St. Vincent talks Tom Waits, technology and Strange Mercy
Annie Clark aka St. Vincent is sat opposite me searching for a quote but it seems she can’t find the New Yorker article she's looking for. "It was quite recent but maybe it was in The Atlantic or another journal..." she says defeatedly, then lets out a barely audible sigh. She begins paraphrasing “the creatures...” but she quickly trails off... There's a pause for precision. Then she continues, correcting herself “...the species of life that will see our sun die out will be as distantly related to us as amoeba. I mean, we like to think of ourselves as the centre of the universe...hang on, what was your question?”
Getting lost in grand ideas whilst riffing off quotes is probably as close as it gets understanding how Annie Clark's elegant songs germinate and evolve. Talk of what will be left when the apocalypse arrives stemmed from a response to a question about whether she uses a form of organized idea association or a more meditative Burroughsian stream-of-conciousness approach when penning her lyrics. Before she pulled her iPad out to look for that elusive quote, Clark mentioned that she "was reading Marilyn Monroe’s diary, and Marilyn wrote about working with Lee Strasbourg at the Actors’ Studio. She wrote 'best find a surgeon; Lee Strasbourg, please cut me open.' That’s such a sentiment that resonates with me, and Marilyn was such a bright and intuitive person – she gets penned as this ditzy blonde or something, but she’s quite the opposite." This line rears its head in the song 'Surgeon' (embedded below). The paraphrased Marilyn-ism becomes a sweetly sung request to "come cut me open", and it makes for one hell of a chorus. What's devastating about it, isn't the genesis of it in the mind of Ms. Monroe but the way in which Annie re-interprets it, contrasting the visceral imagery by singing it with a soaring sweetness. And by doing so, and having the opportunity to mention this detail, she reveals a clue about the song's intention and a little about herself, and perhaps offers us a small clue as to what's in Strange Mercy's secret sauce.
As I probe, it's clear there’s no recipe anyone could follow to create Strange Mercy. There are no obvious and definable bridges between her muses and what she creates, records, releases, and then tours. It’s not that Annie Clark doesn’t completely understand creativity, quite the opposite in fact, because she on a quest to find the source of the many things in life she's fascinated by. As she talks, it's clear that she’s the sum of her extensive reading (which is hardly surprising as her nom-de-plume is a reference to Saint Vincent's Catholic Medical Center where the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas died), black'n'white movies and Disney cartoons, as well as high art and low-slung guitars. These inspirations hang in the air and, as we talk, they're as interspersed in the conversation as much as they are in her songs. Some references, like the Marilyn paraphrase, are consciously there, whilst others slid in under her radar.
Meanwhile, as I quiz away, it's quickly evident that some of these references/influences aren't there at all. For instance, this happened:
Me: There are quite a few more riffs on this album....
Annie Clark: ...that was my goal: more riffs.
Me: It even gets a bit math-rock at one point. I was wondering if you were ever into any of the stuff on Dischord...
Annie: ...I never really got into the DC Club thing…
Me: There’s one part of Strange Mercy that breaks down and sounds not unlike Q and Not U; were you a fan of them or any of the DC bands when you were younger?
Annie: I don’t really know that band so much. The most exposure I’ve had to the DC Club thing was that my best friend growing up had a little brother who was a skateboarder and was really cool. He’s the one that first played us the Nevermind tape in his room, and he was like ‘if you like this shit, check out Bad Brains.’ So I guess Bad Brains is the closest I got to the DC Club kinda stuff.
[It's at this point I start to wonder whether the lyric "If you say it is, then I guess it is / What you say it is, but I don't feel anything" and "I'll make a living telling people what they want to hear" are directed at the many fan-boy idiots in the media who turn up and spout their theories about her music.]
And then, in spite of her reaction to this ponderance, which was once safely scrawled in my notepad, I go and say something foolish like “was the track ‘Champagne Year’ a slight homage to Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’, or was that me just mishearing the reference in that song?” to which, she everso politely smiles “That’s nice! That song was meant to be a meditation; it was one of the few songs I’ve done where there’s just so much space,” and oh the space in that song. It floats until it's hill-top high and as the rising sun in your mind's eye creates a light blue hue and any hint of darkness is wiped away... There are these tiny uplifting shooting-star sounds: a gentle hint of a theremin, the heart-beat of a drum machine and then a voice, the lady sat opposite me's voice, which seems to come from ye olde gods. Then the subtlest guitars on the album chime in, as if church walls are growing from the ground but the temple is actually a spaceship, and she’s about to take you on an adventure to a land that Eno forgot. Then the song, as softly as it swooshed in, fades out, leaving nothing but a lull in the air.
