My feature interview with Annie Clark for NME.
Photo by Shamil Tanna
Something about the first few minutes of this interview with Annie Clark feels like taking part in a performance art piece. Dressed in a black trench coat and high-necked black dress with white lace panels – think cloister couture – she’s spacey, switching between gazing up at the window and offering blank stares from the comfort of a checked red armchair. Fiddling with her rings and pulling Kirby grips from her lilac-white cloud of hair, either the wildly ambitious guitarist is stand-offish or maybe I’m off-puttingly awkward; some combination of the two. Either way, it feels as much like a considered performance as her ballistic live shows as St. Vincent. Between us is a side table holding Clark’s white wine and pumpkin soup, which she sups intermittently from a comically large and formal silver ladle.
We’re in the private suite of a Soho members club in late November, talking about – appropriately – human interaction in the 21st century, though the kind where the sharp edges are removed: “I’m interested in the way it seems as though we don’t know how to have a private moment any more,” says Clark. “We watch a show through a tiny lens on an iPhone; we can’t just have a meal, we have to take a picture of it and get the applause and approval of millions of tiny eyes. The cart has been put before the horse. Now it’s about seeking the validation of having had the experience rather than just having the experience.”
For Clark, life is a full-contact sport where feeling the thud is important – sometimes literally. In August 2012, Clark played the last date of the ‘Strange Mercy’ tour at Japan’s Summersonic Festival, almost a year after the original release of her third album. She jumped off the stage and up onto the barricade, and was about to leap into the crowd – as she had been doing throughout the tour – when someone grabbed her breasts with aggressive intention. She turned to her monitor engineer, who had come down to the front to feed her cables, and shot him a look that said, hell, no. “I turned around and threw myself up against the barricade and punched the perpetrator in the face, hit them in the face with the microphone,” she says. “I really hope they’re okay, because I feel really bad about it, but it was a moment of rage – like, I don’t remember, just blind rage.”
She stands, takes my hand and presses it against her thigh to feel the permanent indentation left by the barricade, before digging out an iPhone photo (#nofilter) of the original bruise. There’s a noticeable pit in her femur. Don’t bands usually say that Japanese audiences are quite reserved? “They are,” she says, “but I think I broke that fourth wall.”
The day after returning from Japan, a bruised Clark went straight into three weeks of choreography-heavy rehearsals with David Byrne for the tour around ‘Love This Giant’, their brassy full-length 2012 collaboration for 4AD. Once out on the road, Clark noticed that the lack of self-consciousness from the performers was getting the audience out of their seats to dance. “People were just free and it was really sweet and special. I’d never really played music that people danced to, like, ‘Oh, okay, this is kind of worth pursuing!’” 36 hours after returning home from tour, having sworn that she would take a break, she started writing. Six weeks later, she was done.
Clark is by no means the first or even millionth musician to breach the traditional performer/audience contract, but doing so has added a new dimension to the way she approaches her work. When it came to writing her fourth solo album, her aim was to make something “groove-heavy that would make a really intense live show”, eliciting the physical responses she had witnessed whether stage-diving, doing the conga with Byrne and their huge brass troupe, or spitting Big Black songs at a New York tribute show in late 2011. But smuggled beneath those invitations to loosen up and step out of yourself are Clark’s concerns about human identity, connection and validation in an extreme world warped by the digital realm. “Call the twenty-first century, tell her give us a break”, she sings on ‘Every Tear Disappears’. On ‘St. Vincent’, she’s standing in the rubble where the fourth wall used to be and surveying the wreckage, figuring out what’s important amidst the unremitting sensory assault.
