho and you were very sharply attired at that one. Was that always the case or were there some more experimental looks along the way?
[laughs] I don’t think I’ve ever like been onstage in like ripped jeans or anything like that. But you never know, maybe for the next record…
Do you remember the small gig you played where your fellow Domino Records-signed artistBill Ryder-Jones saw you play? That was a key moment for you, wasn’t it?
Yeah, I was on tour with Johnny Flynn. I think it might have been in Manchester at The Deaf Institute. Bill saw me play and he told Lawrence [Bell, founder of Domino Records] about me and that’s how I got signed. So I always feel very grateful to Bill for doing that for me.
Not long after you were signed you opened for your other labelmates Arctic Monkeys when they did a ‘secret’ gig at Shepherds Bush Empire. How much had playing grassroots venues prepared you for mastering a crowd like that?
When you’re unknown and you’re playing a small venue you just have to ignore the people talking over you and focus on the people who seem like they’re connecting with you – and that’s actually quite similar to what you have to do when you’re supporting another artist. It’s a challenge, but it’s a good challenge.
Is that what made you get involved with Independent Venue Week this year?It seems grassroots venues have been very instrumental for you?
For me, performance is such a big part of what I do, and I couldn’t have done it if I hadn’t have had these venues to learn my craft in. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for those venues, so I did feel very passionately that I wanted to support Independent Venue Week and to be part of it.
What have been your favourite places to play?
Madame Jojos, I really loved playing there and I liked playing The Garage just because of the history. I knew that Jeff Buckley had played there in the ’90s and as a huge Jeff Buckley fan that kind of blew my mind. There was a venue that doesn’t exist anymore called The Luminaire [in Kilburn] which I really liked. It was from playing that venue that I got to know Brian Eno which was another big thing in my career, so lots of good memories.
And where would you like to play that you haven’t yet?
In London, I’d love to play The Royal Albert Hall but it to be my own show. I played there supporting the Arctic Monkeys but I would love to do my own. That would be a massive thing.
In your opinion,what qualities make a greatvenue?
It has to have some kind of vibe to it. At the moment with the record that I’ve made I like venues that are dark and contained, it’s like you’re creating this world inside. I don’t like venues that have like lots of lighting around, like signs for beer. If you see a beer logo illuminated your eyes go to it [when you’re on stage], it’s like how your eyes always go to a screen. You don’t want to be playing and then be like, ‘oh, beer…’ That’s quite distracting. So I like a venue that can be very dark, intimate and sleazy. Though not literal sleazy, but has that underground feeling about it. Those are my favourite kind of venues.
Are there other things that can distract an artist onstage?
You see people on their phones because the light illuminates their faces, and you realise they’re not even taking a picture of you, they’re not looking and are probably on Facebook or something. So sometimes when I see that I kind of go up to them and scare the shit out of them and they stop! [laughs]
We’ve spoken a lot about the live side of things, but the last 12 months has seen you move into composition and soundtracks.
I would love to do more of that. I worked on a film by Joanna Hogg [The Souvenir], and I did the music for Peaky Blinders in the last season, so it’s definitely something that I want to continue developing and do more.
Based on the atmospheres you create on your own songs, presumably, this is something you’ve wanted to do for a while?
Yes, because I see music very visually. I always see my music like it’s a mini film, so to be able to actually do music for images feels very natural to me.
How was your brush with The Peaky Blinders? It’s a huge cultural phenomenon at the moment, you see those granddad caps everywhere…
It was intense – really, really intense. I had to learn a lot really quickly, but it was a great experience and I’m really proud of the work I did.
Talking of film, you also recorded a track, Four On Six/Broken English, with the Tall Guy, Jeff Goulburn…
Yeah, that was really cool. We even did a show together and in Kingston of all places! He’s such a charming guy, a lovely person. He just asked me to be on his record [I Shouldn’t Be Telling You This]. I don’t know how he or his people knew about me but it was good fun. I really loved the song he did with Sharon Van Etten, Let’s Face The Music And Dance. I think his choices of artists are really interesting. It’s a really good mix of people.
You tweeted you will have new music out in 2020. What can we expect?
I’m in writing mode for my next record at the moment. Plus,there could be some really exciting collaborations! My dream collaboration scenario might actually, possibly happen. There’s a few that might, which I’m really excited about but I can’t say anything…yet!
Photography: Maisie Cousins