Speaking of Brian Eno... I read that this record was written with playing it live in mind, because the last one (Actor) wasn't really written with that as a consideration, so I ask Miss Clark if Eno's theories involving limitations to inspire creativity by placing restrictions on yourself played any part in the process of writing Strange Mercy? “When I was writing songs, I would definitely look up his oblique strategies and go ‘okay, draw the negative space’...”
Eno wasn’t the only legend drifting in the ether when she was in the studio. “John [Congleton, producer] and I were talking about Tom Waits and speculated that one of his recording techniques may be to get in there with the band and have everybody play along to the song to then take out the most important element, like the guitar, and then see what you got.”
I then ask: Did you find that writing in that way the process felt any different? And Annie takes one of her long six or seven second pauses whilst she composes her thoughts: “One of the potential pitfalls of starting from a very cerebral place is that you can basically have no proof of concept until it’s too late. What I was doing with most of the songs on this record was stripping each of them down to their simplest component or form to the chords and the melody – not embellishing anything – just block, straightforward chords. I asked myself if they had an emotional core, if they moved me in some way, or whether I feel harder conviction behind those sorts of structures. It’s easier to construct something that has been deconstructed; I started with disparate parts and tried to put them all together.” And later in on our conversation, she somehow repeats this sentiment, as if it’s two melodies returning for a crescendo by mentioning that “Tom Waits spoke about how he spent so many years learning how to construct things perfectly so that he could deconstruct them.” It’s accidental details like these which seem to come so natural to Annie Clark, and it's little wonder if she speaks in patterns like this, that her music turns out the way it does.
Song-writing may seemingly be second nature to Annie Clark but an overnight success story, this is not. These days, the fickle media and the short-termist big business of music puts a lot of weight on the big breakthrough debut albums, whereas of course people like Tom Waits (him again!) didn’t ever have or need that big breakthrough moment. Strange Mercy is the third St. Vincent album and has been critically well received, and she has nearly 400k Twitter followers but she isn't quite the legendary artist she seems destined to be. "I know what you’re saying, like, do you try to make that big first splash and hope that you can sustain that effect you have on people? But I think my music especially is a grower; it takes time for people to get into one of my albums. I know that for me when I was growing up and having my mum to drive me in the minivan to CD World where all of the coolest burnouts worked, and I was getting into records from Nick Cave, Zappa, PJ Harvey – stuff that I’d seen or heard on 120 Minutes or whatever – if I instantly liked a record, I knew I wouldn’t like a record for long, whereas if I didn’t like a record when I first heard it I would probably end up loving it. There’s something about a record that you don’t like when you first listen to it that makes you go ‘What is this? I can’t work this out? I don’t like it!’ But there’s something compelling about that and it draws you back in."
As someone whose been drawn back in to Actor's rich shimmering darkness a thousand times and spent much of 2011 with Strange Mercy whooshing in my ears, I know exactly what she means. The guitar sound of Strange Mercy for instance is astounding, often acting more like a brass part but sounding not unlike a dentist’s drill. Annie explains: "I wanted to keep the guitar sounds consistent; it’s mostly one pedal, and one guitar on the whole record. There are varying degrees of distortion; I guess there are kind of reverbed-out, more ambient parts in some places but stylistically I thought I could make one signature guitar sound out of the whole thing. I thought I could make the whole thing a lot more cohesive. I want to be way more of a front person and a performer now, because in the past I’ve been focused on being the ambient lead guitar player, and at one point I had the most ridiculous pedal board with no guitar tech. I was like I just want to fucking plug it in, two distortions, go!"
