Interview: Annie Clark (of St. Vincent)


    Photo by Caitlin Meyer

    Since the September release of her third LP, Strange Mercy, Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, has seen a whirlwind of activity, from touring the States to hitting the late night circuit to popping up at festivals. This past weekend at Asheville, NC’s Moogfest, Consequence of Sound’s Research Editor and host of Audiography, Len Comaratta, got a chance to sit down with Clark and her tour manager, Tom Carlson, as they were ironing out some last-minute details for her upcoming European tour.

    If you’re a fan of Len’s Audiography series, look out for a forthcoming episode with Ms. Clark herself.

    You sound busy.

    Annie Clark (AC): Trying to coordinate a European tour with a two-day turnaround.

    When do you head to Europe?

    Tom Carlson (TC): The eighth?

    AC: Right after [Jimmy] Fallon, so the 7th [of November].

    TC: The morning of the eighth, ‘cause Fallon is the seventh.

    AC: It is. No, I fly that evening to Germany to do some German TV show.

    Talk about being busy. And last night you said you had a late gig. Where were you playing last night?


    TC: The Earl. In Atlanta. It’s like a club gig. It was fun.

    AC: It was really fun. I like those club… I mean… it’s funny…

    When you say “Club Gig,” what do you mean, like the 9:30 Club kind of thing versus an arena?

    TC: One quarter the size of the 9:30 club.

    AC: Yeah, it’s 250 capacity.

    TC: Way too small for them to be playing.

    AC: With our gear and our light rig, it was kinda Spinal Tap… or reverse Spinal Tap.

    It worked?

    AC: Oh yeah, it was a great time. It was a great show.

    Do you like the intimacy, though, of the smaller shows?

    AC: Yeah, I do, I do. It’s fun. A lot of these shows on this tour have been theaters. It’s sort of like very pristine, and we have an intense light show. It comes off well. It’s like a theatrical performance kinda thing, but it’s fun to just get nitty-gritty in a rock club, too. All the shows have been going well to be honest. It’s been a really fun tour.

    Well this album is getting huge amounts of praise. It seems like it’s been out longer than just a month or a month and a half.


    AC: Yeah, I think there was a lot of lead in to it, so the press people did their job.

    Your producer, John Congleton, did a whole social media with Twitter. If you tweet so much, then a single will be released. How did you feel that that played out?

    AC: I thought that that worked out well. I’m not a marketing person. I didn’t come up with that idea or anything; it was the in-house people at the label, but I thought it worked out really well. At some point, after maybe six days had gone by and people kept tweeting… it’s on my twitter feed, and I can see what people are saying. And I started to feel like, “You guys, is this kinda mean? People are really freaking out. They’re really ready for this single. Should we just give it to them?” And they were like, “No, no wait, this is the point.” So, it was a little bit of a game, I guess, but it worked out well. It got people excited… or angry.

    One of questions I was told that I have to ask by one of our editors, who is in love with this album, is “What was the driving force behind what you were writing for Strange Mercy?” He sensed some kind of retro feminism in some of the songs, but he didn’t understand what your direction was. I didn’t really sense that, the way he was describing it, but he wanted to get your take on what was going on in your mind when you were writing the album. ‘Cause like with Actor, you said it was during a downtime. You were decompressing and watching a lot of films and that inspired you to what you were doing. Everyone keeps saying Strange Mercy is a departure, so what was going on when you were setting down to write that album?


    AC: Well, a lot of the influence, at least superficially, on the record is still these little bits of pop culture that I can weave into my own experience. Like the hook for “Surgeon” is “best finest surgeon, come cut me open,” which is…

    Marilyn Monroe…

    AC: …yeah, what Marilyn Monroe wrote in her diary. I really fell in love with that particular sentiment.

    Were you reading up on Marilyn Monroe? How did you stumble on that?

    AC: You know what? I read it in a Vanity Fair article. I was in Seattle writing the record, and I was getting very frustrated with what I was coming up with. Lots of highs and lows in a writing process. You know, either you think it’s all good or you think it’s terrible, and there’s not a lot of in-between. And I was in a low patch, and I just thought, “forget it.” I’m just gonna check out of the studio early, just go have a glass of wine, and read a book because nothing is coming out. And I just picked up a Vanity Fair and got really engrossed in that article and her, and I think I probably still have my little journal I was carrying around. In giant quotes, underlined, circled, exclamation point, “Use this”. The next day I went back, and I wrote “Surgeon”.


    You seem to be informed by a lot of pop culture. People always comment how even Marry Me was taken from an “Arrested Development” line…

    AC: Yeah, yeah.

    Is that intentional, or do you find that as you’re writing it just comes out of you?

    AC: Yeah, that’s the thing. It probably sounds pretty redundant, but everything is inspiration for a song. Everything’s fodder for writing. On the last record, I just straight-up ripped a Hemingway quote out of The Sun Also Rises… it’s in “Just the Same, But Brand New”… verbatim. Hopefully, I can’t get sued for that sort of thing. I like re-appropriated it or collaged it together. But everything is kind of fodder for writing.

    When did you start writing?

    AC: I started writing songs when I was… probably before probably… we had a piano, and I would tinker around with that and write little bits of songs, and then when I got a guitar when I was 12, the first thing I did was learn a Neil Young song and then write one of my own songs.


    Neil Young was the first person you learned on guitar?

    AC: Probably. I think it was “Keep on Rockin’ in the Free World”. I really liked that Neil Young and Crazy Horse record at that point in life. But, actually, it’s funny. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this, but the song “Year of the Tiger” on Strange Mercy, that riff [hums out the musical part] , that’s something my mom used to play on the piano… but I mean, it was sweet, it was sweetly played. Kinda plucky. I gave her writing credit. We co-wrote “Year of the Tiger” together, but that riff was always in my consciousness from a really young age.

    Was Glenn Branca the first group you worked with? The 100 Guitar Orchestra.

    AC: To say I worked with Glenn Branca is sort of like saying, as if I had walked through a recording studio and been like, “Yeah, I produced that record.” There was an open call for guitar players in New York. “Come for a pack of sandwiches and a coffee. Come and play. Bring your own amp and your own guitar out to Queens and play in this recording session.” I was a fan of Glenn Branca obviously, and everybody in the room was a massive fan of Glenn Branca, and I was just one of a hundred. It feels a little bit… to say I worked with him… Glenn Branca was not asking me for my input.

    It was more like, “Here, play this part. Thank you.”

    AC: Exactly. We were organized into maybe four different guitar sectors. All of our strings were tuned to the same, different octaves of the same note. When it was our time to go, it was crazy eighth notes and stop and crazy eighth notes, and it was thrilling to be in a room with that many guitars and that many amplifiers.


    It must be just ridiculously loud…

    AC: It was so loud. I had such a great time.

    So, it was only for that one recording that you did that?

    AC: Yeah.

    On Actor, and even on Strange Mercy, there is distorted guitar. Is that informed from your time with Glenn Branca, or is the distortion something that you like doing on your own? The experimentation with the instruments.

    AC: I just like it. Certainly, I am like anybody, a fan of the history of rock ‘n’ roll. That’s just guitar player 101, you know. I just like tweaking out with pedals. I think I probably really started delving into that stuff when I joined the Polyphonic Spree, because it just became necessary to have different textures and colors in my bag of tricks.

    When you joined the Polyphonic Spree, was that after you moved back to Texas, or was that why you moved back?


    AC: It was in quick succession. I dropped out of school; I moved to New York; I ran out of money in New York; I moved back to Texas. Two weeks later, I was in the Polyphonic Spree.

    Was there another open call for that, or was it through people you knew?

    AC: My friend Toby, the theremin player at the time, who played a Moog theremin, said, “You gotta come in and try out. They are always looking for people.” I had been a fan; I had grown up in Dallas. Right about 18, when I was 18 about to leave, that’s when the Spree really started. I remember seeing three or four shows of theirs and just being awestruck.

    How did you get with Sufjan [Stevens] after that?

    AC: I think somebody had sent him Marry Me before it had come out on a label. This would have been 2006, mid-2006. And Shara Worden, My Brightest Diamond, who’s a dear friend of mine, was gonna be not able to do some upcoming touring with Suf, and I was on tour… no, I don’t know how that happened. I got a call, “Sufjan wants to meet you and try out and maybe be in his band…”


    What album was that in support of?

    AC: That was in support of Come on Feel the Illinois. And so I went up to New York and tried out. I don’t remember if I tried out, God I don’t remember. Anyway, I joined up with him and then opened for him in Europe.

    How was that?

    AC: It was great.

    So, you were the opening band, and then you came back onstage as backup…

    AC: Exactly. I was opening up solo, and then I would come and play.

    When you say “solo” you mean, literally by yourself, not with your band behind you.

    AC: Yeah, I didn’t have a band.

    When did you actually incorporate the band? Was it around the time of making Actor?

    AC: I’ve always had a band that I’ve hired for live touring things.

    Photo by Katie Scheuring

    You’ve worked with Midlake’s guys…

    AC: Yeah.

    Is it just like with Texas musicians… is it a close-knit community?

    AC: There’s a thing, yeah. I think there’s a thing.