Brassy single ‘Digital Witness’ is the most literal manifestation of Annie Clark’s concerns about a world seen through screens (“If I can’t show it/If you can’t see me/What’s the point in doing anything?”), though other songs on the record approach the topic with more elegance and empathy, for others and for herself. The schizophrenic ‘Huey Newton’, a song named for the co-founder of the Black Panthers who appeared to Clark in an Ambien-induced dream, is the sinew that binds all of the record’s organs. Its verses unspool oblique images in a passionless game of free-association designed to feel like a Google wormhole: “Fake knife, real ketchup/Cardboard cutthroats/Cowboys of information/Pleasure dot loathing dot Huey dot Newton/It was a lonely, lonely winter…”
“I was envisioning a world where we’re so disconnected from other people and ourselves that we have to learn what feelings are from flashcards – a smile corresponds to feeling happy, and only knowing that intellectually and not intuitively,” Clark says. “It’s also about being angry at the impotence of the internet: the fact that it suggests a reality but is a third-tier version of actual reality.” The song later refers to Hale Bopp and the Heaven’s Gate Cult, Hail Mary, and Hagia Sophia, a museum in Istanbul that’s previously been a place of worship for every major religion bar Judaism. Heaven’s Gate is one of Clark’s obsessions – “ which I am fascinated by and love, if you can say that you love a cult where they were waiting for the comet to come and committed mass suicide, all wearing Nikes” – and here it’s part of a triumvirate that shows the ways in which humans have tried to create meanings in their lives over the course of history.
It’s a resonant theme for Clark, who grasped for any sense of self or hope after losing several people close to her during the period that informed ‘Strange Mercy’. (‘Huey Newton’ also refers to that time, but during one of its swaggering, snarled moments: “In perpetual night, oh, it’s terribly frightening, you know”.) Written during a period of isolation in Seattle – she called it a “loneliness experiment” – the record was coated in a paralysing haze that felt like trying and failing to scream during a nightmare. An archetype tends to emerge while she writes, she says; here it was of a housewife dosed up on barbiturates and white wine, a portrait of domesticated repression that was more Revolutionary Road than Peyton Place. It was about “a lot of pain in various forms, a more self-lacerating record,” Clark says.
By contrast, ‘St. Vincent’ is the most aggressive album Clark has ever made. The archetype she imagined here was of being a “near-future cult leader”, though it comes off more in the visuals, where Jodorowsky’s surreal classic Holy Mountain meets the residents of the Capitol in The Hunger Games. (I tell her she looks “terrifying”, which she accepts as a compliment.)
“It’s more extroverted, less about sublimated or submerged anger, and more about owning up to every emotion,” she says. “And I like songs where you don’t necessarily like the narrator; or admitting your humiliations and downfalls – I think everybody can relate to that. But I wasn’t at a place where I felt that kind of self-laceration, self-loathing, self-denial – all that stuff. I was more confident and comfortable and in a better place. It’s probably still not what people would consider a light-hearted record, but it’s light-hearted for me.”
Ultimately, the album looks at how human beings find salvation and validation beyond the superficial digital realm. ‘Prince Johnny’ is a “love letter to a tragic character and the New York downtown freak, weirdo, queer scene” whose titular character hangs out in bathroom stalls and tries to affirm his worth through famous fucks, but is safe in the city’s embrace. “It’s the kind of story you don’t get from New York City when you’re still clutching your purse on the subway,” says Clark. “It’s the kind you get when you’ve proven your devotion to this city. Then she lets you in her arms.”
The songs that fall towards the end of the record are where the important things float to the surface and everything else just blows. “‘Honey, quit your worrying/Distance is exactly like a blowing wind/Putting out the embers and the tiny flames and keeping the big ones burning’”, someone tells her on ‘Psychopath’. ‘I Prefer Your Love’ – “to Jesus” – is about Clark’s relationship to her parents. “You get to a point where you realise that you can lose them. Or you already have. And like… crossing some precipice into – it’s so unsexy, but – adulthood.”
Annie Erin Clark picked up the guitar as a 12-year-old in Dallas, Texas, forsaking her place on the girls’ soccer team to learn how to play; by 14 she was recording into her computer. During school holidays when she was a few years older, she roadied for her aunt and uncle, jazz duo Tuck and Patti, learning her craft – and the dividends of dedication – from the two workaday musicians. (“Dabblers” are one of Clark’s pet hates.) After briefly attending Berkeley College Of Music, she quit to join the Polyphonic Spree and play sideman in Sufjan Steven’s touring band before releasing her solo debut, ‘Marry Me’, in 2007. The guitar was still omnipresent, but it wasn’t until ‘Strange Mercy’ that she started using it to write songs rather than figuring them out on her laptop: listening to country music and “playing the troubadour”, as she’s previously put it.
