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As St. Vincent, Annie Clark conjures magic

May 27, 2009 |  6:20 pm

ANNIE_CLARK_3_ Annie Clark was due to finish her sound check around 7 p.m. Thirty minutes later, a nagging electronic hiss was complicating things and in the course of hunting down the source of the nuisance, Clark realized she had forgotten her recently purchased dress, which was still hanging in the closet of a downtown hotel.

Her early April Los Angeles show in support of her new album, "Actor," was not going as planned, and doors to the Masonic Lodge at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery were now 25 minutes from opening. Yet spend a little time with Clark, who records under the name St. Vincent, and it becomes apparent that she's not the type to panic over such details -- she views the world through a more fanciful lens.

She uses one word repeatedly when discussing music: magic. The energy of New York, where the Texas-raised artist lives? Magic. Disney's classical-inspired score to "Sleeping Beauty," which inspired many of the sounds on "Actor"? Magic. And discovering a melody that works? "Oh, that's magic."

"Actor," released on May 5, presents an expansive array of digitally constructed symphonic sounds, where fantastic strings, backward guitars and dizzying harmonies are paired with sometimes vivid, merciless lyrics -- a vision of reality that's split between a fairy tale and a David Mamet play.

The album won the support of National Public Radio, which streamed "Actor" two weeks before it was released, and Clark is set to appear on the "Late Show With David Letterman" on June 24, roughly one month after returning to Los Angeles for a performance Thursday at the El Rey Theatre.

Clark has a history with fantasy. When she was 17, she was asked to compose original music for her high school's rendition of "Alice in Wonderland." It impressed her parents, who had allowed her to spend summer vacation touring the world with her aunt and uncle, the jazz duo Tuck & Patti.

Recalled Clark, "My parents heard the play and said, 'This is really good. We didn't know what you'd been doing in there.' I didn't really share much. They called my aunt and uncle and said I had some promise, and they suggested I go to music school. It was nice to have this consensus. It was more than it just being cute -- 'Oh, you play soccer and you play guitar.' "

She spent three years at the Berklee College of Music before heading to New York to pursue her career, but after working a string of low-paying jobs, she opted to move back in with her parents in Dallas. Clark had better luck at home. She was drafted to be a part of dozen-plus member pop collective the Polyphonic Spree and began making the musical connections that would land her with independent record label 4AD.

Her 2007 debut, "Marry Me," was recorded over a number of years. "Actor," by contrast, was pieced together over a nine-month period on a computer in Clark's apartment in Brooklyn, where she relocated after her initial success.

"I had just moved to New York, and I couldn't make a lot of noise, and I was really inspired by the idea of recession," Clark said. "If I had a melody I really liked, I would double-time it later in the song, and take it half-time and use it somewhere else, or invert it and transpose it. I was really into this idea of using one simple idea in as many ways as possible, like milking every idea. It's music for the new American recession."

The result is far from sparse. "Black Rainbow" is a kaleidoscope of orchestral sounds, with relaxed clarinets giving way to tension-packed guitars and violins. "Marrow" is even odder, melding an array of warped loops and electronics over a grand string overture.

The singer has a tendency to be a bit disquieting. She's designing a "chalk outline" in "The Bed," and ordering "the black hole blacker" in album opener "The Strangers," delivering the line, lifted from Philip Roth's "The Plot Against America," as if she's fronting a choir.

"I thought it just so beautifully illustrated, this futility," she said. "I was writing about losers. I was thinking of David Mamet. I was thinking about how drama isn't about nice people doing nice things to other nice people. I like poetry that's a little brutal.

"It's not all up here," Clark continued, pointing to her head. "It's more a kick in the gut."

--Todd Martens

Annie Clark (St. Vincent) at the El Rey Theatre, 5515 Wilshire Blvd., Thursday, May 27. Tickets are $15, not including surcharges. 

Photo: Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times