Annie Clark maps St. Vincent’s next musical step
The indie artist, whose work explores emotional distance, says she will move toward loudness.
It was a sunny August afternoon in New York's Washington Square Park, and Annie Clark — who records under the name St. Vincent — apparently didn't look happy. She sat on a shady curb, giving herself something of a pep talk.
“This year was tough, kid, but buck up,” she said, clenching her fist as if she were a high school coach. “Next year is going to be quality, all laughter and gaiety.”
Clark was not fooling anyone, and this became evident when a young, college-age woman approached her. “This is a smile fine,” she said, and then proceeded to hand Clark a sticker. “We need to give you a ticket today because we caught you not smiling.”
Although the woman was ultimately soliciting money for charity, Clark was simply relieved she wasn't asking for an autograph. “Oh, that would have been terrifying,” she said.
It shouldn't come as a surprise that Clark would prefer to go unrecognized. Over the course of three St. Vincent albums, she has explored degrees of emotional distance, utilizing a mix of fanciful guitar work and symphonic flourishes — an endeavor beautiful and endearing, which has made her a darling of indie rock fans.
On her recently released “Strange Mercy,” Clark flirts with baring her soul, which makes it her most revealing effort, to a point. “I don't know what good it does, pouring my personal dirt” she sings on “Cheerleader,” and then does away with any confessions with strikes of her guitar that are all military precision.
“I think I'm not a very direct person, in general,” Clark, 29, said. “My version of direct is still a little bit obscured and a little blurry.” Clearly a more open Clark isn't exactly a conventional one, as hints of honesty are balanced with abrasive guitars, vocal experimentation and half-acoustic, half-synthetic orchestrations.
An outsider approach hasn't hurt her appeal. Clark's fan base has built steadily since her days playing with folk-rock collective the Polyphonic Spree in the early part of the decade. “Strange Mercy” has given Clark her highest-charting album to date, debuting at No. 19 on Billboard's U.S. pop tally, and has sold nearly 30,000 copies in three weeks since its release, according to Nielsen SoundScan. She performs Oct. 18 at the Music Box in Hollywood.
“This album is garnering a more mainstream appeal,” said Miwa Okumura, who heads the West Coast office of the Beggars Group (Clark records for the company's 4AD label). Okumura points to a segment on NPR's “Morning Edition,” as well as the fact that Clark has been making the late-night talk show rounds.
Yet Clark also simplified her approach for “Strange Mercy.” Whereas 2009's “Actor” was awash in Disney-like orchestral flourishes, “Strange Mercy” has toned down the adornments. Songs such as “Cruel” and “Cheerleader” make less of an effort to disguise Clark's voice and put the emphasis on her searing guitar work. There is, however, tinkering with electronics, as “Neutered Fruit” uses synthesizers to create an aural, time-lapse effect as Clark recounts a relationship.
“The last record I made was a cold record with warm, organic instruments,” Clark said. “This time, I made a warmer record with colder sounds, colder instruments. I knew that I wanted to move away from orchestral instruments. I was ready to move on. On this, I'd play one thing and then I'd play some bass and then synthesizers. Aside from liking Bruce Haack's ‘The Electric Lucifer,' I didn't know anything about synths, so this was a fun challenge.”
“Mercy” was also a product of a nearly self-imposed exile. The Dallas native left her Brooklyn home to work out of a Seattle studio run by friend and Death Cab for Cutie drummer Jason McGerr. He was in the process of selling the space, and Clark had it to herself for a month. Clark called it her “lonely experiment” as she worked alone for 12 hours a day in the studio.
“I had a pretty rough year in 2010,” Clark said but declined to elaborate. “It was a sad year in personal land. Sometimes the only way through it is deeper into it, to stare at that black hole. But that's the really gratifying thing about this. I was able to come out of that experience with something to show for it, some tangible musical product.”
She paused and thought about what she just said. “Did I really just call it a product? Ewww. People know what I mean.”
Clark is already plotting her next musical creation. She says it will be louder, and references her recent live cover of Big Black's “Kerosene” as an example. “That was a big revelation,” Clark said of tackling the '80s hard-core group. “I didn't know that I could scream like that.”
For the remainder of her afternoon in New York, Clark, however, had a rather quiet day planned. She was off to get new lenses for her oversized eyeglasses. “I thought I should start being the kooky aunt,” Clark said. “I should skip the 40 years it would take in order to be someone's elderly spinster aunt.”
-- Todd Martens
Photo credit: Neilson Barnard / Getty Images