St Vincent: Beautifully clever

By Lydia Jenkin

St Vincent aka Annie Clark. Photo / Supplied
St Vincent aka Annie Clark. Photo / Supplied

Twenty-nine-year-old multi-instrumentalist and psychedelic pop artist Annie Clark is the type of woman others envy. Talented, thoughtful, beautiful, and possessing an effortless cool that pervades all aspects of her craft, from the stylish photos to the black-humoured videos. Even her chosen moniker, St Vincent, has a cool back story.

"I'm a big Nick Cave fan, and on There She Goes My Beautiful World, he's kind of singing about the glory and the squalor of being an artist. And he sings 'Dylan Thomas died drunk at St Vincent's hospital' and to me, that kind of encapsulated the darkly comic aspect of being an artist, I guess. I love Dylan Thomas and Nick Cave, and I guess it's my subtle way of implanting myself among my heroes."

She's wanted to be a musician since she took up the guitar at 12 ("I just kind of knew, nothing feels better than doing this, so I'm just going to do this") and has been writing and performing since, attending Berklee College of Music and performing with the Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens.

She received critical praise for her 2007 solo debut Marry Me, but it was 2009 album Actor that garnered international attention and greater commercial success.

However, her approach for her 2011 release, Strange Mercy, was almost a reaction against the way Actor was crafted.

"On Actor, I thought to myself, I want to make music that's smarter than my motor skills, so I didn't touch any instruments, I just wrote it in the computer. And that was fine and it was a justified process and I got some interesting results but it was also kind of a slow process and very painstaking and just not all that fun. So on this record I wanted to go the old style way. Working out how to write classic songs like Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn did. And I didn't, I failed, but I made something different. Missing the mark is actually the more interesting thing artistically sometimes."

Though she lives in Manhattan, Clark wasn't finding her apartment conducive to songwriting.

"I realised I could hear the people above me screaming at each other, the people below me having sex, the people on the other side of the wall playing video games."

So she decided to head cross country and hole-up in Seattle on her own, shutting herself off for a while, even turning off phones, and laptops, and emails. It was here she came up with the phrase "strange mercy".

"Once I had the words I thought, 'okay, this actually sums up what I've been trying to do musically for some time', which is juxtaposing two 'unlike' elements, and see how well they work together, see if there's not some compelling result. And so in terms of the lyric writing, I made sure that there was an element of strange mercy in each song - that thing that's in nature and life that's simultaneously beautiful and brutal."

It's an album that traverses that fine line between unsettling darkness and emotional power.

There are glimpses of knowing humour on tracks like Cheerleader, and Surgeon takes it's key refrain ("best finest surgeon, come cut me open") from a line in Marilyn Monroe's diaries.

"I guess I was a little interested in which parts of me can balance each other out, but I think actually this record is darker than Actor, or maybe a weird combination of both darker and more accessible than my other albums."

Clark also seems to enjoy questioning social norms and expectations, about our roles and our image of ourselves.

"I guess, like anybody, I have tried to fashion myself after ideals, finding the personal ideal and working out how I can be that, but it's kind of a waste of time I think. If you really ask people, except perhaps sociopaths, everyone at some level feels kind of like a fraud. So it's more powerful just to admit that and move on, rather than keeping up guises. It's nice to find a point where you can let that go, and think 'well, everyone is a f***ing freak, so embrace it'."

She's lately been busy working on finishing an album with former Talking Head David Byrne (due out in September), but she's finding time to head to Auckland for a show at the Kings Arms in March, and hopes to exceed expectations, looking forward to really letting loose on her guitar.

"It's a full band experience, and I guess I think it's just more of an aggressive rock show than some people might expect. It's an energetic show."

Lowdown
Who:
Annie Clark, aka indie pop wonder St Vincent.
Where and when: Kings Arms, Auckland, on Sunday March 18

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