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Dressed in all black, Annie Clark, who goes by the stage name of St. Vincent, arrived at the WERS studio lively and friendly this Friday. Her new album Strange Mercy was just released two months ago, filled with electronic fuzz and powerful guitar that twists the traditional music style to really demonstrate why she’s considered art rock. But her willingness to warp conventional standards shouldn’t come as a surprise since Clark was a member of The Polyphonic Spree and played as a part of Sufjan Steven’s touring band in 2006.
“It takes all of you,” Clark said when asked about creating music. “It takes all of your brain, the analytical stuff and the really creative thing and then the, I wouldn’t say spiritual just because I don’t like that word, but the deeply universally abstract.” After pausing to formulate her thoughts, she clarified that it shouldn’t be stressful or straining. “Ideally, it should be this perfectly symbiotic thing in terms of playing and singing… to just call it muscle memory is too reductive, but ideally it should just be a very fluid thing.”
It was clear just how much of herself she puts into the music when she launched into “Surgeon”. Clark bobbed her head as she sang lightly, creating a drifting sensation despite her heavy lyrics. The line “best finest surgeon, come cut me open” rang out like a child’s dare, a dark contrast to her fragile, sweet appearance. The line was actually taken from Marilyn Monroe’s diary, originally written as “Best finest surgeon – Strasberg to cut me open.” Published in an issue of Vanity Fair, Monroe’s diary includes ramblings of being enamored over Lee Strasberg after studying with him at the Actors Studio. “I thought it was a brilliant odd line so I ripped it,” Clark said. This isn’t unusual for Clark, an artist who frequently pulls lines from others she respects. “There are references all over the place,” she said. “References galore.” The list spans from Hemmingway to European travelers to the film Chloe In The Afternoon. “There’s always a research and development portion of record-making that’s constant. Like ‘oh, I like this phrase from this book or this thing.’ It’s collecting images.”
Clark then played “Cheerleader,” the staccato strum of the bridge leading just as nice acoustically into the chorus as the heavy pounding on the album. “You’re getting fun, stripped-down arrangements,” Clark said to listeners. Playing the songs solo like this was actually quite reminiscent of the recording process. “It started with me and a guitar,” Clark said. “That sounds obvious, but that’s not what I would normally do. It was kind of a struggle to do it the troubadour way.” In the past, Clark has arranged songs on GarageBand, a simple Apple product where she could pull all the different instrument parts together at once. “I think one of the things I realized in making it, and by that I mean making music, not like, making it [in the industry], is that if you want to take risks like harmonic risks, there has to be something balancing it. It has to groove,” she explained. “And it you want to take rhythmic risks, there has to be this balance of some conventional pop thing and throwing in more esoteric things. Where they meet in the middle is usually my favorite part.”
The last song she performed was “Cruel.” Clark played the jumpy guitar riff and then leaned into the microphone: “Listeners, superimpose that guitar line into the rest of the song.” She then hopped right into the song, recreating the paradise-like tune despite not having the other instrument parts to layer in. Her voice sweetly rang out each high note shortly following her deep crooning of “can’t you see what everybody wants from you?”
With each note holding importance in her work, Clark is extremely interested in music and the world around her. “They were able to find the note of the universe,” she brought up excitedly. “The sound it makes is incredibly low, but if you pitched it up a lot of octaves and tried to put it into our framework, apparently it resonates on a B-flat. And also, they were able to figure out the sound of the Big Bang… it’s the root note. And then another note above it, the secondary note, is in-between major and minor.” She paused to let it all hang in the air. “Science – it’s crazy.”
It’s this interest in all the world has to offer that makes Clark’s music and personality so intriguing. There’s no doubt St. Vincent’s art rock has carved a path designed to simultaneously quench ears and brains for years to come. For that, we should all be thankful.