Pensacola, Florida
Wednesday October 18th 2017

Archives

The Rise of St. Vincent

By Jessica Forbes

When the mention of coffee was made at the beginning of a morning phone interview with Annie Clark, the focus of the conversation quickly became caffeine.

“I’m midway through a coffee that I wish I had seven more gallons of,” joked the guitarist, singer, songwriter and overall musical force who practices under the name St. Vincent. Having just returned to the U.S. from a string of dates in the U.K., France and Belgium, Clark was attempting to shake off jet lag before heading to North Carolina where her Digital Witness Tour continued that night.

Looking back at Clark’s year, it’s easy to see why she may regularly crave a cup of coffee. In February, she released the self-titled “St. Vincent,” her fourth album—or fifth, when including “Love This Giant,” her 2012 collaboration with the Talking Heads’ David Byrne—and hasn’t let off the throttle since.

Fittingly, releasing her own coffee blend through Chicago’s Intelligentsia Coffee & Tea, a roast called “Bring Me Your Mugs,” (a play “Bring Me Your Loves,” a song on “St. Vincent”) is one of the many varied endeavors she’s undertaken in 2014, interspersed among a steady schedule of tour dates in the U.S., Europe and Asia.

In April, Clark was one of the female artists (along with Kim Gordon, Joan Jett and Lorde) who performed with members of Nirvana at the band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Clark’s third guest appearance on IFC’s “Portlandia” aired in April and she performed on the season finale of “Saturday Night Live” the following month. In August, she played the part of bandleader on late night television, subbing for Fred Armisen on “Late Night with Seth Meyers.”

In a week or so, her first shows in Florida outside of Miami, including one in Pensacola at Vinyl Music Hall on Oct. 8, will precede another run in Europe through early December, when she will return to the States to tour with The Black Keys.

“I get tweets a lot saying, ‘Come to Florida’ and ‘Why don’t you come to Florida?’ which I feel guilty about. It just worked out this year to be able to play multiple cities, multiple times—I’m coming back with The Black Keys so hopefully Florida will get its fill,” she said.

The Path to Now
Since the release of her 2007 debut album, “Marry Me,” introduced the world to St. Vincent, Clark, who will turn 32 on Sept. 28, has built more of a following with each album release, each of which seems coalesce her distinct approach to lyrics and guitar licks into something more decidedly St. Vincent.

Her own music, which music critics most handily describe as art-rock defies succinct classification. On top of vocals, guitar work, and vacillations in tempo and tone that once heard are emblazoned on the mind as distinctly Clark’s, is an overlay of intelligence and humor that indicate a mind that hangs on to and cleverly wields references from music, literature and everything in between while telling good stories to boot.

For instance, Clark took the name “St. Vincent” from the Nick Cave song, “There She Goes My Beautiful World,” specifically a line about poet Dylan Thomas dying drunk at St. Vincent’s hospital in Manhattan. Her debut album “Marry Me” took its title from the character Maeby Fünke’s signature diversionary joke on “Arrested Development.” “Rattlesnake,” the first song on “St. Vincent,” tells a tale of encountering a snake while on a spontaneously nude walkabout in Texas, and Clark describes the landscape as looking like “Seurat painted the Rio Grande.”

The references aren’t cumbersome or distracting—they’re just a few of the of threads Clark pulls together when crafting songs.

“At this point I’ve maybe been more influenced by a John Coltrane record than anything, but you’d never listen to my music and say, ‘Oh yeah, this part kind of reminds me of Coltrane,’” she said. “The ultimate question becomes no matter your influence, are you an artist? Can you synthesize eight points of view through the tools you have at your disposal and create a singular thing that has meaning—can you do that?”

As far as her artistry, it’s a pursuit that’s been part of Clark’s life longer than it hasn’t been.

“I think I always sort of knew. I remember being in elementary school before I started playing and I would be clicking my teeth to rhythms. I guess it’s sort of a nervous habit, but I just realized that I’ve been doing this for 20-something years, like clicking my teeth to the same beat [breaks into a beat]…something like that. So that’s insane, but it’s like a fountain of music is always in my head and it’s just the best thing.”

It all started in earnest for Clark in the Dallas suburbs with a Stratocaster, a friend’s dad and a Jimi Hendrix song when she was 12 years old.

“This sounds like it could have a really dark turn, but it doesn’t—it’s a wholesome story,” said Clark, who remembered having just heard Hendrix on the “Forrest Gump” soundtrack.

“None of his kids were interested in music at all or in playing it and you could tell it was his prized possession,” Clark remembered of the guitar. “He saw that I was interested in it and he showed me how to play, I think it was ‘Manic Depression.’”

Clark then went to her parents, told them about her newly discovered passion and soon found herself with her first instrument, “a cheap nylon string guitar,” as she remembers it.

“I went back and begged and said, ‘I really want an electric guitar.’ No music I love is acoustic,” she recalled. “I just knew.”

Shortly thereafter, Clark began trying her hand at not only shredding, but songwriting and singing, too.

“I was maybe 13 or 14 when I started. I would always learn other people’s songs, but I would get sidetracked in the middle of learning somebody else’s song and write my own,” she said. “When I was really starting to try and write and figure out what being a songwriter was all about, I remember I would open my mouth to sing, and I would just well up with tears—there was something so emotionally charged about it for me.”

When it came to singing, Clark began testing and pushing her voice alongside recordings of distinct voices from a number of eras, eventually finding her own.

“I had a little boom box that was a karaoke machine kind of thing. I would put on Billie Holiday records and try to match her lick for lick and put on Ella Fitzgerald records and try to imitate her, but it was a little bit of a hodgepodge-mishmash because also I was really into Pearl Jam and Nirvana. I would try to sing like them. And somehow I learned how to use my voice.”

Clark went on to attend Berklee College of Music in Boston and kept pursuing her own brand of music anyway she could.

“I was in college just trying to play in different bands with friends, like a hardcore band called the ‘Skull Fuckers’ and a proto-EDM band and a number of silly things. I wanted to go on tour when I was in college, but I didn’t know how people did that. I didn’t have any luck reaching out to clubs and being like, ‘Here’s my demo, hook me up at the club some night,’ because people want to book you if people will pay for a ticket to see you and I had nothing going.”

Clark set up an email account and pretended to be an agent and wound up booking a tour with friends up and down the east coast. “It was insane, but it worked,” she said. After two years at Berklee, Clark dropped out and moved to New York, but quickly ran out of money and landed back in Dallas. Living with her parents, she continued working on songs that would eventually form “Marry Me.”

“I was trying to figure out what I was doing because I knew that I wanted to make music, but I didn’t know how you do that professionally. Luckily, I didn’t have to wait very long for an answer because my friend Toby played theremin in The Polyphonic Spree and said, ‘You should come try out because they’re always looking for new people.’”

After a few strategic purchases at Guitar Center and a bit of studying of the Dallas-based mass-band’s body of work, Clark made the move that effectively put her career on course.

“I thought maybe I would look like a professional if I showed up with guitar pedals and a rig and all that. So I tried to figure out how to make it look right and learned all their songs and walked into the audition and got the gig,” she remembered. “Next thing I know, I was on tour in Europe with 30 people, getting drunk, being rowdy and having fun opening for and being on the same festival bill with Sonic Youth and bands that I had idolized.”

Following her stint in The Polyphonic Spree, Clark played in Sufjan Stevens’ band in 2006 before the release of “Marry Me.” And ever since, as before, Clark has been in process of constantly creating, recalibrating and creating more.

“I was reading the Miles Davis autobiography where he talks about the hardest thing for a musician to do is to sound like yourself and I completely agree; it’s a process of refining and throwing things, throwing the spaghetti against the wall and watching a lot of it slip down and then examining the few noodles and meatballs that stick. You go, ‘Huh, that’s interesting,’ and you keep throwing more shit at the wall until you become who you are,” she reflected.

The Show from Here
After essentially giving the finger to the concept of the sophomore slump with 2009’s “Actor” and adding more and more layers of electronic elements much to fans’ and critics’ delight with “Strange Mercy” in 2011, Clark recorded “Love This Giant” with David Byrne and spent a year on the road in support of the album.

“The ‘Love This Giant’ tour was so fun and it was very lighthearted and different. The audience was dancing to all the songs, not just from ‘Love This Giant,’ but obviously from David’s back catalog. That was inspiring and made me feel quite connected. It’s always kind of a continuum,” Clark stated.

While her previous albums were by no means groove-less, “St. Vincent,” which she began working on almost immediately after the “Love This Giant” tour wrapped, Clark has given crowds—and herself—more to bounce to, even introducing some choreography to her stage show, which plays on the album’s examination of technology in modern life.

“I obviously take my job seriously, but part of my job is to be an entertainer and I embrace that fact and I like it. It’s fun and it’s exciting and dramatic and all of that,” she said. “I try to create a show that, while it’s heartfelt and wild and weird, is ultimately very entertaining and hopefully it might inspire people to put down the phones for an hour and a half and take a weird trip together.”

But purists and fans of Clark’s trajectory as a songwriter have nothing to fear. The stage show is part of the bigger picture, a complement to music designed to survive without it.

“With the Digital Witness tour there’s a little bit of a meta-complex about the way that I address the crowd or the choreography—the stilted nature of it—all tie back to the themes of the record,” Clark explained. “All this stuff has to be rooted first in the music. The music has to be tough enough to withstand any wild concepts and visuals that you heap on top of it.”

With The Band
The musicians performing with Clark on the Digital Witness Tour have become her steady tour family, and their family tree reads like a who’s who of bands indie kids love.

“Everyone is amazing, first of all,” Clark said when asked about her band. “We’ve been together and all over the world now for three years.”

First was drummer Matt Johnson, who Clark met through a mutual friend. “Matt Johnson is sort of a titan of the New York music scene and played on Jeff Buckley’s ‘Grace,’ which is probably a really seminal record for a lot of people, myself included,” she said. “He showed up and is so nice—he’s a Texas boy, I’m a Texas girl and we just really hit it off. I couldn’t believe that the Matt Johnson wanted to play with me.”

The same friend led Clark to Daniel Mintseris, whom she calls “the keyboard mastermind of programming of the live show” and “such a gentleman and a dear and a genius.”

“It’s really nice because he has all of the technology chops to do what it is we do, which is pretty highly sophisticated from a tech standpoint, but he also has the musicality to play something that sounds like Bartok one minute and something that sounds like Crist the next,” she added of the piano, harpsichord and synthesizer guru who also played on both the “Strange Mercy” and “St. Vincent” recordings.

As for Toko Yasuda, “the moog playing, axe wielding vixen,” (and also Clark’s choreography co-star onstage) Clark discovered her via her husband, John Schmersal (of Brainiac and Caribou), who was referred to Clark by the Dessner brothers of The National.

“I talked to John and he was so great. He said, ‘I think this gig would be better suited for my wife, and you should meet her.’ So Toko and I Skyped and she was just amazing. I said, ‘You’re hired! This is great!’” Clark remembered. “She’s one of my best friends. It’s nice to tour with girls—my lighting director is Susanne Sasic from the Sonic Youth and Nirvana days and she’s amazing, as is my production assistant. It’s a lot of white wine and chatting with my home girls.”

Soon, Clark and her home girls (and boys) will bring their show to Pensacola. When it comes to playing small towns, Clark says in her experience it’s best to expect the unexpected.

“Some of the best shows ever are in places where you’ve either never been, don’t know what to expect and are actually so blown away and pleasantly surprised, or on the face of it they don’t seem like a great club or this, that or the other,” she said. “Then the crowd comes in and they’re awesome and everything rules. It all depends on the alchemy in the room.”

For Clark, the alchemy is part of the artistry and the force that keeps her working to manifest the quintessential St. Vincent—a quest that doesn’t sound like she’s giving up anytime soon.
“There are so many roads to get there. I have listened to Madonna records that Niles Rogers produced and [have] been like, ‘Wow, these are so incredible,’ and gone, ‘Why are these so incredible?’ I wanted to see the depths of the machine, so I took apart the record. I transposed every part of the record into a computer and went, ‘Huh, that’s interesting how that fits together and that fits together,’” she said.

“Sometimes you just have to look under the hood of it, but then there are other instances where something is just totally instinctual and it’s more like a burst of energy instead of a carefully constructed thing. You have to balance those two things, but ultimately it’s not about what you reference, it’s about the depth of your artistry, the depth of your references and your voice—do you have a point of view or do you not? So that’s the ultimate end.”

ST. VINCENT
WHAT: St. Vincent with Matthew E. White
WHEN: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 8
WHERE: Vinyl Music Hall, 2 S. Palafox
COST: $30
DETAILS: vinylmusichall.com