The way Annie explains her sound and the St Vincent writing process reminds me a little of Desperado, Sin City, etc director Robert Rodriguez. There’s something about the way they both work which is indebted to the traditions of another time. It's that mystical 'something' that’s contrarily highly human and home-spun but so much bigger and otherworldly than the process suggests. And the process is as important as the end result. Rodriguez, for instance, made his first feature film - the first of the El Mariachi trilogy - for $7000, from funds won in short film contest. He made taught himself to edit film from the age of twelve using two video recorders to cut scenes he’d shot on a video camera, not unlike a simpler time in Hollywood or the way that hip-hop DJs originally use samples. He had a really cut-and-paste approach toward making things despite the fact there was all this other technology that existed in the world, but he was approaching and practising his art in an almost regressive way, having read about how the greats began making films. Perhaps it’s the gazing-ahead belligerence and the need to create, which is why Annie has my mind wandering off in this direction. For previous album Actor, she sat in her Brooklyn apartment, headphones on, creating soundtracks for her favourite moments in films and making drumbeats using software, so as not to disturb the neighbors. However, this time around she “wasn’t looking at or touching the computer; I wanted to see what my hands and voice could do, which was the exact opposite approach to the Actor album. I felt like I hadn’t sat down and written a song on the guitar for years, and that’s what I did for this album.” But, it’s as she continues I’m reminded of Rodriguez, the outsider who rattled Hollywood: “I was really lucky, because I had a stepdad who was really into technology; he built me an early recording studio when I was fourteen or fifteen, so writing, layering, working alone in that cut and paste process was how I learnt to write,” and this understanding of how it used to be, even in digital terms, is important to the process and also adds its grain of magic to the result.
With all the years of experience behind her, it’s at this point that our conversation turns to the idea of mastery. In his bestseller Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell shares his 10,000 hour theory. “How many hours are in a year?” she asks, picking up a pad, “Let’s do some math.” She begins scribbling. “Let’s say I average on about an hour a day, although some days it’ll be a lot more…" and she mumbles her age ("twenty-hurfsunking...") and before very long she shouts "SHIT! I may only be on about six thousand hours.” If Gladwell's theory holds, this can only mean the best of St. Vincent is yet to come, which is both a bewildering and exciting prospect...
I don't want to ask her age so talk quickly diverts toward the tyranny of technology, and the ways it steals many hours when we could be mastering our chosen vocations, and how this record (much like Miranda July's recent movie The Future) was written without any digital distractions. "I was kind of sequestering myself for the most part from the internet and telecommunication in general," she confesses. She also went a few steps further and uprooted from New York to Seattle: "I lived in a hotel and did almost like a musical cleanse; I’d get up in the morning, go for a run, drink a lot of coffee and go in the studio for like twelve hours. I’d go eat dinner alone, with a book and a glass of wine, and then go to bed!" She continues "2009 was the year of the tiger, so it is a very turbulent and chaotic year theoretically, and was so in my life. So I was out of it, dealing with personal life from February to October. I started writing again in October went up to Seattle then; Jason McGerr, the drummer from Death Cab For Cutie, is a really lovely guy and offered to let me use his studio, so I went there for a month on a whim to get out of New York."
Annie also advises against listening to Strange Mercy at a computer, as many of us do: "It would be nice to not be looking at a computer screen, wherever you are. I have listened to this record walking around my neighbourhood – it puts a little pep in your step." She backtracks a little "I will admit that I’ve listened to this record, but I haven’t listened to Marry Me or Actor. I’ve done a couple photoshoots recently for magazines and stuff like that, and they put on my record at the shoot and I was like ‘NO!’ What vanity triptych would that even be?! Please don’t do this!"
What has she been listening to lately? "I wasn’t really listening to anything when I was writing. I can honestly say that the only record I would go back to and listening to when I was running in the morning was Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation." What have you been reading, it seems that things in the news about the banking crisis have agitated you a little? "I think greed is one of the worst of human tendencies. I think self-interest and co-operation and group thinking are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The year of the tiger has passed – it ended in February 2011. Next year will be better, because it’s the champagne year!" And on that note of exclamation, the dictaphone dies. We say our goodbyes and I walk out the door still wondering whether the reason Marilyn's remark resonated quite so profoundly with Ms. Clarke is because of the ways in which people perceive St Vincent, who is - if you haven't noticed due to how effortless she makes it seem - revered in many circles as one of the greatest guitarists around today. Mostly, I'm just not sure what cutting her open has to do with the creatures that will watch this world end but I'm sure as hell fascinated by it.
Strange Mercy is out now on 4AD.
From the DiS Archive...
- 'Lusitania' duet between St. Vincent & Andrew Bird
- Annie Clark writes about Tom Waits' Rain Dogs
- DiS meets St. Vincent (July '09)
- 8/10 Review: Marry Me
- 8/10 Review: Actor
- 9/10 Review: Strange Mercy