Take the first song on the outfit’s most recent album, last year’s Strange Mercy, which opens with this vague but provocative imagery, delivered by Annie Clark — the band’s 29-year-old creative ringleader — in a delicate falsetto: “You’re all legs/I’m all nerves/Black lacquered/Horse hair whip.”
The song, “Chloe in the Afternoon,” goes on to describe some sort of sexual rendezvous in which there are “no kisses” and “no real names” exchanged. Or maybe it’s about something else entirely. There’s a mysterious element to Clark’s songs that’s simultaneously intriguing and slightly alienating.
Likewise, the music that accompanies “Chloe in the Afternoon” is both ethereal and jarring, a juxtaposition that has become a hallmark of St. Vincent’s three increasingly accomplished albums (Strange Mercy was preceded by 2007’s Marry Me and 2009’s Actor), all of which are set apart by Clark’s singular talents as an arranger, singer and guitar player.
Clark is something of a musical savant. She learned to play guitar at age 12; was the tour manager for her uncle’s band, Tuck & Patti, as a teenager; studied for a time at Berklee College of Music; and was a multi-instrumentalist touring member with The Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens, all before she started St. Vincent at age 24.
Clark, whom I’ve interviewed by phone multiple times, is an expansive conversationalist, often asking as many questions as she answers and digressing into areas as broad as the merits of organic vegetables to the cultural relevance of ’80s Hair Metal. It was something of a disappointment, then, that she’d only be available via email this time around. The following is the uncut version of our brief cyberspace correspondence.
CityBeat: Your music is quite cinematic. “Cheerleader” sounds like an animated Disney movie scored by Adrian Belew and Laurie Anderson. How have movies impacted your music? Do you visualize things as you’re composing?
Annie Clark: I have to visualize.
I can’t stop working on a song until the colors are correct. Which is why so much of my music, with the genius help of John Congleton, my producer, is made up of sounds that aren’t so literal, that you can’t easily identify as one instrument or another.
CB: You crafted most of your previous album on a computer. Do you think using that approach helps your creativity in that you’re only limited by your imagination as opposed to literally what you can conjure as a musician?
AC: You can make music that’s “smarter” than you are in some ways. That is to say, music that is faster than your fingers can play or voice can sing. But there is plenty to be said for the old-fashioned way of picking up a guitar and feeling your way through a song.
CB: Can you talk about your approach to lyrics? Do you write them before, during or after you compose the music? Your lyrics are fairly ambiguous. Is that a choice, or do you let them come more organically?
AC: I’m always taking notes. Sometimes a melody suggests certain vowels to be sung mellifluously. When that happens, you can’t fight it.
CB: In this era of social media and the Internet, music seems far less mysterious than it used to be. You can now download music instantly, find myriad photos of a performer and watch clips of them on YouTube at the click of the mouse, follow their daily movements via Twitter and so on. You used to have to work harder as a listener, used to have to use your imagination more. That said, you seem to, despite being a pretty well-known figure on the contemporary music landscape, still have an air of mystery about you. Can you talk about this topic and how you approach it (but do so without completely demystifying yourself)?
AC: I have gotten more Twitter friendly. I’m not sure I’m the right person to know why I seem mysterious. I’m just a suburban-middle-class-American weirdo.
CB: I read that you tried to channel various albums from the 1980s when putting together Strange Mercy. Curiously, I’ve heard several contemporary musicians — from Lady Gaga to Sleigh Bells to M83 to Girls to Bon Iver — say they’re trying to update certain sounds or concepts from the ’80s in their work. Is this nostalgia, genuine artistic borrowing or both? Or maybe it’s something else?
AC: I think what you’ve got here is a bunch of kids born between 1980-1986 who are nostalgic for the sounds they first heard when they first heard music. The trick is to not make it sound nostalgic, but new. With the internet, the cycles of nostalgia are getting faster. The slacker-Grunge of the early 1990s is already back. It’s sanctioned. I think the cycles will continue to get shorter as we plow through and dispose of cultural trends at a faster rate.
CB: Your album covers always feature a close-up of your face (assuming that’s you on the new one) in one way or another. What’s up with that?
AC: It’s a mystery mouth on the latest record. You should probably ask Bob Dylan, David Bowie and Dolly Parton the same question.
CB: Your albums, especially the last two, are anchored by booming drums. They are, along with some of your guitar work, a nice counterpoint to the strings and your voice. In fact, part of the reason St. Vincent is so compelling is this mix of contradictions. Can you discuss?
AC: The drums are like the tracks that keep the roller coaster from being a human tragedy. ©
ST. VINCENT performs at Bogart’s Wednesday, May 9.