One Breath is the moment immediately before everything changes. Anna Calvi’s second album teeters on a precipice, that dividing line splitting life into the before and after, the exact point at which inertia becomes action. “I’m calling the album that because that song sums up the feeling of being on the edge of something,” she explains. “It’s the moment before you’ve got to open yourself up, and it’s about how terrifying that it. It’s scary and it’s thrilling. It’s also full of hope, because whatever has to happen hasn’t happened yet.”
In the two years since she released her self-titled debut, life has changed for Anna Calvi, and One Breath comes from a very different place. She wrote the first album over a long period of time, not knowing if anyone would ever even hear it, but made One Breath in a few short weeks, determined not to make it a replica.
She spent a year writing 30 or so songs in London, before travelling to Blackbox studios in France to record a narrowed-down list. Daniel Maiden-Wood returned on drums, Mally Harpaz on percussion, and Massive Attack and Portishead-collaborator John Baggott joined for the first time on keyboards. The record was then mixed in Dallas, Texas, during a “bizarre” three weeks of near-isolation in a motel room. The 11 songs that make up One Breath take in a broad spectrum of reference points, from the call-and-response detail of West African music to the transformative conceptual ideas of composer John Adams, via Sing To Me, an homage to Maria Callas. This is an emotional journey through an expansive musical palette.
“I wanted there to be a wider spectrum of emotion on the record, and I wanted this to be expressed in the music. I wanted more moments of ugliness and more moments of beauty. I wanted the guitars to come in at the emotional climax of a song, rather than strumming all the way through. I wanted to work more with textures, so I used tuned percussion, and less typical, bass-drum-guitars band textures.”
This compulsion to expand her vision, rather than remain fixed in one sound, saw Calvi playing around with the way she uses her voice. “When I first started and realised I could sing loud, I thought, this is so much fun, I can do it all the time,” she laughs. “This time, I wanted to use it as an instrument, like a dramatic device, as I do with the guitar. I learned that powerful moments can be from singing quietly. Some of the riffs are done by the voice, as opposed to another instrument.”
Calvi worked closely with producer John Congleton to bring these exploratory strands together, having been introduced to him by a mutual friend, though she was already a fan of his work. “I liked the records he’s done. I like Amanda Palmer’s records, the work he’s done with Bill Callahan.” Congleton shared her enthusiasm for experimenting with texture, and offered an added impetus of working quickly, not allowing Calvi to deliberate over microscopic elements of songs as she had done in the past, but rather, get it done, and declare it finished. “That’s always a problem with me,” she admits. “This encouraged me to just go with it more, and you can hear that on the record.”
The heavy, crunching Love Of My Life, which combines wild distortion with moments of unnerving stillness, is perhaps the biggest departure from the past, and its bold new intent is striking. “It’s that feeling of really wanting someone, so much that you feel fevered by it,” Calvi explains, of its meaning. “If I were to describe that in sound, then that’s what it feels like, so it has to sound like that. It makes me feel slightly uncomfortable. John makes an effort to do new things, and not just do the safe thing. I didn’t want to make something safe-sounding.”
One Breath was made during a tumultuous time in Calvi’s life, which may explain this sense of upheaval. “The year I wrote this record was tough but a learning experience. I feel like, in a way, it made me write differently, so at least something good came out of it. The first album was very much a statement of ‘This is what I am, I’m strong’, whereas this one was more about using music to try to make sense of situations that had happened to me. It’s more personal.”
The beautiful Piece By Piece is the most literal response, telling the story of how a memory evaporates, as the music slowly disintegrates, too, crumbling as the song reaches its end. “It's about how no matter how hard you try to hold onto a memory it will always dissipate. This can be very sad and difficult, but at times it can also be a very healing thing. The music is made up of all these pieces which get deconstructed, then by the end, they dissipate, as the memory dissipates. The whole song is the feeling of losing that memory.”
The album opens with Suddenly, its words telling a very different story to its euphoric sound. "It's about how the memories of any difficult experience you've had are always with you at some level, even after you've re-built your strength again. I like the juxtaposition - the music is in a major key and it’s quite upbeat, but the story is more vulnerable.”
The soaring Eliza continues that theme, striking a delicate balance between optimism and despair.
"It's about seeing a strong and beautiful woman who reminds you of a part of yourself that has got lost somehow, and striving to become that person again.”
Though this is a more reflective record, those fiery elements that so informed her debut remain in place, albeit in an altered state. “The first album was very much about passion. The music still comes from a place of passion, but there are more textures and colours.” At this stage, water seems a more appropriate image. “Water is a good example of the feeling of not being in control, of there being something you have to surrender to. If there’s a thematic thread, then that’s it.”
The Bridge, a choral, dream-like work, brings the album to a close with surreal, ethereal poise. “It leads you back to the beginning,” she says. “Suddenly is about being on the edge, and imagine being on the edge of a bridge. It’s the moment where you have a choice to go forth in life and accept the way it is, which means you’re never going to feel stable. I find it terrifying. But it’s beautiful, as well.” One Breath has been drawn, and everything has changed.