In 2007, i signed to beggars banquet records. i was living in dallas, texas in my childhood bedroom at the time, which i had fashioned into a makeshift studio in order to record some of what would end up being my debut album “marry me.”
the first days of touring my own songs and as “st. vincent” are very vivid. in early 2007, in anticipation of the release of my record, my (much beloved) agent put me on the road as solo support for jolie holland and midlake. he saw potential in me, but rightfully, thought i needed to get my live act together. get comfortable playing for people. get road-tested. like most of the rest of my career, it was a trial by earth, wind, and fire.
i was performing solo; just my voice, a guitar through an array of effects pedals, a “stomp board” — a homemade device i made out of a piece of plywood and a contact microphone that i ran through a bass EQ pedal, and a keyboard. i thought the keyboard looked unmysterious on it’s own, so i designed a lighted wooden enclosure to go around it. my brother-in-law helped me build it in his garage. it weighed a gazillion pounds and gave me splinters to carry, and i don’t think anyone was under any illusion that there was anything but a keyboard inside it. neither the first nor the last in a series of hilariously ill-fated ideas.
January 2007, i borrowed my father’s station wagon and drove 12 hours from dallas to frozen lincoln, nebraska to open for jolie holland (what a voice) at a half-full 150 capacity carpeted club. i believe the compensation was $250/gig but it could have been as much as $500 — more $ than i’d ever seen for a gig for sure and guaranteed, no less! in my memory, this midwestern jolie tour dovetailed right into opening the midlake tour. they were out in support of their excellent record, “the trials of van occupanther” and were the sweetest good texas boys you could ever hope to meet. the drummer of midlake, mackenzie smith, would later prove to be a great collaborator, playing on actor, strange mercy, and st. vincent.
On this tour, i’d enlisted my dear friend, jamil, to come and sell merch and help do the long drives. we’d just played a show in detroit and while we’d been inside, a blizzard had swept through and covered the stationwagon in snow and ice. it was treacherous. jamil, who always had some incredible hustle going, hired a homeless man named larry to dig the stationwagon out of the snow. (in college, he had a gold lexus, stripped it of the good parts, and resold it. when i asked if he was sad to see it go, he said, “girl, they think they bought a lexus but they bought a corolla.”) i’ll never forget driving out of bombed out-detroit, apocalyptic at 1 AM. interstate 94 tense and quiet, jamil trying to make sure we didn’t crash or stall on the icy road.
I have eaten years of veggie subway sandwiches on highways 10-90, stayed at a super 8 motel behind a kansas federal prison, peed in cups in dressing rooms when there was no bathroom, gotten eaten alive by bedbugs at a cincinnati days inn. i would not trade a single highway or city or moment or person i met for anything. i have loved it all.
I’m very grateful to have received this grammy. thank you to my producer john congleton, thank you family, thank you friends, thank you to all the incredible musicians involved, thank you managers and agents and publishers and labels and publicists and everyone who works hard at their jobs. and thank you guys. thanks for everything.
It’s thunderstorming in Barcelona, so Annie Clark – who performs as St. Vincent and who “really, really, really” wants to go to the beach – is forced to make other plans. “You visit a lot of museums and aquariums when you’re on tour,” she says, crossing the rain-slicked plaza of the Museu Blau, a natural-history museum overlooking a stretch of the Mediterranean that’s currently the same desolate gray shade as the sky. “I watch a lot of Sex and the City on tour, too,” she adds. “Not that I watch it watch it, but it’s on TBS, so it’s always fucking on.” Clark is all black from the neck down – suede ankle boots, skinny jeans, scoop-neck tee, biker jacket – and polychromatic up top, with huge green eyes and stralavender-blond curls escaping from a cobalt-colored hat, its brim ample enough to keep her cheeks dry. The Blau resembles a vast slab of soil that someone dyed blue, stabbed with shards of broken terrarium and set upon a pedestal. Clark suggested that we come here, but she is unfamiliar with the place. “What kind of museum is this?” she asks. “Oh. OK.” She says she never really went through a science-buff period: “I had a brief shark obsession, but didn’t everybody?”
What about her music, dude?
Inside the permanent exhibit, contemplating some trilobite fossils, Clark says, “It’s crazy to think about the tiny fraction of time that we’ve been on the planet.” She revises that statement: “That we’ve been a pox on it.” We head into a gallery marked Evolución, where a primate skeleton stands beside that of an early man. “I went to the Creation Museum, in Kentucky,” Clark says. She identifies as a “reformed” Catholic and intended the visit as a lark: “I thought it would be a fun adventure, but it kind of darked me out. They tell you the dinosaurs died in the flood.”
