Love This Giant developed like many a New York City-bred friendship. Both parties are kind of hazy about how it began, but after a couple of semi-chance encounters, David Byrne and Annie Clark, who records and performs as St. Vincent, embarked upon a creative dialogue that has flourished over the last three years.
Curious, mutually appreciative acquaintances became determined co-conspirators, and the result is an album that’s brash and, quite literally, brassy. Byrne and Clark spin their intriguingly enigmatic tales, by turns whimsical and dark, backed by a large brass band in lieu of a traditional rock lineup. There is a magical urbanity to Love This Giant: It’s as if they’re dancing in the streets, their voices soaring over the rhythms, the melodies, the barely contained cacophony of the city.
Though Byrne and Clark each have an unmistakable sound and persona that have made them such compelling performers on their own, their voices manage to blend naturally, effortlessly, here. Sometimes they trade verses; at others they sing in unison. Like friends who can finish each other’s sentences, when one takes the spotlight alone, it’s often with words that the other provided. The brass lends the songs an appealing theatrical sheen while programmed percussion provides a contemporary feel. The inventive arrangements have clearly sparked some remarkable vocal performances—check out Byrne on the syncopated I Should Watch TV or Clark on the grand Optimist. Though there’s no overarching theme to Love This Giant, surreal images of nature dominate the lyrics, most of which were worked on in tandem by Byrne and Clark. The threat of natural disaster promises an emotional epiphany; urban apocalypse gives way to a garden party.
Happenstance brought these artists together, but the work they’ve made together feels more like fate. David Byrne’s own boundary-erasing approach to pop music had arguably laid a broad foundation for a new generation of independent-minded artists in Brooklyn and beyond, including Clark, who’d been constructing bedroom recordings for several years before publicly assuming the moniker of St. Vincent. Byrne, a peripatetic concert-goer who can often be glimpsed arriving at New York City venues on his bicycle, reckons he first caught St. Vincent in 2008 at Bowery Ballroom, not long after she’d released her debut Marry Me, and he continued to follow her career since then. Clark thought of him as “a ghost figure,” who would discreetly come to her shows: “I wouldn’t really see him, but I’d hear he was there. And I’d get really excited.”
They were “officially” introduced on Mary 3, 2009 at the maverick charity organization Red Hot’s Radio City Music Hall concert for Dark Was The Night, an indie all-star compilation album produced by Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the National. Merely days later, at the tiny Housing Work Used Book Store in Soho they met again at another benefit: a one-off collaboration between Bjork and the Dirty Projectors, showcasing material composer David Longsreth had written for the Icelandic singer. The organizers of that event approached Byrne to inquire if he would ever consider doing something similar with Clark. That became a catalyst for a musical exchange that went on for the next two and half years, via email or in person, when the pair’s crammed schedules put them both in New York City long enough to book some studio time. Byrne also invited Clark to sing on Here Lies Love, the score for a musical he’d co-written with Fat Boy Slim about the life of former Filipino First Lady Imelda Marcos.
At first there was no structure or goal to their back and forth; it was purely a “What if” situation. But then Clark had the odd but ultimately brilliant notion that they write with a large brass band in mind, and that’s when they began to collaborate in earnest. Byrne reasoned that if this was going to be work they’d present in an unusual live setting like a bookstore, then a brass band would make more sense than a rock group for such an acoustically challenged space. As Byrne explains,” We took that as a starting point, we passed musical ideas, lyrical ideas, back and forth. It took a while, a year or so—we both had other things to do, tours and records and all that—but after a year we had about four songs. We thought, let’s see how these come out and see if we want to move forward. We recorded those and I sang one of them when Annie did a show at Jazz at Lincoln Center…then somewhere along the line we decided, let’s do some more,”
Their ideas, says Clark, “came in various forms. Sometimes they would be very skeletal—David would send me a melody and chords, and I would try to write words to it or rearrange it for horns. Sometimes I would send him arrangements that didn’t have melodies and he would write melodies over it and send it back. This is an honest–to-God collaboration; there really is no delineating what the roles were.”
To cut basic tracks with a dozen or more brass players, most of whom had to be in the same space performing together, they decided to use the large studio of Water Music in Hoboken, New Jersey, one of the few remaining “live” rooms in the greater New York City area. That also afforded Byrne the opportunity to take the ferry across the Hudson each morning, bicycle in tow (only $1 extra). Recalls Byrne, “Every six months or so we’d do a session and the same guys and girls would show up and they’d say, what’s it going to be this time? It was kind of like, how great a variety of sounds and textures and colors and grooves can you get with that set of instruments? Can they do an orchestral ballad, can they do a funk groove, all the kind of stuff?” Indeed they could. Love This Giant opens with “Who,” which swings like Ethiopian disco, and concludes with the stately and dramatic “Outside of Space and Time.”
Clark’s St. Vincent cohort John Congleton, who co-produced 2009’s Actor and 2011’s Strange Mercy, programmed percussion long-distance, emailing files that the pair would pull apart and reconstruct. A few friends came in for overdubs: drummer Anthony LaMarca and percussionist Mauro Refosco, but once the horn parts, arranged mostly by Tony Finno, had been laid down, Byrne and Clark did the rest themselves. Says Byrne, “Often when we could, we didn’t use any bass. The tuba or the baritone sax would do the job of the bass and Annie and I would play guitar. I was more the rhythm guitar guy. And she was the incredible lead guitarist.”
The album, Byrne feels, might surprise those who assume the pair simply gathered a bunch of tunes they wanted to record together. Love This Giant truly became more than the sum of its parts: “It’s going to be confusing to some people. They will think, as people do, that the person who is singing the song wrote the song. In most cases, the gestation of the music and the words was very collaborative. ‘The Forest Awakes,’ for example, was a song that I originally was singing, and I had written the words. But then I thought it might sound less pretentious if Annie sings it. Her vocal quality will put a different spin on it, a little bit of lightness. And most of the tracks are like that, very collaborative.”
“It was incredibly interesting to see how David works and realize how I work as a result of ricocheting my ideas off another person,” Clark admits. “It’s a fun collaboration, for a lot of reasons. David is always looking to the future of music, and he’s not nostalgic about anything. People tend to think of nostalgia as a sweet notion, but I think it’s a little cynical, as if what happened in the past is better than what can happen in the future. People can end up just doing these genres studies. I’m not interested in doing that and neither is David, so we kept pushing each other.”
Three years after they were first introduced, the pair had a finished album—but they still hadn’t done a proper gig together. That will be rectified in the fall, when Byrne and Clark embark on a tour in support of Love This Giant.
Tune-in Friday 11/16 at noon to hear the full CD on KSUT. Try your hand at our feature CD trivia contest at 12:30 pm and your chance to win free lunch at Zia Taqueria.