Clark’s frenzied guitar work – guitar-centric riff-o-rama somewhere between Robert Fripp, Nile Rodgers and Sister Rosetta Tharpe – has long been her defining trait, but she decided to push it further on ‘St. Vincent’, using it to enable the record’s general bloodletting. “There’s a long history of rock guitar, but I’m not that interested in trying to recreate the quintessential rock guitar paradigm,” she says. “I like it when guitars don’t sound like guitars. But conversely, I like it when guitars sound like fucking guitars, you know? I think I approach it as a means to an end, a way to say the things that I don’t know how to say with my words or my voice.” On the most confrontational songs here – like the borderline devotion/obsession of ‘Bring Me Your Loves’, inspired by Pantera and Turkish folk singer, Selda – the guitar sounds like a pinball machine, whizzing and flipping before lighting up middle-eights like Christmas trees.
“I think Annie is one of the most inventive and dynamic guitarists out there,” writes Carrie Brownstein in an email. (She should know, given her past in Wild Flag and Sleater-Kinney.) “She doesn’t seem too precious about the guitar as a monolithic entity, she doesn’t worry about its lineage. She approaches it as a means of expression, as a conduit for a broad sonic and rhythmic vocabulary.”
During the making of the record, Clark was reading Miles Davis’ autobiography. “Man, sometimes it takes you a long time to sound like yourself,” he sighs. “So I thought, yeah, I sound like myself on this record,” she says. “I’ll call it ‘St. Vincent’.” It wasn’t the first time a piece of music had pre-empted her identity. “A lot of the time, songs are weird,” she told me by phone back in September, prior to sequencing the record. “I’ll write about something and then it’ll come true. I’m not much of a mystical person – I’m pretty pragmatic and like to err on the side of science, but that is the case, the songs having a lot of power in that way.”
Follow the line from ‘Cheerleader’, off ‘Strange Mercy’ – “I, I, I, I, I don’t wanna be a cheerleader no more” – to the willfully demonstrative persona on ‘St. Vincent’, which opens with two very different declarations of arrival: ‘Rattlesnake’ may be as far from the domestic archetype as Clark has ever roamed, documenting a very different kind of isolation. One hot day in Texas, she found herself alone in the wild and stripped naked to experience nature fully – before realizing a snake was lurking nearby. “Yes, I think about dying all the time,” she says, “and that would have been an awesome way to die – like, it would suck to choke on a chicken bone alone in your apartment, but dying by rattlesnake bite is cool – but I was like, no, not this time.”
It’s followed by the electrifying ‘Birth In Reverse’, seen from the perspective of a curtain-twitching shut-in: “Oh what an ordinary day/Take out the garbage, masturbate”, she begins, before deciding to break out into the world beyond her blinds, embracing fear and daring others to join her. “Laugh all you want, but I want more/‘Cause what I’m swearing I’ve never sworn before”.
“I played that for my best friend and he just laughed at me, like, ‘The only thing you wouldn’t do it take out the garbage’,” she recalls. “That’s true. I probably wouldn’t.”
‘St. Vincent’ is Annie Clark’s first album for major imprints Loma Vista (in the US) and Caroline (in the UK) after leaving 4AD late last year. The move seemed surprising – the high-budget, artistic videos for ‘Cruel’ and ‘Cheerleader’ didn’t suggest that the highly respected indie denied Clark anything. “My contract was up and I just thought it would be time to put a little new blood around it, simple as that,” she says, appearing taken aback that anyone would find it significant. “It’s a brave new world in the music industry, and the old ideas don’t apply in today’s world.” What old ideas? “In terms of… I mean, Beggars put out Adele. They’re not a small label.”
