Annie Clark, the mastermind behind St. Vincent, tells us about her creative impulses, how she spends her time between concerts, the time she spent at her local record store as a teenager, and whether she likes “Portlandia”, the cult television program that she did a cameo on.
Annie Clark, an old member of The Polyphonic Spree and former back-up singer who toured with Sufjan Stevens, has managed to carve out a respectable solo career under the pseudonym St. Vincent. In only three years, she has gone from being one of those soloists who go slightly unnoticed to becoming one of the most important figures in current indie music. This is due to two albums in a row that have bordered on excellence. She is one of the cornerstones of the prestigious 4AD label, which released her third album, “ Strange Mercy”, last September. The LP deservedly reached the list of the 50 best albums of the year according to PlayGround staff and reached number 19 on the Billboard 200. It was a work that distanced itself from the languid pop of her beginnings, to increasingly embrace bursts of noise and distortion that few would associate with her angelical look, as well as an exciting sense of unpredictability and a prodigious handling of the guitar.
Besides a tour that seems never-ending, she recently released a two-sided single for Record Store Day, “KROKODIL/GROT”, where she seemed more visceral and aggressive than ever. Also among her plans is an album with David Byrne that is already finished, which will be out in the coming months. We talked to her to find out about her creative drives, the time that she spent in her local record shop as a teenager, what direction she will take in the future, and whether she likes “Portlandia”, a television show with a cult following that she did a cameo on.
"I naturally have a sweet voice, but I love distortion"
There is a bit of suspense in your music. The listener may have the feeling that something unexpected is about to happen. Is this a quality that you seek?
For me, beauty and anxiety constantly coexist. That duality naturally comes out in my music.
There is often a huge contrast between your sweet voice and the heavy and distorted guitar sounds in your songs. Do you enjoy playing with contrasts?
I naturally have a sweet voice, but I love distortion. I love perverse-sounding guitar, so I just did what came naturally to me.
Each new album of yours is harsher than the previous one. You’ve just released “KROKODIL”, which is miles away from “Paris Is Burning”. Is this the direction you want to follow?
I never know what kind of record I'm going to make until I make it. But in the past, I was trying to subvert my aggression into sweet-sounding but slightly unsettling music. Now I'm more comfortable just letting the aggression burst through the surface, unadorned.
4AD stated that “KROKODIL” marks a stylistic departure from “Strange Mercy”, but I think it’s more like the next logical step (ok, maybe your voice is more aggressive). Do you feel it is that way also? Is there an explanation for this heavy-sounding music? Do you think touring and playing live a lot may have caused it?
The music I make is intricate and has subtlety and relies a lot on texture and layering to sound whole. I am very busy during a show, making complicated things look easy. So I wanted to write some songs that were just heavy, monolithic, and wild so I could let go more.
You have a tight concert schedule. How do you spend your time while on tour when you are not playing live? Where are you right now answering these questions?
I am at the gym on a bicycle, typing answers on an iPad. I work out a lot on tour, as it keeps my mind and body in good shape. I also read a lot.
I saw you for the first time playing alone and now you have a whole band supporting you. How has this changed your day-to-day work? Do they help you in terms of production?
I am able to present the songs as they are supposed to sound with a full band. I have done almost every job in touring, from tour manager, to driving, to roadie. Now that I have a crew to do these jobs, I have a lot more fun on tour, as I can just focus on the music.
Your guitar play is getting more awesome and peculiar every time I see you on stage again. Do you learn new things constantly?
I'm always trying to push things further. And yes! Always learning!
John Congleton has produced your last two records and he has quickly become one of the best record producers around. How is it to work with him?
John and I have a very “simpatico” relationship. We are both middle-class suburban weirdos from Dallas, so there's a shorthand in working together. He is my favourite as a person and engineer.
You’ve recently covered Big Black, Pearl Jam and The Pop Group, amongst others, something many people wouldn’t have expected of you some years ago. Are these some of the bands you listen to more nowadays or just all-time influences?
I've been a fan of Steve Albini since the early 90's. I used to hang around the record store in Dallas, talking shop with the cashiers and finding out about punk/post punk.
Are you planning on recording some of this material? The “She Is Beyond Good And Evil” cover is particularly great.
I'll just leave it as a fun live staple.
You’ve just finished recording your collaborative album with David Byrne. What kind of sounds can we expect?
It's a pop record centred around a 16-piece brass band and big beats.
You played in a “Gossip Girl” episode. What do you find harder to do: a day at a recording studio, a photo shoot / filming, touring or all the promo process?
I'd say being on tour is more fun because you actually get the pay-off of playing a show for fans at the end. Photo shoots are necessary, but I'd rather be on stage than in front of a camera all day.
We are big fans of “Portlandia” and we loved your cameo. Did you enjoy being around such crazy and creative minds? We recently asked Fred Armisen if you liked and kept your police outfit— did you?
I love Portlandia!! I've been friends with Fred and Carrie for years and was so happy they asked me to be on the show.