Despite the fact that St. Vincent‘s most recent album, Strange Mercy, is her third full-length, it wasn’t until settling in to make it that she’d ever sat down with a guitar to write music. Surprising not only because it’s the most conventional way to write, but also because St. Vincent, otherwise known as Annie Clark, from Dallas, TX, is known for aggressive, squawking manipulation of the very instrument that eluded her writing process for years.
So for Strange Mercy, a tightly controlled and confident benchmark for the singer (and one of 2011′s best), Clark trekked to Seattle to hide herself —and a guitar—away. The tactile writing approach also seemed to uncover some of Clark’s long-guarded self; previously she chose to write and sing through characters, and though clarity is still hard-sought on Strange Mercy, it’s warmer, closer, more Annie Clark than before.
Just before the holidays, we sat down with Clark on her tour stop in Toronto to talk about how Strange Mercy marks a maturation in her writing and self, working with David Byrne, and making a punk album.
AUX: Your album’s been out for just a few months now, though it actually feels longer than that. Is it sitting with you that way too?
St. Vincent: Yeah, in the way that being on tour is a compressed form of time. We’ve been out on the road for about two and a half months now. I finished the album in April, so I was sitting with it for many months before its release. It’s been a long time coming.
I remember reading somewhere that you feel about this album sort of like a parent might feel about a child, like by the time it gets to the third you’re more sort of laid back about it. But I don’t get the sense that that was the case in the making of it too.
Definitely in the writing and the making of it I wanted to give it a little space to breathe. Let it be itself. And I didn’t know how it would be received. You never know. I’m pleased that people seem to be enjoying it, and it seems to be doing better than the last one.
To write it you sort of retreated to Seattle for a little while and went off the grid a bit. Were there any surprises in doing that?
One of the things that surprised me was that, I’ve kind of always, not just recorded, but written on a computer in some form or another. Be it actually writing in the box in the computer, or writing songs, or really just layering songs and putting them together. For this, I sat down with a guitar in a room and just played and sang. I know that’s probably the normal way people, you know, that’s the way to write a song technically, but I’d never really done that. I found that that was kind of weird.
Why is it you’d never done it that most basic way before?
I mean I did it like as, like, a 13 year old. But not anytime recently. I think that I don’t have very good perspective on how something actually sounds while I’m actually making it. So I have to record it to be able to hear it back and have any kind of perspective. But that can kind of slow down the process in a way. You can get off on one thread of something or be too critical and then you’ve aborted the idea before it even comes out.
Was there any lasting effect from that on you?
I think I’ll do more of that kind of writing. And more vibe-writing. Feeling it.
I feel like you’re the least shrouded, so to speak, on this album. Like it’s the most personal. Did you write with that intention this time?
It feels okay. It doesn’t feel scary anymore. I tend to write with characters in mind, but that doesn’t mean that whatever they’re going through or is happening isn’t deeply analogous to something I’m going through or whatever. I think this record is more personal and is closer to my heart. Not that the other ones aren’t. With Actor, because it was so cerebral in its making, like I didn’t touch an instrument to write it, I was just meticulously arranging things on a computer screen, and all of it was kind of cold. The process was cold. So I thought, oh, I’ll just explore that, I’ll push that, and the whole thing can be a study in remove. With this one I wanted to get back to a little more warmth.
So are you afraid of revealing too much?
It’s probably just a question of personal growth. I wrote most of the songs on Marry Me between the ages of 16 and 20. That’s like a snarky kid’s idea of what the world is.
Yeah, those are the ages when you’re trying to find out who you are by aggressively proving your personality to the world.
Yeah, you’re still trying things on when you’re young.
Musically, I feel like the album is a product of your live show, and like a plan for it too in a way.
Yeah, it is. I wanted to make sure that I could bring a rock show. At least my idea or version of a rock show. And I wanted to play guitar. That’s my main instrument. I didn’t do that as much on Actor. I didn’t write it on guitar or have tons of guitar parts. So I just made sure there were riffs in this one (laughs). Something to be going on on guitar at all times.
Was there any music that specifically inspired the sound of it?
I’d say a couple of things. I was listening to a lot of Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation, but I was also listening to a lot of Scott Walker, Scott 4. I was trying to get somewhere in between those two things. I have to give a lot of credit to John Congleton, who’s a great friend of mine, and producer.
Something I learned recently which I didn’t actually know before is that when you started making Actor, John sort of came in after you’d already started and sort of rescued it. I guess you had that in mind going into this one?
Yeah. I knew I needed to start this record with John. I started Actor with just the wrong person for the job. I called John and was like, I don’t know what I have here. I have a lot of woodwinds, and they’re really pretty. But I don’t have any pop songs. It was actually kind of a mad dash, to be honest. He, as he likes to say, buttered and squirted me into any available time he had (laughs). And we would, over the course of maybe to or three months, whenever his schedule allowed, would get into the studio and Frankenstein these parts together.
Is collaboration in general something that’s important to you?
Yes, only in so much as if you have inspiring collaborators. John is a specific example of somebody who I just really get on well with, personally, but then we also really trust and respect each other musically. It works well. It’s never a weird battle with egos or anything. We’re both just trying to get to the best a little song possibly could be.
And you recently collaborated with David Byrne. How was that?
Wonderful. Really wonderful.
Tell me a bit about it. How’d it happen?
We had both seen this Bjork and Dirty Projectors show that they’d done at Housing Works, which is an AIDS charity in New York, and the Housing Works people approached us and asked if we wanted to do something like that show, write a couple pieces of original music and put on this benefit show. But we kept trading ideas back and forth and it grew and grew and then we decided it was too big to just play one show, so let’s make a record and do more.
I kind of heard some David Byrne or Talking Heads in this album, before I knew you guys were working together. So I guess you were a fan before working with him anyway?
Oh my god, yeah. He’s amazing. I think the thing that he does so well and the Talking Heads stuff did so well is that it’s pop music. It’s catchy, it invites you in. But it’s also very strange. It manages to mix the best of some kind of convention with this oddball, through-the-looking-glass approach. So without sounding pretentious, that’s kind of what I try to do. I want to write pop songs, songs that can be digestible and listened to, but try to kind of turn them on their ear a little bit.
Do you ever just want to make like a straightforward, say, punk record? You killed that Big Black cover.
Yeah. I’m going to fucking rage on the next record.