St. Vincent: How's Annie?

Despite a shonky transatlantic connection, <b>Annie Clark</b> (aka <b>St. Vincent</b>) shares her musings on identity, integrity and industry

Feature by Mark Shukla | 29 Aug 2011

David Icke was right. There are chameleons amongst us. Strange deceivers who can modify their form at will; shape-shifters that leave us charmed and breathless, slack-jawed and gasping with our senses swimming in disarray. Don't waste your time looking to the political elite (Michelle Bachmann may look as though she feeds on the children of her enemies, but she's no Reptilian), for these interlopers have hit us where it really matters: in our record collections. From Beck to Bowie, Zappa to Zorn, their numbers are few but their influence is mighty, and the way things are going it might not be long before Annie Clark joins their shadowy clique.

Now we're not usually given to such surreal panegyrics, but please understand it's partly Steve Albini's fault (as are most things, if you really think about it) – for it was Clark's searing cover version of Big Black's Bad Penny (at a recent gig celebrating the 10th anniversary of Michael Azerrad's Our Band Could Be Your Life) that really pushed us over the edge.

"I think I fucked your girlfriend once, maybe twice. I fucked all your friends' girlfriends and now they fucking hate you." – Annie Clark covering Big Black, 22/05/11

Watching the ostensibly demure and urbane Clark deliver each of Albini's poisoned fricatives with the controlled ruthlessness of a razor blade being drawn across an exposed wrist was more than exciting; it filled us with the exhilarating realization that Clark is an artist with the confidence and range to traverse almost any musical terrain that she desires.

In conversation with The Skinny prior to the release of her third album, Strange Mercy, Clark is quick to acknowledge her adaptable nature, but when discussion turns to Cheerleader (an uncharacteristically candid track built around the defiant chorus "I don't wanna be a cheerleader no more") she is moved to explain her awareness of the pitfalls implied by such mutability:

"I'm from Texas, the South, and in a lot of ways women act a certain way there. There's this aspect of being a people-pleaser that a lot of women learn how to do; like, learn how to be a shape-shifter – so, I'll just be this blank palette for you to project your own ideas onto. That's actually not a very empowered place to be, and I've definitely found myself slipping into that, you know, being more concerned with pleasing other people than really being authentic. And that's really a waste of time and energy – and so I guess that song is kinda coming from being fed up with that, with doing that aspect of it, of my personality."

Given that her acclaimed breakthrough album, Actor, was itself crystallised from a sparkling gestalt of fictionalised characters and situations, you could be forgiven for thinking this stance to be somewhat paradoxical. But like any true artist, Clark realises the power inherent in polarity and uses it as a springboard for her creativity:

"With Actor I started from a place of deconstruction. That is to say I started with all of these very pretty orchestral pieces and then I had to string them together and sew them up and lacquer them down and try to make pop songs out of them. For this record I approached it in exactly the opposite way. I put the computer away; I sat it in the corner, forlornly, then I sat down with a guitar and I wrote songs. I don't know if I'll ever make a full-on kind of 'performance-y' album' because my process is always tweaking and re-evaluating... but once you have a constructed thing it's way easier to deconstruct it than to look at a bunch of pieces and say: how can I put all this together?"

The idea of paradox – the ability to be 'this and that' rather than 'this or that' – crops up several times throughout our interview. One moment Clark is speaking intently of the obsessive mantras that accompany her process ("Proof of concept, proof of concept. The theoretical things. Does it work?"), the next she's decided that "in some ways making albums is how people kinda talk about having kids. The first one they're maybe too strict on and they're trying to figure it all out and by the third one you're just like: Ok, you don't have a curfew. You wanna dye your hair blue, that's fine, go for it, be my guest!"

It's an interesting trait and one which Clark has used to her advantage on Strange Mercy, allowing herself to "get to the poetry, get the emotional meat of it first and foremost," and create "something that is really, really human and really relatable," without getting caught up in the type of cerebral games that characterised Actor:

"Really, how you feel about something is not the fact of its reality, because how you feel about something will change in any given moment and all you can do is accept those ebbs and flows of your mood and put your head down and get to work. I think a lot of it, too, is trusting your instincts in every micro decision and then you just step back and then hopefully, eventually, you have this macro thing that has your best intention and some integrity to it."

As discussion turns towards trends in the industry, Clark is quick to acknowledge that she “probably wouldn't have a career if it wasn't for being really into recording myself digitally from the time I was 15, and then having label interest when MySpace was a viable thing,” but still sounds almost disappointed that she didn’t get the chance to experience the industry pre-internet: “I've read interviews with Steve Albini and I've talked to my friend Brian Teasley who played in the band Man or Astro-man?, and back in the '80s, the beginning of the independent music scene, joining a band – an indie band – was like joining a gang. I mean it really was. You were a lifer, kind of. You were resigning yourself to sleeping on floors and in punk rock basements and living in a van for years. There wasn't this mass distribution of things, and so to do it you really had to have a level of commitment which you don't have to have today.”

This sense of reverence for the value of music and musicians is reflected in her opinions on download culture, and her words will find particular resonance with anyone who came of age with one foot on either side of the digital/analogue divide:

“I think it's interesting to talk about the value of music. Obviously now you can get anything you want for free, and that's great, and I think that can be really democratic and empowering. But when I think about some of my favourite records and what I would pay to have that experience... I would easily pay a thousand dollars for A Love Supreme. You know? If it makes the difference between hearing A Love Supreme and not hearing A Love Supreme, I would definitely shell out.”

Intelligent, grounded and quietly self-assured, she'll need no help from secret societies of any kind in leaving her mark. Annie's doing just fine.

Strange Mercy is released via 4AD on 12 Sep

Playing Stereo, Glasgow on 15 Nov