Q&A with Annie Clark of St. Vincent
Performing as St. Vincent, Annie Clark is a writer of lush, adventurous pop music. As a teenager she was the tour manager for her uncle's band, Tuck & Patti, where she learned not only a great deal about the music business but also a bit about musicianship and effective performance.
In her early twenties, Clark became a member of the Polyphonic Spree and later on joined Sufjan Stevens' band for his 2006 tour. The following year, Clark released her first solo album, Marry Me, a promising debut filled with effervescent melodies and experimental flourishes throughout.
The follow-up, and Clark's latest album Actor, appeared two years later and garnered a great deal of acclaim for Clark. Actor is a sonically and artistically mature work that reveals an uncommon depth of artistic imagination and ambition in songwriting and musical conceptualization.
We had a chance to speak with Clark about the influence of works in different media on Actor, her aesthetic approach to music and the concept of the "provisional ego."
Westword (Tom Murphy): What is it about the work of David Mamet that you find particularly interesting and how has it informed the writing of lyrics for Actor?
Annie Clark (St. Vincent): I'm a fan of logic. I like his Midwestern pragmatism, to be honest. There's something really gritty about having his sort of really sound architecture behind dramatic form.
I'm also just a fan of taking concepts that are supposed to be for other mediums -- from art, from theater -- and applying those concepts to what I do. My lyrics were more influenced by things that I was reading like Philip Roth, Bukowski and Cormac McCarthy. There is a gracefulness in the brutality of the language of all of those people that I really like.
I heard that during rehearsals for one of David Mamet's plays, he was sitting in the audience, while the actors were on stage, and drinking Muscle Milk and lifting weights, as he was supposed to be watching. But he was so astute that he wasn't even watching, but he would stop them and give them notes that were dead on.
WW: What lead to your dropping out of Berklee?
AC: My parents asked me the same question. I think that with music school and art school, or school in any form, there has to be some system of grading and measurement. The things they can teach you is quantifiable. While all that is good and has its place, at some point you have to learn all you can and then forget everything that you learned in order to actually start making music.
I think a lot of people, if they're not careful, can err on the side of the quantifiable and approach it like an athlete. Run that little bit faster, do that little bit more and think you're being more successful. But the truth is that a lot of times it's not necessarily about merely being the best athlete, it's about attempting a new sport.
WW: Why do you like things that are unsettling and creepy?
AC: You might have to ask my psychoanalyst. I like when things give you the willies. I like when things come out of nowhere and blindside you a little bit. I think any person who gets panic attacks or has an anxiety disorder can understand how things can all of a sudden turn very quickly. I think I'm sublimating that into the music.
WW: How did you develop your guitar technique and what sorts of sounds inspired it?
AC: My uncle is an amazing guitarist named Tuck Andress, and I spent a lot of time watching him and studying his every move. You couldn't find a better finger style player on the planet. I guess I could talk about guitar players I like, like Andy Gill, and I like King Crimson.
But I think my style evolved from trying not to just look at a guitar as a six-string instrument but as a percussive instrument -- like any other sound generator. I put it through a lot of pedals. I also look at it as an oscillator -- any kind of device that generates sound to broaden the palette.
WW: Can you tell me about the concept of the "provisional ego" and the role it plays in your life as a creative person?
AC: That's a concept that my uncle talked about a lot. It's a concept that is found in the teachings of Meher Baba. It can feel like a fair amount of hubris is necessary to go out into the world and say, "Hey world, listen to what I have to say."
The other side of that, of course, is that all the music that you have ever loved in the world is the result of someone having that "provisional ego." It's not as if you are saying, "I am the be all, end all creator of this music." You're giving yourself permission to go out and be seen, or rather heard, and put yourself out into a situation that may not feel natural to you. You're kind of a vessel for the music.
WW: A lot of critics and writers have said that Actor is darker than Marry Me. Would you agree with this? If so, how so, and if not, why not?
AC: To me, it's realer. I think that the music is more beautiful and more dramatic, I wouldn't say romantic, but more dreamy and Technicolor than Marry Me. Less Vaudeville and show tune and put on and all that. Lyrically it's less romantic -- harsher language and images right next to one another.
A lot of the songs I wrote on Marry Me, I wrote when I was eighteen or nineteen. It represented a more idealized version of what life was or what love was or anything in the eyes of someone who hadn't really experienced anything. This album is a little more mid-20s, I guess.
WW: Someone recently asked me what your music sounded like, and the closest things that came to mind were the weirder end of Peter Gabriel's early solo material, David Byrne, David Bowie and Beth Orton. How would you describe your own music?
AC: I don't have a stock answer for how I would describe my music. It's kind of like asking a parent, "How would you describe your child?" I love doing it, it's my favorite thing in the world. One thing I will say is I really appreciate your ear. Those people you rattled off are dream comparisons and people I so respect and admire.
I appreciate that you didn't just name five female artists who I kind of have nothing in common with. I get that so often. "She must be a combination of these three other females who also made music in the past fifty years." There are so many female artists I adore, but I like that you're comparing my work to those other artists.
WW: I read somewhere that you were compared to Tori Amos and Kate Bush, and I didn't think that was very accurate.
AC: I love Kate Bush, but I don't necessarily feel like I'm trying to carry on her tradition. I think she's amazing. I was probably more influenced by Stravinsky on this record than I am by Kate Bush. That song "Wuthering Heights" is so weird. Harmonically, you sound like you're a musician, it's so bizarre. There's a bar of fifths in the chorus, and then she sings, and it's so high in the chord progression. It's angular and it's out and it totally works and it's such a cool song.
WW: All of her stuff sounds superficially poppy, but it's totally bizarre.
AC: And I think that's a totally valuable lesson. I think that's what I try to do a lot of the time. You always want something to be palatable, not to condescend to people. I like pop music, and that's what I make. That song, "Wuthering Heights," in particular, floors me because it's so weird, because what brain came up with that and went, "Yup, this is the song." It's so cool when somebody pulls it off.
WW: What was it about the music in Sleeping Beauty that you found interesting and inspiring and how did it inform the music on Actor?
AC: I really like fairy tales in part because they're weird. I mean I really like the Disney films of the '30s and '40s. There's a really interesting Vanity Fair piece out now about Snow White. There were a whole bunch of women behind the scenes who were coloring all the frames and touching up everything the animators did and made it more palatable. Making it all look more put together.
These young girls in Los Angeles at the time who were slaves to Disney and working hard because Snow White was on a deadline to get it out before Christmas. It's a really interesting article about that and about the process.
I'm a big fan of those movies. Those were the first kinds of movies any kid sees. There was something imprinted in my brain about those movies and the melodies. The magic. I unironically love them because they're beautiful.
The other side of fairly tales is that they got cleaned up for Disney, but if you read Hans Christian Andersen, those stories are horrifying. They're awful and the characters do terrible things to each other. Disney put them in the washer for kids but they're still pretty fucked up.
WW: It doesn't seem as though there are nearly enough women performing music in general and especially experimental music such as you do. What advice might you give to a young woman considering getting into making more challenging music?
AC: I would say the same thing to anyone, follow what makes you happy and inspired. Don't be intimidated. I'm not sure exactly what records I'd recommend except for the early Brian Eno solo collection and start there. I do what I do because I really like it but find out what really inspires you and go for it.