Published Feb 05, 2014Asked why she self-titled her fourth record as St. Vincent, Annie Clark is frank: "I was reading Miles Davis's autobiography, and between him talking about Charlie Parker, heroin and hitting his wife, he talked about how the hardest thing for any musician to do is to sound like themselves. I think I sound like myself on this record, so I self-titled it."
Clark's stunning musicianship — her fretboard-shredding guitar mastery, her versatile, honeyed-then-frantic alto and her knack for layered, complex songwriting filtered through pop-hook immediacy — has brought her all over the world and won her accolades from fans, music press and peers.
The 31-year-old, born in Oklahoma but raised in a Dallas, Texas suburb, has had a busy year — one that she was supposed to spend relaxing. Instead, she's spent the past 12 months between New York, Austin and a friend's ranch in remote West Texas, writing and recording the new album. Relaxing, it turns out, isn't really her strong suit.
"I had two years worth of life that I'd lived on the road: friends, life and places I'd been that I had to write about," Clark explains. "So when I got home, I started writing about 36 hours after I came off of a year-and-a-half touring. I got a good night's sleep and then I woke up the next day and was like 'I want to synthesize everything I've just seen and the places I've been.' So I just started writing."
The result, St. Vincent, balances the cerebral, finely detailed arrangements of her early albums with the urgency of her later work. Out February 25, the album finds Clark layering horns, synths and her trademark thick slabs of guitar over passionate, live drum work to create a set of songs that feels somehow definitively St. Vincent-ian and surprising at the same time.
In 2011, she described the writing of last album Strange Mercy, which won her a place on dozens of year-end lists and took her from indie music's best-kept secret to ubiquitous critic's darling, as slow: "I think a lot of being creative is just kind of slogging along, waiting for a train." But where it took complete focus to coax her creativity into the station on that album, St. Vincent finds Clark trying to get everything down as it whips by the window.
In measured tones over the phone from her on-again, off-again home in New York City, Clark says that recently, she's been learning how to make sense of it all. "I often find that I don't really know what I think or feel about something until it comes out musically. I mean, I keep notes, and I take a couple of pictures, but it seems like life, especially once you're on the road and really hustling, life moves so quickly. There's a certain amount of it that you get to experience while it's happening, but there's almost this second wave of it later when you're like 'Wow, I was in that place,' or 'I remember when somebody said that.'"
For the restless and nomadic Clark, making music used to feel like a distraction from finding a place to settle down. With St. Vincent, she's finding that home is, as the cliché goes, where the heart is, and that hers is undoubtedly in creating music.
Clark left Texas to attend the Berklee College of Music in Boston, but dropped out three years later to return to Dallas, where she joined the rotating cast of mid-2000s symphonic pop-rock troupe the Polyphonic Spree for one album, and played guitar on Sufjan Stevens' Illinois tour in 2006. While on tour, she sold her three-song Paris is Burning EP with the newly-adopted St. Vincent name, then signed to Beggars Banquet to record her debut, Marry Me.
The album's structural twists and turns, Clark's signature throttled guitar solos and lush orchestration — Clark plays guitars and synths and works with a different studio band for each album, depending on the sound she wants — caught the attention of fabled indie label 4AD, with whom she put out her follow-up, 2009's Actor.
Her second album strongly juxtaposed Clark's mellifluous voice with more haunted melodies and sparser arrangements, thanks in large part to the introduction of producer John Congleton, with whom Clark has worked on every album since (including St. Vincent). Lyrically, she sharpened her focus on the divide between thought and deed: how people behave versus the way they wish to, or secretly do, behave. Actor evinced an acute ability to read and understand human interaction.
It was on 2011's Strange Mercy that Clark's style became fully realized, matching her idiosyncratic songwriting and knack for melody with elegance and studio execution. In the album's press release, she noted that "Marry Me is very cute... and Actor was cerebral but I've grown beyond that now. I want to make a record that's more human every time." That quest for more humanity — though it was never truly lacking on her first two albums — led her to go on a "technology cleanse," leaving her phone off and her email unchecked while she worked on Strange Mercy in Seattle.
"To be alone with myself," she said at the time, "was kind of terrifying... but ultimately, it was rewarding." Strange Mercy found Clark stomping and swaggering, using percussion as much as her thick guitar lines and orchestration to convey mood.
Both the swagger and rhythmic influence of the album could be attributed to Clark-proclaimed genius David Byrne (whose body of work with Talking Heads was, whether swaggering or jittery, almost always defined by rhythm) with whom she had, at that point, begun working on their collaborative LP, Love This Giant. When it was released a year later, in 2012, the duo toured the record extensively.
