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Oklahoma-born and Texas-bred, Annie Clark built her indie/art-rock résumé long before dressing her own musical outfit. The Dallas native, who now resides in Manhattan, completed three years at Berklee College of Music before joining Dallas-based symphonic-rock collective The Polyphonic Spree, in which she sang, played guitar and wore weird robe-like stage costumes.
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In 2006, Clark briefly joined Sufjan Stevens's touring band. That year she also launched the solo endeavor she dubbed St. Vincent, and she has since released three albums under that name. Her most recent, Strange Mercy, came out last month.
The Houston Press spoke to Clark while she was in Milwaukee, site of the second gig of her month-long U.S. tour. Since she had named her 2007 debut album Marry Me after a favorite line from the TV sitcom Arrested Development, our initial banter was a girlfriend-type chat discussing the show's promise of new episodes, which had been announced earlier that day.
"I'm so incredibly excited," gasped Clark. "I don't know [Arrested Development creator] Mitch Hurwitz personally, but I'd like to think the announcement was my belated birthday present."
Clark celebrated her 28th birthday last month. "I went to yoga in the morning," she recalled, when asked how she observed her "Champagne Year" birthday — a term she also adopted for a Mercy track title.
Pop-culture chatter aside, Clark spoke carefully throughout our interview, pausing at times, possibly to map her responses before speaking them.
"I think the record is doing well," she said of Strange Mercy. "There's this contingent where, for some crowds, it's maybe the only album of mine they know."
While Strange Mercy doesn't necessarily stray far stylistically from previous St. Vincent albums, it is noticeably unembellished in comparison; Clark's fresh songwriting approach may have something to do with its distinction.
She retreated to Seattle to write the album, frequently checking in with its Dallas-based producer John Congleton (The Walkmen, Modest Mouse, Polyphonic Spree), whom Clark deems "wonderful," along the way.
"John told me to just write songs — no layers, no crazy-extensive demos, just songs," she said. "So I went to Seattle to write, and stayed in a hotel alone for one month, sort of like a modern-day Grizzly Man — but with a car."
The approach was Clark's first experience with exclusive guitar-based songwriting, as Marry Me and 2009's Actor both relied on tech "tinkering" and computer-based demos. While in Seattle, however, she unplugged herself from technology altogether.
"I went off the grid," she said. "I wasn't tuned in to technology."
Though approaching the album sans laptop was an extreme shift for Clark, she heeded Congleton's direction to develop her song ideas more organically.
"Our brains are so trained in this dopamine response to blinking lights, to the vibrations of text messages and e-mails," she said. "We're consumed with this sense of urgency and we're operating in these high frequencies, never having real peace. So I went off that grid, wrote songs and sent every little idea to John.
"We went into the studio in February, recorded for six weeks straight, then, boom, we had a record."
St. Vincent albums — Mercy in particular — are artful collections of roller-coaster emotions atop layers of divergent sentiment; frenzied unease countered by a candid, collected quest for personal relief amidst the frenzy.
Even Clark herself appears to be a juxtaposition. Her Snow White image is captivating. She is wide-eyed, fair-skinned and delicate, quite the contrast to her bold songs and intricate guitar-shredding plaints.
Clark began writing Mercy amidst an emotionally difficult year — her willing isolation during its production shaped the album into a cathartic finished product. The record is noticeably contained compared to its Actor predecessor, an album doused with produced, lush, symphonic arrangements.
Mercy pulls back the reins of Actor's tech influence and fleeting overproduction, allowing a brighter light to be shone on Clark's strongest musical asset — her well-versed guitar skills, along with her newfound candidness in her songwriting.
"I've had good times with some bad guys / I've told whole lies with a half smile," she sings in "Cheerleader," offering rare bare-boned evidence of her reportedly tumultuous year. "But I-I-I-I-I don't want to be a cheerleader no more," she emphatically concludes, in a repeated explosion of fierce emotion.
Clark spoke proudly of Mercy, citing her favorite track as "Surgeon."
"I love [gospel organist] Bobby Sparks's moog solo at the end of it," she said. "Hearing that moment makes me smile." She said she's relishing the opportunity to showcase new material on the Mercy tour, which kicked off earlier this month.
"It's like wanting to play with a new toy post-Christmas," she explained. "I'm playing the new record, mostly, and it's translating well live. It's been really fun to play so much guitar on this tour."
Clark said she thinks the tour will be "up and kickin'" by the time she and her band play Fitzgerald's Tuesday. She last performed in Houston at Numbers during the Spring 2009 Westheimer Block Party.
"Houston is really cool," Clark said, unprompted, citing the city's "youth culture and art-type 'thing.'" Though she's lived in Manhattan for the last decade, Texas is still dear to her heart.
Glad to have seen this concert in Salt Lake City last week, the songs were wonderful, and stage lighting phenomenal. All but one of the Strange Mercy songs, and several from Actor in a very long set, in a sold-out venue of enthused fans. Cate Le Bon provides a perfect foil to Annie's performance with her songs like "Terror of the Man" and several others. A very worthwhile concert. I had the pleasure of meeting Annie in person in January at Sundance.
"Her Snow White image is captivating. She is wide-eyed, fair-skinned and delicate."
REALLY? When will we stop reviewing women's APPEARANCES when we should just be reviewing their MUSIC? I like St. Vincent, but I want to hear more about her music, writing process, equipment, recording gear than how pretty she is. Only women receive this kind of treatment from the press.
When would we ever think to review the Fleet Foxes, or (insert other trending, male-based popular “indie” artist here) in terms of how “captivating” their press photo was? Whether or not they are “wide-eyed, fair-skinned and delicate?”
Leave Annie Clark's looks out of this. Let us draw our own conclusions from her press photos. Give us the facts.
Or at least try to describe the sounds she's creating, and in the process, reveal some insight on her creative process.
Hey Ice Age,
Thanks for reading. As a female writer who has frequently written about women in music and, occasionally, feminist ideology in music and art, I invite you to peruse my other writings to see that, well, I'm a descriptive writer. Furthermore, I don't deem adjectives like "wide-eyed" or "fair-skinned" to necessarily equate to "hot" or "sexy;" they are palpable observations. I do not base any artists' merit on physical looks, and I think I may have been nearly as descriptive of Meat Puppets' members in my review of their show a couple weeks ago. For example.
Again, sincere thanks for reading!Neph
When you describe Annie Clark as being "fair-skinned" you're not revealing anything the reader can't discern from a publicity photograph.
Women already have enough social pressure from the media to be perceived as gendered feminine and "delicate" aka, thin. "Delicate" is a gendered, diminutive term that draws attention away from Annie Clark's fierce and strong delivery.
The most offensive term by far is "Snow White." Why does Ms. Clark have to be compared with a fairy-tale princess whose main occupation is being so beautiful that she garners nothing but hatred from the aging queen? Sure, you'll argue that her physical characteristics simply match those of the Disney heroine - but it's your job as a journalist to give us the real woman and not to paint a portrait of a stereotype.
There's a lot of literature out there about feminism and fairy tales, and the lessons little girls learn from them - and media. You can do a Google search.
Just what we need. That, and more "I'm too pretty for homework!" t-shirts.
My full response is here: