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Aug082007

ST. VINCENT - August 2/07

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Dallas, Texas native Annie Clark, a.k.a. St. Vincent, is about as fascinating and unexpected an artist as 2007 will likely produce. Prodigiously talented, charmingly self-deprecating, Clark is the rare musician whose debut seems the aural equivalent of an immaculate conception: fully-formed, effortlessly detailed, and lacking any scars revealing the trails of its long gestation. But that's the thing. At 24, Clark has already lived a surprisingly long musical life. Stints with both the Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens' Illinoisemakers have given her a wider perspective of her own possibilities than most musicians her age. With the release of the magnificent Marry Me, she has made a record that, like all great debuts, is both a culmination of youthful influence and an announcement of a potentially lasting talent. Let's just say this, it'd be nice to keep Ms. Clark away from any swimming dates in the Wolf River.

After a year or so opening solo for bands such as Midlake and Arcade Fire, she and her new band are in the midst of a tour that recently took her to Toronto's Horseshoe Tavern. Clark spoke with us from the road the morning after a gig in picturesque Portland, Oregon, where we discover a young musician of great humour with the naivete to stay in wonder at the world but the confidence and talent to seek out some answers.

Soundscapes: You just played the Doug Fir in Portland. That's quite a great venue.

Annie Clark: Yeah! I love it. I'd never played there before I played on my tour with John Vanderslice. It was the first date we played and I had no idea it was all downhill from there!(laughs) Beautiful sound system, beautiful room. Just ridiculously designed on every level. And the food is excellent.

SS: It's a bummer to leave.

AC: (laughs) It is a total bummer to leave.

SS: Well, it's not quite as beautiful a venue, but I got a chance to see you here in Toronto at the Horseshoe. It was a really great show and I wanted to start there. You obviously don't need to be told how many layers there are on your record. I was really pleased to see how as only a four-piece you were able to pull off a mixture of well-scripted moments and very free, improvised moments. How did you work with your band translating this record to stage?

AC: Well, I spent a lot of time before I ever rehearsed with a band just by myself figuring out which parts of songs on the record I thought were really crucial or really were nice little touches to do live. And so, I spent a lot of time figuring out tempos that I thought were gonna translate live and loading up samples into various pieces of gear and just basically figuring out how to flesh some of those things, because we are only just a four-piece. Y'know, things like the violinist (Daniel Hart) is playing bass pedals, so he can play violin and bass at the same time so that the bass player (Bill Flynn) can then play keyboards. I mean these guys have been very patient (laughs), short of growing extra appendages to play more instruments at one time, they did a really nice job.

SS: Did you find it took a few shows to get used to that? Being ambidextrous like that, while possible, can take a while to get the rhythm of things.

AC: Yeah, absolutely. I mean we rehearsed quite hard before, but there's something in a rehearsal that you can't exactly emulate, which is the nerves/excitement of playing for other people who aren't your bandmates in a room. So, yeah, a lot of that stuff is rote, really. I remember feeling similarly playing with Sufjan and going, y'know, it takes you one of two shows just to go, "Oh God, what am I playing now? Am I on bass now? Wait!" Y'know? (laughs)

SS: Yeah, yeah.

AC: You can't have it all scripted as to where you should be at any given point. But after you get that, the shows become really fun and you start to really enjoy it, but sure it does take that muscle memory.

SS: Definitely. When I was watching the little touches that you had in there -- whether it was sampler pedal or the little kick percussion set-up that you have (Clark plays with a board that she stomps on for extra percussion) -- these little touches that seemed to be born of you playing on your own.

AC: Yeah.

SS: It seems like that spirit of multi-tasking was just spread out to the rest of the band.

AC: It was. I mean if you look at -- not to pull the curtain away from the wizard, but y'know just on a really super-nerdy level -- we've got three or four MoogerFooger pedals on stage, there's bass pedals, there's two or three samplers, there's, uh, yeah. It was spread out to this band and it was born out of playing solo. When I first started it... well, I was kinda watched these Patti Smith videos, y'know, and thinking, "My God, she's so powerful on stage." Y'know? And I got this idea, like man, if you were a superhero and could stomp on the stage and have the whole thing rattle, y'know what I mean? And I was just thinking about how you could really translate that first little: "Oh shit! What's that!?" Catch people off guard. So that's how the stomp board was kinda born and also just the, uh, I didn't want to play with (backing) tracks, play along to tracks. Kinda seemed unfun to me, so I used the stomp pad to be that percussive base.

SS: Yeah, it took me a while for me to figure it out at the show. It's pretty amazing watching you four play. There are a ton of moments of, "I don't know where that sound is coming from."

AC: Oh, good!

SS: You mentioned playing on your own and starting the project off. When you started recording Marry Me, did you ever have an idea of trying to bring a band in to back you up, or was it always going to be yourself for the most part?

AC: Well, I think that it all evolved in this really (laughs), kinda fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants way, in terms of I had finished half of my album and just, y'know, did what friends do: "Hey check out some of these songs I'm working on!" And sent it off to various friends and uh, you know, the next I knew I was getting contacted by labels and stuff like that and so the career-y thing started happening.

SS: So you weren't attached to Beggars (Group, her label) when this started?

AC: Oh, no! Not at all. I just made this record and Beggars was like, "We love it. We wanna put it out."

SS: Yep, yep.

AC: So, it all evolved like that, and not necessarily with... I don't want to say that there was no plan but, I just made this record because I wanted to hear these songs that were in my head, y'know, in real life. And the whole touring and getting the opportunity thing came, I guess, as a result of the music. I don't have a manager. I've never had some svengali kind-of-person (laughs), y'know, with a cigar or anything like that.

SS: What did playing with the Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens teach you? What lessons did you learn that were different to your experience as a solo performer?

AC: I got a sense of how powerful a live show can be. I remember seeing both of them (before joining the bands) and being truly in awe. (pauses) And as far as orchestration and taking that grandiose thing -- up, up, and away -- I identified with that. I think maybe I identify with it less now.

SS: Right.

AC: But at the time I was making the record, I was really identifying with that.

SS: Yeah. I don't necessarily bring that up because I see really direct parallels between you and them. I'm just genuinely curious because I don't see how you could play in bands like that and not be both transformed by it and intimidated to, after playing with 12 or 25 people on one stage, then go, "I wanna try and have that impact, but with myself or with four people. How do I do that?" It really raises the bar.

AC: Yeah. It does, but at the same time you have that experience where you go, "I've played for 25,000 people screaming and going wild." I mean, in an experience like that, you don't think, "Oh, they're crazy for me," or anything like that. It's a much more communal experience. It's just getting to see that reaction. Being not just a fan who would have been one of those 25,000 people going crazy, but also being on stage and going, "Whoah! What is this? This is wild." This maybe has the power to transform lives or be a real positive force. I mean, I'm all for negative forces, too! (both laugh) But a positive force, y'know?

SS: When I was first starting to listen to Marry Me, it reminded me a lot of artists like Rufus Wainwright or My Brightest Diamond, people who have taken a very informed, intense musical upbringing and found a way to integrate a lot of 1920s, 30s, 40s pop sensibilities but skew it into a modern context. How much of your upbringing gave you a knowledge of old jazz, blues, pop standards, and what effect did that have on your songwriting and performing?

AC: Well, I remember that we had a record player, and I didn't really know how to use it, 'cause I was born in 1982 and I wasn't (laughs). But, I remember, I was fairly young, I think I was 12 or 13, and my aunt and uncle gave me just a stack of records and said, effectively, "Here." It was a gift with a lesson in it or something. It was Coltrane and Monk and Bill Evans and Johnny Hartman, Gershwin and all of that. So I just, y'know, I grew up in Texas and I grew up in a suburban sprawl. I grew up where the American menace of pop culture is so prevalent and so pervasive. So when somebody gives you a gift like that and you go, "Ohh my god, I'm hearing music for the first time," you can't go back. Y'know, you can't go back, it's like eating McDonald's all your life and someone serves you a five-star meal, and you go, "OK, I don't think I can go back to McDonald's anymore."

SS: Yeah, I'm not going to argue with that analogy.

AC: Yeah, it was very, it was that kind of experience. So, I delved into that for quite a while and so the feeling, there's this feeling that you get and you know when so-and-so plays that note that you feel it in this totally otherworldly kind of place, but you don't necessarily have a vocabulary for that. Um, so I guess I just tried to go about honing that vocabulary for that. But I mean, that said, I love Iggy and the Stooges. I'm pretty fascinated by punk as well, arguably the antithesis of all that sort of heady stuff. No, I don't believe that. I don't buy that jazz is like super heady. I think it can be as visceral, or more so.

SS: Oh, I would absolutely agree, absolutely agree. There's a lot of pain and blood and sweat and guts in jazz for sure.

AC: Yeah.

SS: When you start being informed by that music, how long do think, I mean you are only 24, so there's a lot of time to grow, but when do you start to come to a point where it's not just emulation? When you hear a singer like Sarah Vaughan or Nina Simone and you key in on certain styles of phrasing and you start to emulate it, where do you start to feel like you're owning it a bit more?

AC: That is a tough process. I am still dealing with it, but more it's uh... I think the second it becomes, you know I think it would be different if I didn't write songs or didn't really play and was to trying to...I mean, there's no fucking way I could make it as a singer, if I couldn't do anything else, y'know? Just because, y'know, great singers are hard to come by and so powerful when they do come around. I don't know. I mean, those are the greats. Sarah Vaughan, Ella, Nina Simone. The most, if anything, the most that you can do is kinda write little love letters to the people who you loved and changed your life. And I mean, I consider the whole album to be a gushing love letter to my heroes.

SS: Your lyrics have quite similarity to the music in that they have a fascination with classic icons and cities and ideals that are twisted and skewed a little bit. Everything from Paris and Romeo and marriage. What about this type of language fascinates you? What does it conjure up for you when you're dealing with these subjects?

AC: Well, there's a romantic ideal. And part of that is so grand and glorious and all of that, but y'know, it's not the 50s -- not that the 50s were all that great -- but we're in a different time. We're in war time and we, culturally, are debating the merits of... I mean, when I wrote "Marry Me", it was kind of a social commentary of what is marriage and what constitutes marriage and to whom and, why do we have to get married? (laughs) And all of that. So I feel that I deep down have a very soft spot for that kind of romanticism, but not because I believe it (laughs).

SS: Right. Well, in a few interviews you've mentioned that "Marry Me" was a love song, regardless of how skewed it was, but it actually felt to me like a road song, just from that "You won't realized I'm gone" line. Like the idea of the type of marriage that a traveling performer engages in. I don't if that's a shot in the dark, but...

AC: No, no, I made, I wrote the day after I came off a month long tour. I mean I... it just is the case that you married to your work. If you're an artist  if you wanna, at least in my case, fancy yourself one or wanna be one, or whatever  your marriage is, your ultimate relationship is, to music and to making art and trying to, die trying. So, that just is the case. That is the reality. And of course, that makes the romantic, theatrical, amorous side of things difficult, but now I don't think people in this work really have a choice.

Reader Comments (1)

Great interview- really enjoyed it.

April 25, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterleah

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