By MARK GUARINO Blurt Magazine
Annie Clark made the right decision to get born in 1982.
Now 26, she skipped the travails of corporate radio and the one-dimensional MTV star machine, landing in the era of digital populism that is newly opportune for the type of music she makes: shape-shifting, melodic pop for sensibly dressed smart people with or without advanced educational degrees.
Not so long ago, Clark was still a largely unknown but ambitious multi-instrumentalist and songwriter who stacked her resume with day jobs playing with both indie rock footnotes (the Polyphonic Spree) and respected savants (Sufjan Stevens). For six years she spent her odd hours poring over the songs that would become Marry Me (Beggars/4AD), her 2007 debut that would eventually sell about 30,000 copies, positioning her officially as an emerging artist the Starbucks demographic might pick up while waiting for the foam to form on their venti latte.
The album was released under the stage name St. Vincent, which both has literary weight (it is the name of the hospital where Dylan Thomas died) and a touch of self-knighted benevolence. Clark, who was born in Tulsa, Okla. but who now resides in Brooklyn, says, looking back, the years she spent making Marry Me were luxurious.
“No one was expecting it would come out,” she ways. “No one cared. I could have worked on it another ten years. I would have been bankrupt but no one would have been the wiser.”
After Marry Me was released, people cared. Clark received favorable reviews in the most favored media outlets and connected with an audience prepped to embrace idiosyncratic voices set against orchestral sophistication. She also assembled a savvy team that was directed to grow the base, earning her opening slots with headliners like the Arcade Fire, Xiu Xiu, Death Cab for Cutie and Jolie Holland.
Her schedule was not so packed that, less than a year after the album was released, she didn’t have time to head back into the studio to rekindle the magic a second time. It was a scenario that was double-edged: While Marry Me took a labored six years to make, starting when Clark was 17 and ending when she was 22, the new Actor was written, arranged and wrapped up in nine months last year – a brevity she hadn’t yet experienced but discovered was ultimately healthy for its inspiration.
“I think a lot of it oftentimes there’s a romantic answer [of how you make an album] and then sometimes there’s the nuts and bolts answer,” explains Clark. “With this one, I had this infrastructure in place. But you just have to be careful. You want to take enough time on a record so you feel you have fulfilled the vision, but not so much time on the record where you get to the point of diminishing returns and you end up painting the canvas black.”
In other words, she did not want Actor to turn into the indie rock equivalent of Chinese Democracy.
To be certain that would never happen, the Guns N’ Roses album was played in the studio for reference. For you Axl fans, cover your eyes: Clark thinks it stinks. Really, really stinks. “It definitely sounds overworked. It sounds like a digital mess. Sonically, it sounds insane. It sounds like an insane person. It’s unbelievably bad, I can’t believe it,” she says.
Actor is a surprising album for just how intimate it feels – despite Clark’s knack for pretty melodies set against fussy backdrops of woodwinds and other orchestration, the songs still manage to sound like they are coming from a small, private space. As a guitarist, Clark prefers dissonance, layers and striking power chords, and as a vocalist, she has sweeping range that remains controlled and austere. Her touchstone, she says, were Disney film soundtracks and they certainly captures that type of whimsy. But on songs with titles like “Laughing With a Mouth of Blood,” it is obvious trouble is lurking on Space Mountain.
“I just kept going, ‘I want this to be human, not just a fairy tale or a romanticized version of what it’s like to be human’ … the Marry Me record was written from the point of view of someone who didn’t have tons of life experience.” Clark adds that her new music flirts closer to darker edges, because is “a little older, wiser.”
Actor producer John Congleton (We Ragazzi, The 90 Day Men), who also worked on Marry Me, says Clark “was definitely searching for a new sound and wanting to explore a lot of things. I was more than willing to go along with that too.”
The pair met in 2007 when Congleton produced The Fragile Army, the Polyphonic Spree album Clark was hired for as a guitarist. “You could tell automatically from the way she postured herself while playing the guitar and before she hit a single note that she had a lot of confidence as a player and she could really bring it,” he says. “I could tell clearly her parts were going to add a lot and she had a really musical ear.”
Her musicianship and exceptional vocal skills were formed early. Clark’s parents, a social worker and an accountant, encouraged her musical interests, but she learned first-hand from Tuck Andress and Patti Cathcart, her uncle and aunt who are also known as Tuck & Patti, the successful jazz-pop duo that has been recording and touring the world since the 1980s.
Andress contributed to her musical education by giving her a box of jazz CDs when she was 13, a stash that included A Love Supreme, the John Coltrane classic. Clark’s aunt and uncle later hired her as a roadie during high school summer breaks. The education showed her both the rush and rigor of life as a successful musician. “They’d stay in fancy hotels so I’d think ‘this is cool, this is what touring’s all about’ – but part it wasn’t glamorous at all, like falling asleep at airports or not sleeping for days because you were working like a dog.”
Despite a stint at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, Clark says she has become less didactic about creating music and more reliant on going in whatever direction her instincts point.
“I actually find I’m way more willing to embrace the innocent whimsy of things that sound like magic I’m way more into that,” she says. “I’m not cynical about music at all. I think it’s wonderful. I think it’s the best thing.”