“If Batman played guitar, it would be that guitar.” Anna Calvi is giving her opinion on her new guitar – a Fender American Professional II Telecaster finished in the company’s polarising Dark Night finish, and you have to say she has a point. It’s a colour that the caped crusader would surely approve of, but equally suits Calvi, whose music regularly attracts many of the same adjectives – ‘dark’, ‘brooding’, ‘melancholy’ – as Gotham’s own Dark Knight.
And when it comes to Telecasters, Calvi’s opinion is worth paying attention to. The 40-year-old London-born virtuoso has been in love with the Fender Telecaster and its many alluring utilitarian charms from the age of 17 when she first saw Jeff Buckley playing one on TV. “I didn’t know anything about the instrument, but I just thought it was the coolest thing ever,” she explains of that initial attraction. Since then, Telecasters have accompanied Calvi on every step of her astonishing musical journey.
After playing in a series of bands, then going solo and touring with Interpol, Arctic Monkeys and Nick Cave’s Grinderman, Calvi’s first big moment came in 2010 with her cover of the Wayne Shanklin song Jezebel, made famous by Édith Piaf. From the simmering Spaghetti Western atmospherics of her self-titled 2011 debut album via the more expansive instrumental textures of One Breath three years later, to 2018’s defining statement Hunter (and its collaborative sibling Hunted), Calvi’s playing has been jaw-dropping. Fusing together classical and Spanish influences with sizzling lead work and co-existing with a towering operatic vocal style, it’s seen her play hundreds of gigs across the globe, conquer the festival circuit several times over and earn three Mercury Prize nominations. Remarkably one single guitar, a sunburst 1997 American Standard Tele, has matched her stride for stride.
On the slab
“I loved Jeff Buckley’s guitar tone,” Calvi recalls of how she came into ownership of her number one instrument. “So I got my first Tele and it’s the same one I’ve had since then. It’s the guitar I use on tour, the guitar I record all my albums on… It’s been a long love affair I’ve had with the Telecaster.
“I think guitars really change the way that you play. The Telecaster has a great chime, it sounds great for rhythm playing, it sounds great when you use overdrive, it can be lots of different things. It was after I bought that Tele that I decided I wanted to do music with my life, because before then I thought I was going to do art. Getting that guitar changed everything and made me want to pursue music as a life choice.”
Despite having a pivotal effect on the path of Calvi’s life and becoming priceless in the process, the 1997 Tele continues to be put through the rigorous demands of touring. While its owner has two other American Standards given to her by Fender, as well as a Gretsch Jet Baritone, it continues to take the majority of the punishment.
“It tours around the world with me, and I’ve become progressively more aggressive towards it,” says Calvi, the anxiety evident in her voice. “On stage touring my last album, I was a bit wilder. I had a moment in one of my shows when the neck started to come off the body. I have to say, it absolutely terrified me.
“Because Teles are so sturdy, you feel as if nothing can break them, and I was really shocked that my guitar could actually break if I was too aggressive with it. I think it had just had too many whacks, being thrown around for a whole year’s touring and it said ‘enough’. It made me realise even more how attached I am, and that if it couldn’t be fixed I’d be heartbroken. I don’t know if I’d ever get over it. I’m slightly kinder to it now, if I really want to throw a guitar around, I’ll choose a different one.”
Perhaps, then, it’s time for the new Batman guitar to enter Calvi’s live arsenal? She’s spent the last few days before our interview getting to know this dark and stormy addition to Fender’s American Professional II range, which offer myriad tweaks to Leo’s classic recipe designed to give professional musicians that extra edge – from rolled fingerboard edges to advanced switching, sculpted neck heels and forefront of Calvi’s mind, new V-Mod II single-coil pickups. “They sound really great,” she enthuses, “They really sing out, and they’re great when you overdrive them”.
While her old faithful might hold a special place in her heart, Fender’s YouTube video of Calvi playing debut album track Rider To The Sea shows that she’s instantly comfortable with her new squeeze. Witness the dulcet punch of the low notes, scorching Hendrix-like string bends, vast raked chords and controlled brutality as she tears down the smooth rosewood fretboard with a brass slide and coaxes a cranked Deluxe Reverb into feedback. It’s spine-tingling.
“I love the versatility of a Tele,” Calvi enthuses. “The American Pro II sounds great. It has got a slightly more bassy option, a rounder tone than my American Standard. If ever there was a criticism of Telecasters, it’s maybe that they don’t quite have those low-end tones, but this new American Pro II series takes care of that, it sounds really full and rich.”
