The alien preserves her mystery

By Paul Rigg

Annie Clark, Aka St Vincent, is making a splash again for her music rather than her private life; something she evidently prefers.  

Clark is currently on a tour of the United States to promote her new album, Masseduction, to be released on October 13, and its first single New York.

And, apparently already bored of the questions she might be asked in relation to it, she has also released a series of short videos that provide tongue-in-cheek responses.  

That 'interview kit' is unlikely to satisfy her army of fans, however, who have grown exponentially as a result of her, for example, fronting Nirvana, opening for Robert Plant and collaborating on an album and tour with ex-Talking Head David Byrne.

But despite the publicity, mystery remains an integral part of her charm. As Byrne says: "
Despite having toured with her for almost a year I don't think I know her much better, at least not on a personal level ... mystery is not a bad thing for a beautiful, talented young woman (or man) to embrace. And she does it without seeming to be standoffish or distant."

American Annie Clark, born September 28, 1982, is a distinctive character in many ways.

Clark, who has eight siblings, began playing the guitar at 12. Three years later she gave her first live performance in a Dallas club where she played The Wind Cries Mary. Influenced by Adrian Belew and Robert Fripp, her skill with the six-string grew rapidly, though 'not in a wanky way', as the New Yorker magazine succinctly put it.

While still an adolescent Clark took the opportunity to roadie and then manage the tours of her relatives, the jazz players Tuck & Patti, across the US and Asia. The experience affected her deeply and helped confirm her desire to become a musician.  

In order to pursue her dream, Clark matriculated at Boston's Berklee College of Music, but increasingly felt constrained by the structures being imposed on her and dropped out before completing the course.  

She was reportedly "itchy to write and record her own music rather than train to be a crack session hire, which is how she saw the program there."

Clark then drifted from New York to Texas, where she played, sang and toured with a choral rock band known as the Polyphonic Spree, before being spotted by the folk musician Sufjan Stevens. “She was up there with a guitar, standing on a piece of plywood for a kick drum, two microphones, one of them distorted, and two amps,” Stevens said. “Obviously, she had talent.”

Clark began to work with Stevens and, like other musicians in his band, would sometimes be given a solo spot, when she would perform songs from her first album Marry Me. Despite being quite capable of shredding, she stood out from the other guitarists out by giving free rein to her ingenuity and playing haunting sounds on her effect pedals. "She made such weird sounds," says Stevens. "It was like the Loch Ness monster giving birth inside a silo.”

Clark's alien persona was starting to find its feet.  

Her next album was the critically acclaimed Actor (2009), reputedly largely inspired by watching Walt Disney films.  

This was followed by Strange Mercy (2011), which bizarrely was primarily motivated by her father being sentenced to 12 years behind bars for cheating investors. The album marked a step up in terms of sales and spawned two extremely strange videos for the wonderful tracks Cruel and Cheerleader.

2012 saw the release of Clark’s and David Byrne's Love this Giant, following several years of collaboration after they bonded over the use of brass and wind instruments.  The duo then toured widely to promote the album in the US, Canada, Australia and Europe.

Byrne's influence on Clark's music and life is still apparent. It is difficult not to recall Byrne's hilarious question and answer spoof interview to promote Stop Making Sense – considered to be the greatest live concert film ever made - when watching Clark's recent spoof interview video clips.  

Clark has entitled her current tour Fear the Future, which is resonant of Talking Head’s album title Fear of Music.

And Clark says that each time she travels to a new city she takes Byrne's advice to "try to see something real and strange” in each place. In one example, she instructs an interviewer to meet her in a museum that is full of antique medical equipment, such as old enema syringes. What she herself describes as her 'alien sensibility' is clearly not only present in her music.

In February 2014 Clark released her fifth album St Vincent, with a title that might normally be chosen for a first. The record was described as a "taut, meticulous triumph, blessed  with a wealth of fantastic songs, ideas and sounds” by The Guardian's Alexis Petridis; while his newspaper named it album of the year.

Among other positives, Petridis focuses on Clark's impressively dextrous guitar skills on Birth in Reverse, as well as her trade-mark disarming
lyrics: "Another ordinary day, take out the garbage, masturbate."

"I like when things come out of nowhere and blindside you a little bit,"
she has said of her lyrics and music. "I think any person who gets panic attacks or has an anxiety disorder can understand how things can all of a sudden turn very quickly. I think I'm sublimating that into the music."

A few month's after the album's release the remaining members of Nirvana asked her to be a guest guitarist and lead vocalist on the track Lithium for their Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Clark, a fan of Nirvana since the age of nine, jumped at the chance. 

Perhaps Nirvana's public attacks against sexism and vocal support for feminism since the 90s influenced Clark. Growing up in Texas, she felt constrained, particularly by the stereotypical sex roles of those around her. She now describes herself as gender fluid. “The mutability of gender and sexuality, as you can probably imagine – that was not a prevalent subject in the suburbs of Dallas when I was growing up. Not even a little bit! I love Texas, I’m there all the time seeing family. But I was always gonna get out of there. It felt imperative that I get out of there.”

At the Brit awards in early 2015, Clark appeared arm-in-arm with the British actress and supermodel Cara Delevingne, which attracted the attention of the tabloid press and led to her being increasingly hounded. While the relationship ended soon after, it is inevitably still discussed in relation to the single New York and her new album, as fans seek to interpret and find meaning in her lyrics.
Delevingne also contributes vocals to the song 'Pills'.

"I’ve always kept my writing close to the vest,"
Clark says. "And by that I mean I’m always gonna write about my life. Sometimes, in the past, I did that way more obliquely than now. But it’s almost like an involuntary reflex. I can’t help but be living and also taking notes on what’s going on, always trying to figure out how to put that into a song. And that does not mean there’s literal truth in every lyric on the way. Of course not. But I can only write about my life, and that – dating Cara – was a big part of my life. I wouldn’t take it off-limits, just because my songs might get extra scrutiny. People would read into them what they would, and you know what? Whatever they thought they found there would be absolutely right. And at the same time it would be absolutely wrong.”

For her latest album, Clark seems to have employed an Ernie Ball Music Man signature guitar and has chosen to work with Jack Antonoff, who has previously produced albums for Lorde and Taylor Swift. These links have led some critics to believe that Clark's latest album will be more commercial and pop-oriented.

However Clark herself has suggested that it is her darkest album to date. “It’s all about sex and drugs and sadness,” she says. The record reportedly closes with a song about suicide. “Like any red-blooded American, I’ve considered suicide,” she
 told the radio show host Marc Maron.  

However it would be churlish to close an article on Annie Clark without mentioning her wry and self-deprecating sense of humour. While she often favours glamorous outfits and high heels on stage, for example, she has also appeared dressed as a purple foam toilet. She seems as comfortable glamming it up as she does throwing herself around in mud in the front of a stage, as she did at Glastonbury in 2014.  The fact that it was still daytime did not stop Clark doing a Hendrix-like turn with her guitar - and the look of child-like glee on her face as she is held face up, towards the sky, by a roadie while she plays is a picture of delirious joy.

Clearly the 'alien', whose music frequently oscillates between the sonically beautiful and the outrageously aggressive, is not going to be brought down to earth any time soon.