Photos by Tina Tyrell
Before Annie Clark launched a solo career as St. Vincent, she served costumed time in the Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens’ touring band. But with 2007’s Marry Me, the Texas native emerged as spectacular frontwoman, a virtuosic guitarist in her own clothes. “I don’t wanna be a cheerleader no more,” she sings on her imminent third LP, Strange Mercy, and it's increasingly impossible to imagine Clark ever going anywhere near the sidelines again. (Stream Strange Mercy in its entirety at NPR.)
Over a late dinner in the East Village last month, Clark spoke about the unglamorous truth behind her creative process, the frustrating ineffectualness of natural deodorant, and the sometimes-murderous lure of "unloading every ounce of your misanthropic bile onto a crowd of people."
"Physically, I’m a very demure-looking person. But I certainly have as much aggression or anger as the next person, and that’s got to come out somehow."
Pitchfork: Critics often position the second record as a "now or never again" moment, but I’ve always found third records to be the most cathartic, because an artist is suddenly free from that pressure: You’re here.
Annie Clark: Yeah, I think about it like people talk about children. With the first kid, you micromanage it, making sure there’s no hair out of place when it goes off to school. But by the third kid, it's more like, “Oh, you want to wear a splatter-painted, Hard Rock Café T-shirt for seven days in a row and not brush your hair? Go for it. Be who you want to be.”
Pitchfork: You decamped to Seattle to write this record. Did you have a sense of that freedom while you were working there?
AC: I had brief glimpses of emotional catharsis while writing. I remember reading something Philip Roth wrote about how he writes every single day, but it’s almost as if he has amnesia every morning-- he has almost zero confidence that anything will come but he just sits down and plugs away. And at the end of the day it feels like a miracle: "How did I do that?" I had a similar experience where it was just about putting in the hours and being present. I'd listen to things that felt really good in the moment and realize they were clouded by enthusiasm or caffeine. And things that I was struggling to get out ended up being really compelling. It’s an emotional roller coaster; there’s exhilaration and there’s shame.
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Pitchfork: I think going away gives you an opportunity to be selfish and to divorce yourself from your non-musical life for a little bit.
AC: Yeah, absolutely. I pretty much unplugged [while writing] this record. I’ve done other records where I wrote everything on the computer. But, for this one, the computer was put away, and it was just a guitar and a voice. It was not natural to me, but it forced me to place value on different things: “How good is this melody or these words? Do they fit together in a way that is evocative?” As opposed to, “There are 16 layers happening, and maybe somewhere within them is a cohesive emotional song.”
Pitchfork: Do you ever feel creatively blocked?
AC: For me, writer’s block isn’t so much, “Oh, nothing’s coming out.” It’s more about how my subjective view of everything that is coming out is really negative. Putting your ego aside and confronting your weaknesses and just letting things happen is hard. Not to use a Scientology term, but it’s difficult to do an emotional or an artistic audit.
Pitchfork: It’s so easy to get lost in the largeness of the endeavor, too.
AC: The most important thing is setting up these directives for yourself. Like, “I’m only going to use these three colors-- go!” That’s why Einstein wore the same thing every day; you don’t want to have to reinvent the wheel every morning. That’s the blunt edge of consumerism, too. How many times have you been in CVS thinking, “Wait, what deodorant? I want to buy you, Tom’s [natural deodorant], but I know I will resent you later." [laughs] That should be their slogan!
Pitchfork: Lyrically, there’s an occasional disconnect between the corporeal self and the spiritual self on Strange Mercy. You also write really freely about sex.
AC: [laughs] Oh! [looks down] I’m Southern!
Pitchfork: [laughs] It’s funny that you’re being shy about it because the songs are so frank, in a way. A line like “I spent the summer on my back” can be read...
AC: Oh, that sounds like sex, doesn’t it?
Pitchfork: Is it not supposed to be heard that way?
AC: It sure can be that. It can also mean depression, but it’s open to interpretation. This album is way more candid and closer to my heart than my other records; there’s always something extremely personal in the songs, but I may change the point of view from what I actually experienced.
"I got offstage and was just looking at my hands, and they were shaking. I was like, 'I wanna kill someone! What’s happening?'"
