THE HUMAN ELEMENT St. Vincent

Annie Clark isn’t
cynical about music. Not one bit.

 

BY MARK GUARINO

 

Annie Clark made the right decision to get born in 1982.

 

Now 26, she skipped the travails of corporate radio and the
one-dimensional MTV star machine, landing in the era of digital populism that
is newly opportune for the type of music she makes: shape-shifting, melodic pop
for sensibly dressed smart people with or without advanced educational degrees.

 

Not so long ago, Clark was still a largely unknown but
ambitious multi-instrumentalist and songwriter who stacked her resume with day
jobs playing with both indie rock footnotes (the Polyphonic Spree) and
respected savants (Sufjan Stevens). For six years she spent her odd hours
poring over the songs that would become Marry
Me
(Beggars/4AD), her 2007 debut that would eventually sell about 30,000
copies, positioning her officially as an emerging artist the Starbucks
demographic might pick up while waiting for the foam to form on their venti
latte.

 

The album was released under the stage name St. Vincent,
which both has literary weight (it is the name of the hospital where Dylan
Thomas died) and a touch of self-knighted benevolence. Clark, who was born in
Tulsa, Okla. but who now resides in Brooklyn, says, looking back, the years she
spent making Marry Me were luxurious.

 

“No one was expecting it would come out,” she ways. “No one
cared. I could have worked on it another ten years. I would have been bankrupt
but no one would have been the wiser.”

 

After Marry Me was
released, people cared. Clark received favorable reviews in the most favored
media outlets and connected with an audience prepped to embrace idiosyncratic
voices set against orchestral sophistication. She also assembled a savvy team
that was directed to grow the base, earning her opening slots with headliners
like the Arcade Fire, Xiu Xiu, Death Cab for Cutie and Jolie Holland.

 

Her schedule was not so packed that, less than a year after
the album was released, she didn’t have time to head back into the studio to
rekindle the magic a second time. It was a scenario that was double-edged:
While Marry Me took a labored six
years to make, starting when Clark was 17 and
ending when she was 22, the new Actor was written, arranged and wrapped up in nine months last year – a brevity she
hadn’t yet experienced but discovered was ultimately healthy for its
inspiration.

 

“I think a lot of it oftentimes
there’s a romantic answer [of how you make an album] and then sometimes there’s
the nuts and bolts answer,” explains Clark. “With this one, I had this
infrastructure in place. But you just have to be careful. You want to take
enough time on a record so you feel you have fulfilled the vision, but not so
much time on the record where you get to the point of diminishing returns and
you end up painting the canvas black.”

 

In other words, she did not want Actor to turn into the indie rock
equivalent of Chinese Democracy.

 

To be certain that would never
happen, the Guns N’ Roses album was played in the studio for reference. For you
Axl fans, cover your eyes: Clark thinks it stinks. Really, really stinks. “It
definitely sounds overworked. It sounds like a digital mess. Sonically, it
sounds insane. It sounds like an insane person. It’s unbelievably bad, I can’t
believe it,” she says.

 

Actor is a surprising album for just how intimate it feels –
despite Clark’s knack for pretty melodies set against fussy backdrops of
woodwinds and other orchestration, the songs still manage to sound like they
are coming from a small, private space. As a guitarist, Clark prefers
dissonance, layers and striking power chords, and as a vocalist, she has
sweeping range that remains controlled and austere. Her touchstone, she says,
were Disney film soundtracks and they certainly captures that type of whimsy. But
on songs with titles like “Laughing With a Mouth of Blood,” it is obvious
trouble is lurking on Space Mountain.

 

“I just kept going, ‘I want this
to be human, not just a fairy tale or a romanticized version of what it’s like
to be human’ … the Marry Me record
was written from the point of view of someone who didn’t have tons of life
experience.” Clark adds that her new music flirts closer to darker edges,
because is “a little older, wiser.”

 

Actor producer John Congleton (We Ragazzi, The 90 Day Men), who
also worked on Marry Me, says Clark
“was definitely searching for a new sound and wanting to explore a lot of
things. I was more than willing to go along with that too.”

 

The pair met in 2007 when
Congleton produced The Fragile Army, the Polyphonic Spree album Clark was hired for as a guitarist. “You could tell
automatically from the way she postured herself while playing the guitar and
before she hit a single note that she had a lot of confidence as a player and
she could really bring it,” he says. “I could tell clearly her parts were going
to add a lot and she had a really musical ear.”

 

Her musicianship and exceptional
vocal skills were formed early. Clark’s parents, a social worker and an
accountant, encouraged her musical interests, but she learned first-hand from
Tuck Andress and Patti Cathcart, her uncle and aunt who are also known as Tuck
& Patti, the successful jazz-pop duo that has been recording and touring
the world since the 1980s.

 

Andress contributed to her musical
education by giving her a box of jazz CDs when she was 13, a stash that
included A Love Supreme, the John
Coltrane classic. Clark’s aunt and uncle later hired her as a roadie during
high school summer breaks. The education showed her both the rush and rigor of
life as a successful musician. “They’d stay in fancy hotels so I’d think ‘this
is cool, this is what touring’s all about’ – but part it wasn’t glamorous at
all, like falling asleep at airports or not sleeping for days because you were
working like a dog.”

 

Despite a stint at the prestigious
Berklee College of Music in Boston, Clark says she has become less didactic
about creating music and more reliant on going in whatever direction her
instincts point.

 

“I actually find I’m way more
willing to embrace the innocent whimsy of things that sound like magic I’m way
more into that,” she says. “I’m not cynical about music at all. I think it’s
wonderful. I think it’s the best thing.”

 

 

[Photo Credit: Annabel Mehran]

 

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