The first we heard of St Vincent’s Annie Clark, she was the skilled instrumentalist from The Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens’ band who’d struck out on her own. But over time it’s become clear the 28-year-old Texan sings to a different tune.

Where listeners have expected symphonic pop and choral flourishes from St Vincent's Annie Clark, instead she's the girl covering Big Black's Kerosene and offsetting delicate melodies with ugly, lurching guitar work and a wry lyrical wit, a sour note for every bit of sweetness.

Speaking to Clark, she's chirpy in acknowledging the natural element of chiaroscuro in her music.

"To me it just seems very natural that there should be this cognitive dissonance. In my life and in my brain, there are very beautiful elements and there are some dark elements that coincide. So it's just very natural; this is just how life is."

It's a gift for contrast first heard on 2007's Marry Me, the title cribbed from a line in the TV show Arrested Development and containing gems like Jesus Saves, I Spend.


Follow-up release Actor came in 2009, with St Vincent steadily gaining critical acclaim along the way. But an overriding criticism one could make of her music is that it's very cerebral. The layered arrangements and lyrical wit are fantastic, but do they summon the powers of the heart?

With Strange Mercy, Clark is attempting to take a more organic approach.

"This record is coming from more of a 'heart' place than other things," she says. "I did a technology detox and I didn't write any of it on the computer. I just focused on, 'what's the lyric, what's it about, where's the heart of the song, what's the narrative?'"

So rather than a process of building tracks from the bottom up, it then became an act of chipping parts away or reassembling the song.

Clark takes a very analytical approach to songwriting, and her instrumental prowess could be partially explained by a stint at Berklee, the famed music school from which skilled players like (*cough*) John Mayer hail. While it may have helped her become a stronger musician, she's got her priorities straight.

"I've always sort of been an intuitive musician. I was kind of turned off by the emphasis on athleticism as opposed to artistry and I felt that, with a lot of the things that you can learn in the music school, if you don't have some sort of voice as an artist you're not necessarily going to make great use of the tools that you can learn."

And while many alumni are probably working as session players in Los Angeles, Clark continues to bring academia and art together, telling me how an Alexander McQueen exhibit related to the process of making Strange Mercy.

"McQueen spent years learning how to critically construct something so that he could deconstruct something. And when you have something constructive - like a song - it's so much easier to deconstruct it than if you have all of these disparate parts you're trying to glue together. My process with Strange Mercy was to have simple songs, and go into the studio and put them through the meat grinder and see what happens."

One thing that came out the other end was incredibly robotic grooves played by Midlake drummer, MacKenzie Smith. With some processing, he sounds just like a hip-hop drum machine with feel.

"Right now some of the production I'm most excited about is in modern hip-hop. The production on the latest Kanye record is amazing. That was the directive - to have heavy grooves that sound almost mechanical."

As we wind up the conversation, she looks back at another mechanical moment. Recalling her performance of the aforementioned Big Black cover for the 10th anniversary of the book Our Band Could Be Your Life, the girl with a choir-worthy voice and serious guitar chops laughs when she says she has "a really great job".

"It's not often that you get a chance to go and scream out your most misanthropic bile onto a crowd of people and then they cheer for it. It's a crazy, crazy job, but it's a good job and I want to keep it."

St Vincent's Strange Mercy is out now on 4AD.

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