The broader tonal signature of the new guitar may make it a good match for Calvi’s primary amp, too – a 1966 Vox AC30 she’s been playing for most of her live career.
“I think, especially when you’re recording, everything sounds a bit duller than when you’re standing right in front of the amp. Using the Tele and the Vox is a good way to recreate that bite you want from a recording. I’m just amazed at how durable the AC30 is. There was one gig where I turned round and there was smoke coming out of it, that was a bit concerning, but other than that it’s followed me all round the world and done a great job. I really like the combination of a Tele and the Vox.”
Calvi’s superlative technique is partly the product of a love of classical music she inherited from her parents, as well as an early grounding in the violin, an instrument she first picked up at the age of six. She believes studying the complexities of that fretless instrument helped inform her extraordinary six-string feel.
“With the violin, everything is about how you produce a note. You can produce a note in so many different ways, and there are so many different things that can affect the value and emotion – how much vibrato you put on it, how fast you move the bow, how soft or hard. Sometimes with a guitar it’s easy not to think about that – the phrasing, or how hard or soft you play, and I think it’s definitely affected me as a guitar player that I really try to think about being expressive in my vibrato, phrasing and dynamics.”
Calvi’s also developed an unusual sweep picking style stemming from her interest in West African music. “It actually came out of the fact that my weakness is my right hand in terms of up and down picking,” she explains, offering hope for we mere mortals. “I was never really that good at it. I had this realisation that instead of finding that frustrating I would try to make it my strength, try to be as economical as I can and try to use sweep picking as much as I can, and that developed into a way of strumming which is a kind of circular motion to create the appearance of lots of notes being played at the same time.”
“I used to think everything should come from the hands but I’ve become more open to having pedals. It’s an interesting way of sculpting your sonic universe”
After graduating from the University of Southampton with a degree in Music, it had taken Calvi a while to overcome a phobia of singing. When she did find that huge, breathtaking voice, it intertwined harmoniously with her outrageous guitar chops, immediately drawing comparisons to her hero Buckley. She emphasises, though, that virtuosity is nothing without humanity and emotion.
“It has to come from the right reasons, which is you’re exploring a story and an emotion and therefore it’s what the story and the song calls for. I don’t want to overdo it. It’s something all guitarists learn as they get better, less is more. The simpler you can be, but express the same emotion, the better it will be. There’s something really profound about saying something in the simplest terms but being the most emotional about it.
“I think there’s a sense for me of the guitar takes over where the voice stops. They’re almost one thing and both serve the same purpose, which is to explore the story of the song.”
On the hunt
While that philosophy initially manifested in a purist’s approach to the guitar informed by her classical education, by the time Calvi unleashed the electrifying sonic and visual melodrama of Hunter, it had given way to a boundlessly expressive outpouring.
“I think it’s got a bit wilder and freer,” she acknowledges. “With my first album, I almost wanted to treat the guitar as a classical instrument, more like classical or Spanish guitar, but now there are more moments where I turn up the drive. I use slide a lot more, too. The thing I like about slide is it’s quite similar to the human voice, in the same way you can bend a string. It’s like an extreme bend going between notes and I find that really thrilling.”
That sonic evolution has also seen Calvi embrace effects, and any guitar she uses has to play nicely with a pedalboard that has grown to fairly sizeable proportions, including a T-Rex Room-Mate reverb, Crowther Hot Cake, Electro-Harmonix Big Muff as well as delay, chorus and octave options.
“I’m definitely more into experimenting with pedals than I used to be,” she confirms. “I used to think that everything should come from the hands, but now I’ve become a bit more open to having lots of pedals. It’s a lot of fun and an interesting way of sculpting your sonic universe.”
Calvi has been busy during the seemingly endless COVID lockdown sculpting new sonic universes. As well as test driving the American Pro II, she reveals she’s been writing her fifth album. While remaining guarded about the details, she’s happy to report that once again everything has been written on her beloved 1997 American Standard.
“I don’t know if I want to say yet, it’s early days,” she says when asked what direction the songs are taking. “I’m very much enjoying the exploration stage at the moment and anything is possible. I definitely have enough songs for an album, I’m just trying to decide whether they’re good enough and I’ve got an album. That’s the next stage.”
Find out more about the American Professional II range at fender.com.