Albums of the Year (#1): St. Vincent – Strange Mercy

With Strange Mercy, St Vincent distils melody and madness. We spend an evening in the company of Annie Clark

Feature by David McGinty | 06 Dec 2011

The black coiled hair of Annie Clark, who appears as a backlit silhouette, casts elongated shadows that scale the walls and tease their way through the craning necks of an entranced audience; all anticipating the moment this ethereal chanteuse will explode in a burst of orchestrated guitar violence.

St. Vincent, Clark’s band – or alter ego depending on definition – are in the midst of capturing the Glasgow crowd somewhere between rapturous applause and bewildered admiration, opening tonight’s show with Surgeon from Strange Mercy, her third album. A little earlier in the evening, ahead of this sold out gig, the Texan born singer/songwriter took time to catch up with The Skinny to talk about her journey so far.

“I’m not very good at the future or the past necessarily. I tend to be pretty myopic about the right now,” says Clark, a little reluctant to discuss escalating success and how Strange Mercy relates to her previous releases. “I mean I don’t pretend to know, because who knows, no one has that much perspective on their own work.”

This latest record’s position at the top of our end of year list is only the latest accolade in a relatively short career that has regularly met with acclaim. Intriguingly, Clark has also managed the strange feat of becoming more popular whilst arguably moving in less commercial and more creative directions. “I mean it’s kind of surreal; it becomes more real once you get out there and start touring, because all you can do is make the best record you can make and hope that people like it,” Clark admits. “But then it becomes especially gratifying to go out on tour and find ‘oh people singing along’ [and think] ‘oh this has worked its way into their lives in some meaningful way,’ and that’s great. I’m happy to get to be part of that tradition, 'cause when I think of all the music I’ve ever loved and what it’s meant to me, it’s cool to get to give back to that collective consciousness.”

St. Vincent is often referred to as a mix of the pretty and the dirty, the beauty of Annie Clark’s melodies and the delicacy of her voice grating against filthy serrated guitars. Her debut album Marry Me perhaps showed the most restraint in its composition, attempting a balancing act between the two extremes, whilst 2009’s follow up Actor delved a little further into each contrasting sonic style, pushing both her intrepid orchestration and guitar effect ridden repulsion. With Strange Mercy, what becomes abundantly clear is that St. Vincent’s signature sound relies not on balancing the sweetness and the sinister but on the combination of both, simultaneously.

Although it is a sound which, even early on, won praise from critics, newcomers often need to persevere and think twice about their first impressions. “I’m positive that my music can turn people off,” Clark explains, “they hear it and think ‘oh, there’s too much going on.’” Whatever the cause of this initial apprehension, it seems clear in Clark’s experience that any lack of immediacy is not necessarily harmful. “When I was a kid, when I first heard Nick Cave I hated it, you know? When I first heard PJ Harvey… I didn’t like it. There was something in there that creeped me out or just rubbed me the wrong way… But there was something that was compelling enough to go back, and then go back, and go back, and go back, until you love it. I wonder what that balance is, between the accessible and the off-putting.”

In tonight’s set, songs from all three records sit alongside one another; each eliciting the same absorbed swooning as the last. Reappearing for her encore, Clark abandons her customary guitar and is accompanied only by her keys player for a stripped back rendition of Actor’s The Party. In this role Clark is truly cast as the traditional chanteuse, gripping her microphone stand and allowing her paradoxically wispy yet powerful vocals to resonate, without being beaten into submission by her seemingly impromptu intricate guitar onslaughts. It serves as a reminder that whilst she may be making a signature sound for herself, underneath the layers of instrumentation lies some incredible songwriting.

Like many singer/songwriters, Clark finds it difficult to write on tour, but this is not to say that time on the road is lost creatively. “I am constantly collecting," she says." I look at tour time in some ways as being just like research and development. I take notes of things, but I can’t write on the road really. Ideas and things will come to me and I’ll make sure I write them down somehow, jot them, record them. Then I tend to be more like a project-specific writer, but that’s the point when you take out everything you’ve been collecting for the last year.” Does she have any kernels for her next batch of songs yielded from this current stint on the road? “The next thing?” Clark looks away and smiles discerningly to herself. “I do. I’ve got something. Got some things brewing.” Something to peel over at a later date? “Always”