Byrne's "fearlessness" in the studio left an impression on her, as did the experience of playing their highly stylized shows, in which Byrne, Clark and a large brass ensemble performed a carefully choreographed stage show every night of their lengthy North American tour. For the first time, she was playing shows that moved audiences to get up and dance.
She had achieved a more "human" aspect on Strange Mercy, so on her fourth record, Clark asserts, she wanted to get at their brains and bodies both. "I wanted to make something that was really kinetic, sexy from a rhythm section standpoint. I was almost reverse-engineering the record to make sure there could be a really energetic live show. I was thinking about the live show that was to come while I was making the record."
Life on the road and an insatiable desire to be creatively productive has made the concept of home unique for Clark. Writing St. Vincent, she maintains, "was my way into figuring out how to be home and in one place for a second and to be creative. If I wasn't traveling out in the world, at least I was traveling inward every day."
Though she keeps a place in New York, writing "was split between a few places. I started it when I was back in New York, and I decided to go down to Texas, to Austin for a few months. I can write any number of ways now, but if I'm going to do the kind of intensive work that I like to do when I'm really focusing, I like to be in a place where there aren't that many things to distract me."
In Texas, Clark was free to write without diversion. The process came much more easily than it did for Strange Mercy, which she attributes to the fearlessness she inherited from writing and touring Love This Giant with Byrne. "It came easily in that I've learned to trust my instincts. I felt very confident going into it. It was still a tremendous amount of effort, I just didn't beat myself up so much in the process."
St. Vincent sounds less calculated and more stream-of-consciousness than the seemingly more meticulous Strange Mercy. Tracks like "Digital Witness" and "Bring Me Your Loves," album highlights both, bear the rhythmic influence of Byrne and the work of Dap-King percussionist Homer Steinweiss, which allowed space for Clark to experiment with guitar sounds, synth burbles and melody.
"I feel like you can get away with a lot of bananas technicolour stuff on top if the groove is there; you can get away with things because you've got people bobbing their heads." She notes that the album has "the feel of a human and the sound of a machine," but wants to clarify that all the sounds you hear are human-made.
The lyrical content, meanwhile, remains fascinated by the hypocrisies apparent in the minutiae of everyday life. "In this day and age, when we're very obsessed with documenting every minute aspect of our lives, it's nice to juxtapose the very mundane with the very macro. I'm interested in the human experience and how people actually are, and not who they say they are — the little flaws that make everybody human. There are so many love songs, for example, in music, but the ones that affect me are the ones that are not the pie-in-the-sky, I-will-always-love-you [ones], because you know what? Who knows?"
"There's no point in my life where I feel like throwing my fist in the air and being the star of my own video game or something. That's not my experience of life. That's the Titanic love song. It doesn't resonate with me, doesn't seem like how people actually are."
While she's happy to be candid in her songs, she's loath to explain them afterward, for fear of narrowing listeners' perceptions and closing the space into which listeners insert themselves and personalize songs.
"Once you make a record and put the music out into the world — obviously it's your progeny — it's other peoples' to weave into their own lives and put themselves into. I would hate to ruin that experience for someone because, especially with the new record, there's so much detail being revealed in the music. It doesn't need a little placard explaining it in the museum."
Still, St. Vincent is unmistakably Clark's most self-realized and personal work to date. "I say things in my songs that I'd never speak to another person," she admits. "It's not a matter of being veiled in the art; it's the exact opposite."
Clark's ambition and creative restlessness suggest that it won't be long before there's another St. Vincent record, but she's learning to treat each as their own small end, rather than as steps to some hypothetical final destination. In a 2008 Pitchfork interview, she mentioned that after her current tour, there was "this light at the end of the tunnel where I am going to figure out to be a normal person again. Maybe not too normal, but figure out how to be in one place for a little while."
In 2014, she's made peace with the frenetic pace of her career. "I think I used to romanticize this idea of being very domestic and really settling into a place and having a home and all that, but the grass is always greener. [I'd think] 'I'm on the road, but wouldn't it be nice to be home in my bed and going to the coffee shop and doing the things I do when I'm home?' After being set down by a tornado [of touring] I was like 'Wait, actually I'm not interested in any of this stuff.'"
So while Clark admits that "it's nice to be home," she's happy to stay on the move as long as she remains creatively free.
"I could sleep in a different hotel every night and be fine. I've let go of the idea that there's this other life that I'm supposed to be leading that I'll get to one of these days. I realized it doesn't matter to me. I want life to be as exciting as it possibly can."