    Because Congleton’s from Texas as well, and Polyphonic Spree…

    AC: Yeah, McKenzie [Smith, drummer for Midlake], John, Daniel Hart, who was in the live touring band for a long time and played on all three records, and Bobby Sparks, who played the Mini Moog on the newest record. It was all Texas people. It was a pretty tight-knit group of people, actually. I’m a solo artist, so sometimes you’ll have a record where a million people walk through the studio and add little things here or there, but it was pretty much just me and John in the studio the whole time. Bobby Sparks would come in and play the craziest shit you’ve ever heard in one or two takes. And we’d be like, “Ok, that’s great, Bobby. Thanks. See ya later. You probably did all of your parts for this record in under five hours.”


    Have you ever gotten a chance to work with any major session musicians or any of the major studios like the Wrecking Crew or Muscle Shoals?

    AC: Nooooo.

    Would you be interested in that?

    AC: Yeah, of course I would be interested in that sort of thing. Bobby, he’s a ringer. He’s like Mr. Come In and Knock It Out. McKenzie too is great. We’d just spend more time together because we’d be dialoging about the parts back and forth, and I think he knows me well now and I know him well, and I love the way he plays. We kind of both know at this point that there’s gotta be a groove, but it’s also gotta be a little bit off-kilter; there’s gotta be one little catch that makes it not just ho-hum drum thing. Be it a little stutter in the bass drum in “Strange Mercy” or a sort of dirty-south-like filtered snare drum thing in “Chloe in the Afternoon”. We’ve always… we just know.

    Are you thinking about that when you are writing the songs, or is that more when you actually sit down to do the production and the recording… when you start adding the eccentricities?


    AC: That’s in the studio. You know, that’s the thing I kind of… I have ideas. With this record, I wanted to make sure… with the Actor record, I took warm, organic instruments, and I tried to make them cold and strange. And on this one, I tried to take synthesized instruments and make them warm, make them come alive, and make them have a really human feel. You always have to walk into the studio with a directive in mind, and that’s what I did with this one. With this record, I just wrote simple songs. That’s why I was in Seattle alone for month. I was just writing and…

    Did you self-exile yourself?

    AC: I did, yeah, I did. I hit this point in New York where it was too much all the time. So, I called up my friend Jason who had a studio out in Seattle. It just so happened that the studio was closing, so I got the last month of the place. And, yeah, I wanted to kind of break away from technology. I was realizing a lot how suddenly you’ve allowed your dopamine level to be at the mercy of a blinking light or a buzz from a text message or an email and living in this kind of state of false urgency. I just wanted to take a break from that and just wrote songs. I took those songs into the studio with John Congleton. He’s such a master we kind of put everything together. Like I said, walked in with this specific sonic directive but then just kind of explored. We were in the studio for six weeks, so we had time to work it out.

    The collaboration with Bon Iver… was that intended for the soundtrack, or was that a song that you just wanted to work together and they put it on the Twilight soundtrack?


    AC: Justin wrote the song, and then he sent it to me, and he said, “Do whatever you want on it.” I thought what would be fun because he’s got such a beautiful falsetto, why don’t I try to sing really low? Ghoulishly low. I think maybe he had written it for the Twilight thing, I’m not sure. But I got it and was like, “this is such a beautiful song,” and I love him, and I’d love to work with him so…

    I’m a fan of Beck, and I’m a fan of Liars. I want to know what it was like that day.

    AC: Ohhh, so fun. It was so fun. The cool thing about it is you’re all starting from the same vantage. We all just showed up that day and picked a record that day. We were throwing all sorts of ideas around. “What if we did Here Come the Warm Jets; what if we did the first Madonna record,” and then I think it was Angus who kind of pushed it over, because he’s Australian. He kind of pushed it over the top with “No, we gotta do INXS.”

    I think once we started digging into it, because like I said, we were all at the same… probably all of us knew the record [INXS’ Kick] about the same. It was almost like a science experiment. Go in and jam on something until you kind of have a direction. Maybe somebody will suggest something right at the top and you go in with that in mind. It was really fun, and the thing that I was so blown away by was how many hits there are on that record. I thought, “Oh shoot, I only know a couple songs of this record.” I was nervous because I’m not necessarily a flashy studio pro… I mean that’s not the point of those things… but I was nervous. What if I can’t figure out the songs? What if I don’t know the songs? I don’t want to hold anybody up. But, we got in, and I knew every song. There’s so many hits.


    Was there a call saying, “Annie, do you want to come do this covers project with us?”

    AC: Yeah, I think I got a call or a text from my manager that said, “Can I give Beck your phone number?” He just called me. He’s such a nice guy and so easy. It was nice. It was really nice.

    One last question. What are we in store for tonight?

    AC: (asking TC) Do we have the lights and everything?

    TC: Oh, yeah.

    AC: Bring your epilepsy medicine.