To intimate that Adele’s presence on the label was a deterrent for Clark would be wrong. “I love Adele. She’s no bullshit. She wields such power with such nonchalance. Like somebody standing around casually holding an AK-47. She will slay you with that thing. I was merely making the point that Beggars is by no means a small label. There was nothing untoward or acrimonious about my decision to move labels.” The “old ideas” refer to “the fate of the ‘record’ as we know it,” she says. “In the digital world, there is no physical technology that insists upon a 40-ish-minute format any more. The medium is changing. Case in point: Beyoncé’s ‘visual album’.”
Clark can’t stand all the extra components that the internet has added to promoting a record these days – “not just doing some press and shooting a video, all this fucking making a big fuckin’ deal about shit”. She knows it’s all going straight into a void where everything lives forever and everything is the same age. “And there’s no way to really delineate value from meaninglessness unless you’re using your own filters, but your own filters as so fucking exhausted from being inundated all the time that you lose it.”
In November, a few days before we meet, Clark was in a situation that realigned her filters. She received the Smithsonian Institute’s American Ingenuity Award (“recognising shining achievements and innovators”) for performing arts, honoured alongside the team who helped land the Rover on Mars, a woman who helped all of America’s high-achieving, low-income students get access to Ivy League schools that they thought were out of their reach, and various Nobel Prize winners. “I was psyched!” She laughs. “I play guitar, la-de-da. The world is big, and it’s important, I think, to see what you do not just in the context of a small little world, but as part of the zeitgeist and commenting on where we are right now in the course of history. That helped put it in context for me.”
Not to do down the importance of just playing guitar, la-de-da. Clark emerged out of the darkness that informed ‘Strange Mercy’ “stronger than ever”, she says, the salvation coming from a familiar place. “Music is very powerful. We must never underestimate it or take it for granted. I am one of the many who can say, and mean quite literally, ‘music saved my life’.”
Drummer, ‘Strange Mercy’ tour; performed and wrote on Jeff Buckley’s ‘Grace’
As a person, Annie is real sweet, yet she is ferocious in her spirit. She has the burn to create, to reach out of, into, and beyond herself in the hopes of discovery and synthesis. Watch her! She will be singing something, while also playing some crazy guitar shit that seems as if it would require a second musician to perform. But she just jumps off and gives it a go, not knowing if she can pull it off. She takes real chances. It’s exciting! Especially in our time, when douchebags get up at big gigs and fake their little fake asses off. Fuck em. They fucking suck! Annie rocks!
Mini-Moog, ‘Strange Mercy’, ‘St. Vincent’; Grammy-winning keyboardist and producer
I met Annie through Producer John Congleton, I had known John since the mid-‘90s. John and I have mutual friends and also worked at the Dallas Sound Lab studio. One day he called me for the ‘Strange Mercy’ sessions and the rest is history… Annie is amazing, I’ve never seen an artist like her. She is the most creative person I’ve ever worked with. As a composer/arranger, the music is so abstract and her lyrics match perfectly and most of all I love her stories. She allows me to create and do my thing while trying all kind of crazy ideas and figuring things out.
Drummer, ‘Actor’, ‘Strange Mercy’, ‘St. Vincent’; drummer, Midlake
She is one of my favorite guitarists ever. She plays like no one else and doesn’t seem to give a shit about what anyone else is doing… she just does her own thing. As an arranger, she loves to take a seemingly ordinary thing and completely take it apart and reassemble it in some totally abstract way. And sometimes she takes a seemingly ordinary thing, and just slightly makes it its own odd and beautiful thing. In the past, there have been certain parameters that Annie wanted to work within, but on this new album, I guess you could say we just let it all out and had a party.
Co-director, ‘Laughing With A Mouth Of Blood’ video; Portlandia co-creator
She’s a captivating performer. I’ve always been a fan of hers. She plays to the sketches perfectly. So funny in the right way. I’ve been friends with her for a while, and we are both fans of the same type of comedy.
Keyboards, ‘Strange Mercy’, ‘St. Vincent’
I’m always blown away by Annie’s orchestral approach to songwriting, whether she’s using orchestral instruments or not. The way she layers vocal, synth, and guitar melodies is extraordinary and very original. In my mind, she’s uncompromising about reaching for new ground and raising the stakes, but with the overriding goal of making a visceral, personal, emotional connection with words and melodies. I find that to be a rare gift.