One of Clark’s preoccupations on St. Vincent is the persuasive power of cult leaders and how such figures parallel pop performers. “It’s kind of the flip side of the same coin,” she says. Pushing her sound in a more danceable direction, she says, represented an attempt to “democratize” her concerts: If people didn’t move, performances would be incomplete. For the tour, she hired the choreographer Annie-B Parson, who developed a set of mechanistic movements for Clark and her band to perform on cue, in a winking acknowledgment of the artifice that goes into seemingly spontaneous performances. (It’s also, of course, a nice bit of stagecraft.)
What about her music, dude?
Clark moves on to regard a deep-sea spider crab, preserved in a jar. “The thing that really depressed me about the Creation Museum is that the tickets aren’t cheap,” she says. “They’re, like, $25, and yet there were buses pulling up from all over, full of these people who didn’t look like they had $25 just lying around. It seemed predatory to me.” She frowns. “Why would you want to control people like that? Would you even want to? I’ve thought about it a lot, and I wouldn’t. To have people live in this weird little art world you’ve created? Fine. But to make them believe some bullshit and build their lives around it? Unh-unh.”
Religion hangs over St. Vincent’s lyrics, where she pits salvation against desire and divine fervor against earthly love. Its role in her life is similarly spectral. Clark’s grandmother baptized her in a kitchen sink “with a cigarette in one hand and a martini in another,” Clark says, adding that her parents weren’t remotely devout, but “they decided that it meant a lot to her, and it wouldn’t do any harm.” Clark was born in Oklahoma and grew up in the middle-class Dallas suburb of Lake Highlands. Clark’s dad worked in finance; she thinks his job involved “stock-y things,” but isn’t certain. “My parents separated when I was three, so I didn’t really grow up with him as much – just Christmases and summers,” she says. Money was tight: Clark’s mom was a social worker, “supporting three kids on her salary, for a long time,” she says.
Clark’s creative side manifested early. “I remember submitting a comic about the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to some contest,” she recalls. (She didn’t win.) She describes herself as a shy child who suffered anxiety attacks, stemming from what she characterizes as profound existential dread at the “vastness” and chaos of the world. “When I was six or seven, I started to have really intense anxiety, and I didn’t have the tools to even know what it was.” Such attacks still overcome her, though less often, and she still finds the sensation hard to articulate: “It’s always been this little buddy of mine; it informed my entire worldview. There’s general anxiety, and then there’s panic attacks, where I have really catastrophic thoughts, where I’m not in control.” This is where art came in. “When you’re forced to deal with something big that you don’t understand, you try to find ways to interpret the universe in a way that can make you feel safer or alleviate that crazy. For me, it was music.”
What about her music, Dude?
Uploaded on Sep 21, 2009
Saturday marked the 20th anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s death. During her concert in Chicago last night, St. Vincent’s Annie Clark paid tribute to the Nirvana frontman with a scorching rendition of “Lithium”, another entry in her list of exceptional cover songs. Watch fan footage below.
Clark is currently finishing up the first leg of her North American tour in support of her new album (read our review here). Next, she’ll hit the summer festival circuit playing sets at Pitchfork, Ottawa Bluesfest, and Sled Island. You can also watch her semi-regularly on Portlandia.
St. Vincent at 9:30 Club, March 1 & 2
Oh my! These two shows are among the top five best I’ve seen in my concert-going life! So good I went to see it twice! St. Vincent’ show is marriage of great songs played brilliantly and amazing visuals. You won’t see projections or pyrotechnics, simply Annie Clark in performance with simple lights, choreography and a single prop — a small set of stairs for Annie to climb and later slink down. Her movements were well thought out and didn’t feel superfluous, as a lot of choreography can feel. It was stunning and any moment could have been a fabulous still frame (I know, I took a few pictures, one of which you can see above). In the end it was the songs, the words, the guitar, the sounds and the place that made this ingrained forever as a truly memorable show.
Annie Clark celebrates her new Top Rated album with a sold out hometown gig.
Photos: Wei Shi
A St. Vincent concert is a great leveler—it reduces all of us, even Annie Clark—to mere specks in the universe that the music of St. Vincent has created. Giants like David Byrne appear alongside unemployed Brooklyners and haughty Manhattan socialites, all eager to bask in her enormous glow. The packed VIP section in New York’s shoddiest large crowd venue Terminal 5 can attest to this: We are all moths flitting toward the great white light of Annie Clark.
