In reality, the 27-year-old Clark is an Indie Pop tour veteran (she’s played with Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens) and a classically trained musician with the voice of an angel and a guitar sound that would probably provoke Ronnie James Dio to throw up his patented “devil horns.” Actor, Clark’s second solo album as St. Vincent, is a beautifully executed collection of songs rife with melodrama, contradiction, surreal imagery and dynamic arrangements that move from whimsical to dissonant at the stomp of a reverb pedal.
CityBeat recently phoned Clark, who headlines the MusicNOW festival March 31, to discuss everything from the influence of Suicide (the old-school Synth-Punk pioneers) on her songwriting to her love of classic Disney films.
CityBeat: I listened to Actor this morning for the first time in a couple of months and was struck all over again by its unique arrangements. The drums stuck out this time as particularly distinctive.
Annie Clark: The drums in a lot of cases were some of the last things that got put on the songs. They were the last things I was thinking of because I had spent so much time working on the arrangements and the notes on the page. I found that the thing that would make the song sort of shine the most was simple repetitive but really groove-heavy beats. What sort of opens the door for a lot of people, myself included, is that groove and that feel.
So if you have this thing kind of anchoring the song you do more adventurous things on top of it.
I took inspiration certainly from Suicide for the drums on “The Strangers,” for example. The obvious choice would have been to have some big drums come in at the point where the guitars come in and really rock it out. But I think it’s creepier if it’s kind of a gnawing 16th note on the ride, or whatever it is. It’s more unsettling if the drums are kind of understated and there are no cymbals. I don’t like cymbals (laughs).
CB: Well, another nod toward that creepy or unsettling quality are the odd tempos and juxtaposition of tones and imagery on the record. Take a song like “Marrow,” which opens with this Disney-esque score before being hijacked by dissonant guitar and a big, menacing chorus. The album has a real cinematic feel, like a Douglas Sirk melodrama come to life.
AC: Yeah. In a lot of ways it’s just an homage to film scores and really an homage to the Disney films of the ’30s and ’40s. I was watching those as I was composing and sitting in front of my laptop scoring away. I wanted to make something that seemed whimsical and innocent, and I don’t mean in an ironic way. I genuinely just love these things. They’re magic to me.
The score to Sleeping Beauty — it’s just like (adopts a dreamy voice), "Oh, I want to live there." But then my approach to guitar is increasingly visceral. I’m not sure why, but increasingly I just want to pound the crap out of my guitar, so that’s in there too. I don’t necessarily see them as conflicting sides of my musical identity. It’s just two things that I love and do naturally. They just come together however they come together.
CB: It’s interesting that you crafted the songs by yourself on a computer. That would seem to be the opposite of how many bands and musicians approach songwriting, which is often the result of extended jam sessions and collaboration between musicians. How do you think that impacted your process?
AC: (Clark pauses briefly to chop vegetables for what is likely a post-interview salad.) Well, I think it’s interesting. With a digital recording, if I wanted to hear a particular sound I could get at it. If I wanted to try to play drums on a song I could kind of go for it and try out a number of different things. So for me making a record on a computer is very natural.
CB: How have the songs changed as you’ve played them live?
AC: I get a lot of people who say, “Oh, I love the album, but now I get it.” I had so many people say, “Oh, I finally get it now that I’ve seen it live.” I’m not totally sure what that means (laughs). It’s a funny thing, performing, because I love it. I love it a lot. Even if it gets visceral or weirdly intense, I still feel exuberant.
ST. VINCENT premieres new work written for MusicNOW on March 31, with yMusic as opening act (get details/tickets here). MusicNOW also features Joanna Newsom and Fleet Foxes’ Robin Pecknold March 30 (get details and tickets here) and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver April 1 (it's sold out, but get details here). All performances are at Memorial Hall in Over-the-Rhine.