On owning your art - just not all of the time...

Oklahoma’s Annie Clark, aka St Vincent, was bubbling away on the side lines of experimental pop for years, playing with the likes of Sufjan Stevens and The Polyphonic Spree before making her individual mark with 2007’s debut solo LP, ‘Marry Me’.

Several albums in, Clark’s revered in the music, art and fashion worlds as a bit of an icon – a hot lady playing hot fuzzy guitar. She’s even collaborated with the master of art pop himself, David Byrne.

Now she’s back with an eponymous solo record (review) full of noisy pop songs evoking images of an industrial dystopia, and a tour that promises to blow your tiny mind. Is it art? What we know is that it’s certainly awesome…

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St Vincent, ‘Digital Witness’, from ‘St Vincent’

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At just 31, you’ve already had a prolific career, including your ‘Love This Giant’ collaboration with David Byrne. Yet this new record sounds like nothing you’ve done before. How did it happen?

I’d wrapped up touring my last record, (2011’s) ‘Strange Mercy’, where the shows were racier and more violent than anything I’d done before… and I was stage diving!

I flew back from Japan and went straight into ‘Love This Giant’. My legs were covered in bruises, but it had a really sweet vibe and was really joyful. Everyone was dancing on tour all the time. I started writing about 36 hours after that first leg. That vibe stayed with me. I wanted to bring that same buoyancy and groove and the dance-ability to a new record, but also maintain the pathos, the violence of ‘…Mercy’.

And now you’re touring the self-titled record. Does that mean the next one is already being planned?

I'm not even thinking of the next record yet. I’ve just wrapped up production rehearsals for this show, and I’m really excited to watch the alchemy in the live context. These songs are going to be lived in and I'm excited to see the fans’ reaction of seeing them live.

I’ve put a lot of thought into this show. It’s not just me getting up and playing a load of songs. It has this bizarre, fever-dream feeling about it. 

There’s a definite feel of some kind of industrial future about ‘St Vincent’ – your Blade Runner record, maybe? But then there are the personal stories, too. You’ve mentioned that the track ‘Rattlesnake’ is based on a true story – you went for a walk, got naked, and saw a rattlesnake, as you do! What’s the rest about?

(Laughs) It's definitely my Blade Runner album. It has an image of a future dystopia. I think about Blade Runner all the time. But then, in some ways, I just wrote my life. I really feel like you can’t write about anything you haven’t lived. The rattlesnake story was just a miracle. It actually happened, and just made a brilliant beginning to the record. I don’t have to scour my imagination for stuff to write about. Different archetypes emerge. You know, you have a bird’s eye view of life and yourself, and know what it means to you – you just have to write that.

So that’s the subject, what about the sound? It’s definitely fuzzier than what you’ve done before, and you worked with some great musicians…

I was trying to write rock songs that had enough detail to show the gristle of humanity, but I wanted to take my time and make them good pop songs, too. What’s the saying? It’s like a girl’s record collection, no rush!

I was joined by great musicians, like Midlake’s McKenzie Smith. He's an amazing drummer, and I’m so happy that he can now play like he’s always wanted to without being held back.

You started playing with the likes of Sufjan Stevens and The Polyphonic Spree, both seen as pretty experimental. Was that a vital part of your musical education, along with the records you grew up listening to? And were you ever into Tim DeLaughter’s pre-Polyphonic band Tripping Daisy – they were never that well known in the UK.

Tripping Daisy was the first record I bought with my own money! I skipped school and went to see them play. Tim had wild blue hair and was barbecuing! I didn’t really know him back then – not until The Polyphonic Spree. The Polyphonic Spree were playing in Dallas long before they exported to England. They were doing gigs when I was still at high school. 

I guess I have a different idea of what experimental music is, though. I'm not sure Sufjan is experimental – it’s more hyper colour melody. All of my heroes have always made great pop songs drenched in fuzz. Underneath, though, they’re still pop – and that’s not a dirty word. People like David Byrne and David Bowie. Even Kurt Cobain was an obsessive Beatles fan.

You mentioned Byrne and Bowie there. Do you see yourself as creating art rather than music?

I think good pop music is art. I don’t make any distinction between it. It’s not high art or low art. It’s just awesome as far as I'm concerned. 

You’re a pretty confident lady on and off stage. Are St Vincent and Annie Clark two different people?

I don’t have that drive to be someone completely different, but there must be an element of make believe when you're making music and putting on shows, as that is an elevated sense of self. A full alter ego wouldn’t suit me. They’re hard work! Sasha fierce didn’t last long, and neither did Chris Gaines, who was just Garth Brooks with an emo haircut!

It’s a strange concept to get up on stage and display your disbelief. Like a comedian – you need to get up and be someone else to have the confidence to do what you do. It’s fine to acknowledge that artists have fun with it. Not in a way that’s fake. It’s not all about someone in a flannel shirt singing about love! I’m not like that on stage, and I don't carry my guitar around all the time off stage. 

I guess my alter ego is the manager in me! I’ve put out seven records in five years. I deal with a lot of people and a great team, but there’s an element of being a CEO of your own tiny empire. You have to manage them, be professional and choose the right team, and that’s a lot of pressure. You can’t be the artist all the time. 

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St Vincent, ‘Birth In Reverse’, from ‘St Vincent’

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Words: Gemma Hampson

‘St Vincent’ (review) is released through Caroline International on February 24th. Find St Vincent online here, and see her live in the UK and Ireland as follows:

20th – Shepherds Bush Empire, London
21st – Cathedral, Manchester
22nd – Olympia Theatre, Dublin

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