When the spotlight hit Clark, she belt out opener “Rattlesnake” with a sly grin, her spiny shadow looming nearby in the corner. She arrived in all reds and blacks, an almost cabaret outfit that flirted with the conservative side of sexy with stark lines. The crowd roared and hissed as they recognized her latest single, their vocals filling the cavernous warehouse of the venue with uncanny volume. Miraculously, most everyone honored the robotic plea issued just prior to the music: “Please refrain from digitally capturing your experience.” This made her message on follow-up song “Digital Witness” hang even heavier in the room: “I want all of your mind.”
St. Vincent is the perfect pop star candidate for our new millennial tastes, and the live show for her fourth and latest, self-titled record reveals this with crystalline clarity. More Bowie than Britney, she cherry picks from the drama and glitz of the ’80s with none of its tawdry, channeling the frisson of nostalgia with a cool elegance that’s decidedly of the moment. “I can’t see the future but I know it’s got big plans for me,” goes a line on “Laughing With a Mouth of Blood” a mid-set deep cut from her 2009 breakout Actor. Assured even in prescient incantations, she seems to speak her cultural import into being, predicting and creating her impact. Because she is a pop star maximalist, donning her guitar from a stagehand like a crown, prancing from center stage to some art deco, stark white boxes like a creature. She even adopts the pose of doe-eyed lounge singer for a sensual performance of another new one, the blasphemous defiance of “I Prefer Your Love.”
But she’s a pop star of her own design, existing within her own distinct confines. Clark bucks beauty standards with casual ease, willfully embracing the female dread of “grey hair” and assembles her locks with the ferocity of a lion’s mane. None of it is accidental, surely, but none of it feels put upon either. Clark is never contrived even when she is deliberate—she feels like Clark even when she’s channeling the star power of St. Vincent. Amid a generation desperately seeking to identify with aesthetic signifiers defined by their relationship to others, she seems strangely unconnected from her contemporaries.
It feels reassuring to see that Clark’s style is all her own. Even when her aesthetic nods to others, at the center of St. Vincent’s visual and aural identity we find the girl Clark and goddess St. Vincent casually interpolated across guitar solos, structured stage banter, and sporadic smiles. The staged, pre-composed banter she prepared to address the audience with has the warm feel of a mother reading a book she knows well to her children—there’s no rigidity in her preparation. Instead, the intermittent speeches reflecting on childhood joys and hopes that is seeking to connect Clark with her fans, comes across as a warm, hospitable foresight.
It’s the moments of animal abandon that really make the live show a spectacle though. Her guitar solos recall why we used the word “shredding” at all to talk about sounds that guitars make. They’re Black Sabbath, Aerosmith, or Poison in nature and fervor, but mashed up against intricate, balanced organs and harmonies and strewn with her compelling yet child-like lyrics. Her freedom onstage seems tied to the reality of her social restraint. Dancing like she’s giving birth or heaving in sickness on “Every Tear Disappears”, or doing a corpselike ballet during the languid, high-register breathiness of “Surgeon”, she seems unlocked, revealed. For “Cheerleader”, she clambered to the highest shellacked white box of the tower to unleash a guitar solo that sounds like a VCR eating the old magnetic tape of a beat-up VHS. As if the reified role of female as sexually suggestive sidelines spectator would itself jam in the machinery of our society and cease to ever be played out again.
These images conflict with the kind but closed-off portraits we get of her in overly-lengthy and wide-eyed profiles, or even photographs of her. The hype wearies us even as we seek to know her more, but this dichotomy also speaks to our continued fascination. Hence her popularity and the all-around-din of her celebrated genius: She knows herself, and she’s assured enough in that knowledge to keep it under the lock and key of her watchful, careful dialogue with the public.
Her prepared monologues make one thing clear, though, which is that Annie Clark is a great lover of the unceasing awe of childhood hopes and dreams. For an encore, a solitary, stripped down version of “Strange Mercy” from 2011’s record of the same name soothes like a lullaby, encouraging impossible dreams with a peculiar insistence. “I’ll be with you lost boys/ sneaking out where the shivers won’t find you” goes the Peter Pan-invoking refrain. Clark invites us to re-stoke the embers of our imagination, before we learned it wasn’t cool to dream big, whopping guitar-solo energy into the tiny, extraordinary hopes we had for ourselves. Before we learned that mercy is indeed strange, and rare in our encounters with the injustices of reality, law, and hierarchy. So she sings us the lullabies and livid, seething rock songs to soothe our embattled hearts. We can never be children again, but in the flicker of her looming shadow, we find a blind belief in recapturing innocence. Whether it’s a losing battle or not, Annie Clark stands as a witness that this battle is not futile.