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No Pop Diva

21 May 2014 | 4:00 am | Cyclone Wehner

"I guess that Lorde song [Royals] was interesting, 'cause it was so sparse and it felt a bit like something different – so I can appreciate that as a pop song."

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Not that the mysterious guitarist/singer ever aspired to be a pop star. To her astonishment, Anna Calvi broke into the mainstream with 2011's all-consuming eponymous debut. Last October, Calvi returned with the defiantly avant-garde, and dangerously intense, One Breath, earning further accolades. Now she's headlining Vivid LIVE.

The Londoner first toured Australia with 2012's Laneway, joined by multi-instrumentalist Mally Harpaz and drummer Daniel Maiden-Wood. But, with the latter's departure, she's revamped her band. “It's been really fun to kind of play with these new people – and it's sounding great as a band,” says the shy Calvi.

Most write-ups on the diminutive 30-something suggest she sprang from nowhere with 2010's goth revisioning of Jezebel, a song equated with her beloved Edith Piaf. Her hips dislocated at birth, Calvi endured painful medical treatments through childhood, yet created her own fantasy life. Calvi's Italian psychotherapist father encouraged her musicality – and she picked up first the violin, then guitar, eventually studying music at uni. Still, Calvi only started to sing in her 20s, practising furtively at home to Piaf, Maria Callas and Nina Simone. However, she has had different projects. Calvi fronted the “classical punk” band Cheap Hotel, airing the single, New York. Jared Leto invited them to open for Thirty Seconds To Mars in the UK. “It was my first experience of singing live, so I was just learning how to do it really – and learning what kind of performer I wanted to be. But musically it wasn't really what I wanted to do.” Connecting with PJ Harvey's ally Rob Ellis, she'd cut that cinematic art-rock debut for Domino Records.

One Breath is bolder than Anna Calvi. Its overall theme is anticipation – both the dread and the euphoria of losing control. The album is also more personal. Sonically, it's textured – and transitionary. Calvi, influenced by choral music, experiments vocally, too, and, instead of strumming her guitar, Calvi uses it in near torrents. As such, numbers like Eliza are rockier. This time Calvi teamed with American John Congleton – recommended by Annie Clark (aka St Vincent). For now, she chooses not to self-produce: “A lot of it is just someone holding your hand and making you feel like you're doing okay.”

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Calvi has already moved on from One Breath. “Once you make it, you've done so much thinking about it, it's almost you kind of have to leave it behind. I'm more thinking about what I want to do next.”

Though a guarded interviewee, Calvi has consistently expressed distaste for contemporary pop. Is there anything redeeming? “Um… well, I guess that Lorde song [Royals] was interesting, 'cause it was so sparse and it felt a bit like something different – so I can appreciate that as a pop song.”