Pitchfork: People often talk about your voice existing in contrast to the darkness of your music-- do you deliberately play with that tension?
AC: The line is so blurry; I don’t know anymore. I know that, physically, I’m a very demure-looking person. But I certainly have as much aggression or anger as the next person, and that’s got to come out somehow. I’m lucky that I get to play music, and that it’s not going to come out in some totally destructive way.
Pitchfork: You played a particularly vicious cover of Big Black's "Kerosene" at the Our Band Could Be Your Life tribute concert earlier this year that surprised some people-- what was your relationship to that song prior to the show?
AC: I’m a big Steve Albini fan; his engineering work was really pivotal in the records that I loved-- and still love-- when I was in junior high and high school: the Breeders, Pixies, early PJ Harvey and Nirvana. So when [Our Band author] Michael Azerrad asked me what I wanted to do, I thought Big Black would be a good choice. Then I just started digging in and trying to figure it out. I feel a little bit musically backwards in that even though I have “trained” ears, it still just sounds like magic when I listen to things. I think, “What’s going on? I’ll never figure this out.” Then I sit down and get a handle on it an hour or two later.
For a brief moment, I considered deconstructing the song and going down a cerebral road, but then I realized it would kill what is most powerful about it. Then, rehearsing it with [Dirty Projectors'] Brian McOmber and Nat Baldwin, and my friend Shahzad Ismaily, I knew it needed to be a visceral purge like the original.
And something took hold at that show-- I got offstage and was just looking at my hands, and they were shaking. I was like, “I wanna kill someone! What’s happening?” It was really exhilarating. After I had come down off of it, I thought, “I have the weirdest job." It’s not every day that you get to stand up onstage and unload every ounce of your misanthropic bile onto a crowd of people, and they’re like, “Cool! Hit us again!” It was one of my favorite stage moments.
Watch Clark's live cover of Big Black's "Kerosene":
Pitchfork: Did you listen to a lot of punk rock growing up?
AC: My best friend and I would drive to CD World in Dallas, and listen to Sonic Youth and the Dead Milkmen, but I didn’t really listen to a lot of punk. In high school, I was more into what was happening on 4AD or Matador.
"All these things that we are very nostalgic for come from a place of technology dictating [art]. This time and place is no different."
Pitchfork: That was my 90s, too-- driving to the only record store that carried indie-rock records, buying CDs, and going nuts in the car on the way home. I would think one of the challenges for a 21st century artist is not being able to control how and when your music gets heard.
AC: An mp3 is a compressed form of data. It’s not the full spectrum. It’s never going to sound as good as a record. I think one thing people forget is that every technological advance we fetishize had its place in time. CDs are usually an hour long because that’s the amount a CD could hold-- not because that’s the optimal amount of time for any given musical expression. Side one and side two? That’s a product of vinyl. But that’s not necessarily dramatic form-- you could argue that that was three acts. So all these things that we are very nostalgic for come from a place of technology dictating [art]. This time and place is no different.
Pitchfork: How do you listen to music, for the most part?
AC: I do love the ceremony of putting on a record but I don’t have space for a vinyl collection. I was recently back home in Dallas helping my mom clean out the garage, and I found my giant Case Logic pool of CDs that vaguely smell of Keystone Light and weed. The CDs were all alphabetized; A Tribe Called Quest's The Low End Theory was the first record.
Pitchfork: You manage to use the electric guitar-- an instrument that’s obviously omnipresent in rock-- in some really odd and interesting ways. It’s more textural than melodic.
AC: I’m first and foremost a guitar player. I’ve been playing since I was 12, which is over half of my life. I like the physicality of it; you can strangle it or make it sing. I wouldn’t say I’m a very technical player, though. I’m more intuitive-- it’s always more about chasing an abstraction.
In that way, it’s been immensely helpful to have [producer] John Congleton. I started and finished this record with him, and we can really finish each other’s sentences in a musical sense. The key to it is trusting that the other person both has your back and has strengths and weaknesses that you don’t have. It’s almost like a romantic ideal: You’re creative and you get to make money off of your baby.
Pitchfork: You want support but you also want a little resistance when you need it.
AC: We all need it.
Watch the video for St. Vincent's "Cruel" from Strange Mercy: