St. Vincent - The Stool Pigeon
The timing is perfect for Annie Clark to make an entrance at her high-school reunion. The 28-year-old postmodern pop composer is at the peak of her career and her 400,000 or so Twitter followers are abuzz over the prospect of a new album.
But it’s not happening. Three weeks before the reunion, Clark is almost retching at the idea. “I’m definitely not going,” she says sharply, repeating herself another two times before trailing off into a sigh. She wishes everyone well and all that, it’s just that recalling her younger self — 20 pounds heavier, “weird” and following a different path to her popular older sisters — has her breaking into a pang of awkward laughter. “Argh! I’m getting embarrassed 12 years later.”
Growing up in the suburbs of Dallas, Texas, Clark developed an ear for off-kilter riffs in the practice room of her local guitar shop, where Frank Zappa, King Crimson and Jethro Tull were held in reverence. As a teen, she began recording her own material on computers and working as tour manager for her uncle’s band, Tuck & Patti.
After she dropped out of the Berklee College of Music and toured with the Polyphonic Spree, Sufjan Stevens heard her still-unreleased debut as St. Vincent and enlisted her as a backup singer. While on tour with him in Europe, Beggars Banquet asked to put out Marry Me, an entrancing mixture of subdued whimsy and flash arrangements.
But it was her acclaimed second album, 2009’s Actor, that revealed St Vincent’s gestating genius. She re-scored scenes from her favourite films (Snow White, Stardust Memories and Badlands) with elaborate flourishes, unpredictable embellishments and exclamatory bursts of pop worthy of Beck, David Byrne and Captain Beefheart.
The LP cover — just her freckled, pale complexion, ruby red lips and ’fro-like bundle of curls — hinted at a figure of contradiction: chipper but distant, high-strung yet serene. This was a woman who could make guitar-shredding girly.
Two years later, Clark has re-evaluated Actor and its hodgepodge assembly, admitting the songs couldn’t be stripped down without losing their substance. “The idea of a song was the last component,” she says. “That’s kind of like spending eight hours on icing and 30 minutes on the cake. It’s a difficult way to work.”
Touring Actor well into 2010 took its toll on Clark. “A friend told me that the Chinese Year of The Tiger would be turbulent and that was exactly how that year turned out: really high highs and really low lows. It was quite a tough time, to be honest.”
Still reeling from that period earlier this year, Clark sequestered herself at a friend’s recording space in Seattle, where she knew no one. “It was basically a loneliness experiment where I stayed in a hotel and went to the studio every day for 10 to 12 hours, by myself, then came home and had dinner alone. No fancy arrangements: just the songs, the guitar and me. By week three I was dying for someone to talk to.”
Taking fragments of depression and despair from Marilyn Monroe’s diaries and pairing them with her own experiences, the dark and downbeat Strange Mercy began to emerge. She took a straightforward motif — our habit of cloaking the truth to protect others — and vowed to keep it simple.
“I don’t have any kids, thank God, but I feel like making a third album was like when people talk about having a third child: there’s no curfew, you don’t care if its hair is messed up when it goes to school; you just let it be what it wants to be. I can definitely be very ‘Type A’ [personality] about things but with this I just wanted to let the songs speak… This record is more about looking for catharsis from pain, be it in a psycho-sexual way or, like in ‘Surgeon’, looking for someone to just come fix me.”
Clark’s characteristic, lullaby-like melodies are the focus this time, often luring you in just as a jarring guitar line stops short of shattering the song apart. Rather than sound abrasive, St. Vincent’s strength is turning idiosyncratic ideas — even auditory panic attacks — into infectious pop. This makes her laugh.
“I guess I just trust that we all share somewhat similar human experience, so as long as I’m being true to the narrative, people will get it,” she says. “Don’t tell anybody my secret but if you’ve got a groove that feels good and will take you through the journey, you can kind of do whatever you want over the top of it.”
Judging by the number of time she bursts into giggles, the catharsis of Strange Mercy seems to have worked. Clark sounds happy. The idea of seeing Lake Highlands’ Class of 2001 again may be out of the question, but her younger, embarrassing self would be content with how things have transpired.
“All I wanted was to live in New York… and be in a band!” she says. “I wanted to get to be this, to do what I’m doing, for a long time. There’s kind of nothing else on the list. Now I want to get those pivotal records out of the way and then just coast.” She pauses, giggling again. “I’m kidding!”