Pop & Hiss

The L.A. Times music blog

« Previous Post | Pop & Hiss Home | Next Post »

Show preview: St. Vincent gets cinematic with 'Actor'

March 30, 2009 |  7:50 am

In a short interview with Annie Clark, there's one word she uses multiple times when discussing music: magic.

Clark, who records under the name St. Vincent, will release her sophomore album, "Actor," on May 5. To listen to it is like stepping into a fairy tale. Opening cut "The Strangers" begins with a brief overture of woodwind instruments, as if what's to follow is the score to an animated Disney film of yore. Yet the world Clark conjures is one very much inhabited by adults, as evidenced by the way the song builds into a burst of orchestral and guitar noise.

She'll preview the songs next week in Los Angeles, with a pre-release performance April 6 at the Masonic Lodge at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery (she'll be back May 29 for a larger show at the El Rey). "Actor" fashions songs out of tangents -- the bright strings and relaxing choir of "Marrow" give way to a more electronic, forceful beat and a surprisingly desperate lyrical plea.

Two, sometimes three, melodies intertwine, and Clark elegantly sings as if she's fronting a chorale, leading a trail of fuzz-drenched guitars, left-of-center electronics and the kind of delightfully pleasant strings that may or may not inspire bluebirds to sing.

Clark, speaking at the recent South by Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas, said she recorded the album over a nine-month span in 2008. Inspired equally by film scores and the compositions of Igor Stravinsky, Clark fashioned melodies and hooks out of a collection of fragments.

And when she hit on something she liked:  "Oh, that’s magic," Clark said of her process of discovery. "It would sound great, but it was 20 seconds long. So what about the song? I had to shift and shape it all into a song."

For that, she said she turned to her favorite films for inspiration, watching them on mute. It was more by accident than design. "I was brain dead, from two years of touring," she said. "So I was just going to watch movies, get my mind off of it. Then I started thinking that this was a way to get out of a writer’s block. Then it took off and informed the whole record. ... Everybody with a little bit of ambition fancies themselves a composer. So I was going, ‘I want to write serious music.’ But I’m not really qualified to do that."

She's being modest, as the Oklahoma-born musician studied guitar at Boston's Berklee College of Music and has shared stages with avant-garde composer Glenn Branca. Works such as the new album's "Black Rainbow," where a simple violin framework provides Clark the opportunity to explore a shade of moods, prove her to be an accomplished composer in her own right. In less than four minutes, Clark gradually builds the tension, with a pleasingly cinematic violin melody dissolving into something much more tense and much less definable.

"The Disney stuff was such an inspiration," Clark said. "I probably listened to those scores the most. Some [Ennio] Morricone, but mostly the Disney stuff. It’s just so magic. You can’t argue with it."

-- Todd Martens

St. Vincent performs April 6 at the Masonic Lodge at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, 6000 Santa Monica Blvd. Tickets are $15, not including surcharges, and available at TicketWeb.

Related: SXSW Day 1 report: Celebrating weirdness with St. Vincent

Photo:  Annabel Mehran