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.
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."
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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.
"My whole family lives in Texas, so I'm there all the time," she said. "I moved east when I was 18, but I think Texas shaped me; the South made me a polite person, and that probably comes out in my music, somehow."
Clark remained eloquent and thoughtful as we spoke; she was confident yet humble. Any verbal stammer was met with a moment of recollection and eventual clarity. She was genuine and inquisitive.
Her list of hobbies is refreshing. "While on the road, we're mostly geared to giving everything to our shows," she said. "But sleeping on a bus is weird, so I do yoga to keep my body healthy and aligned. I like to read, and I'm really into listening to podcasts like This American Life."
Here Clark shyly trailed off, seeming to wonder how that sounded.
"I mean — I have podcast apps on my iPad!" she laughed. "And sometimes I'll even double up and listen to a podcast while I do yoga!"
Then she turned quiet again, and, sounding self-conscious yet sarcastic, asked, "I mean, is that, like, 'sexy' and 'rock and roll' enough of an answer?"
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