St. Vincent's Eerie Musical Alchemy

Feb 23, 2014
Originally published on February 23, 2014 5:00 pm

In three albums as St. Vincent, plus the 2012 David Byrne collaboration Love This Giant, Annie Clark has proven adept at writing rock songs that flirt with the tense and uneasy. Her streak continues on St. Vincent, a new album replete with dissonances and distortions that make even its prettiest melodies read as disturbing.

"I just do that because that feels very natural, and that's what's going on in my brain, so of course that would manifest itself in the music," Clark says. "Some things that people even find ugly or harsh don't register to me as ugly or harsh — I'm just like, 'Oh, that's beautiful!'

"You know, it's like people, just these weird petri dishes of emotion and reason and all this. It's the same thing with music. I love it all; I love how people actually are. I love the one thought that you would never say out loud, that you finally find the nerve to say — that terrible thought you think, or that wonderful thought you think. It's all that unique universality of humanity."

Clark spoke about St. Vincent with NPR's Arun Rath; hear more of their conversation at the audio link.

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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. Over the years, the Catholic Church has recognized over a dozen St. Vincents. But there's only one St. Vincent who can do this.


RATH: St. Vincent is the stage name of Annie Clark.


RATH: Her musical gifts are dazzling, dense, layered songs with wicked horn arrangements in a canny melodic sense and a ton of soul. She's worked with some of the most celebrated indie rockers around. A 2012 collaboration with David Burn marked a culmination of a period of intense touring and recording. But it was exhausting. Annie decided she needed a break to get away from it all. Luckily, for her fans at least, it didn't last long.

ANNIE CLARK: I got home after the first leg of the Love This Giant Tour. And I thought, you know what, I'm just going to unplug and forget about the world for a little bit. But it took me about 36 hours to start just digging in and writing this record. I took a long bath. I had a good night's sleep. I maybe watched a movie and ate a meal, and then I was kind of back to work.

Maybe a day's all you need.


RATH: Well, clearly, because this new album is fantastic.

CLARK: Thank you so much.

RATH: And this is - kind of the solitude thing makes a natural sort of segue into the first song "Rattlesnake."


RATH: You ask me if you're the only one in the world.

I think if I took a Myers-Briggs test, which in fact I have taken a Myers-Briggs test, but I can't remember.


CLARK: You know, I can't remember my acronym. But I think it's somewhere definitely on the more introverted scale. But I need that time, you know, me and a guitar, me and a computer, me and a keyboard or whatever.


RATH: Let me talk about the process a little bit. Maybe one of the songs might be a good way to go through it. Let's talk about "Birth in Reverse." Did the - I want to think that the groove came first.

CLARK: You know what came first, actually, is the - is all the music and the melody. I was doing that thing that often songwriters will do. I was just kind of mouthing nonsensical words and in some cases just, like, la-la-la-la-la, you know, like, whatever. You know what I'm saying?


CLARK: (Singing) The dogs will bark, so let them bark. The birds will cry, I'll let them cry.

That song, for example, is one that it really didn't change that much from the demo. So this record was a little bit less of a process of discovery in the studio and more about, OK, execution. And these songs are written, so let's get in there and bang them out with great players.


CLARK: (Singing) ...along the line like a birth in reverse in America

RATH: My guest is Annie Clark. She performs as St. Vincent. Her new self-titled album comes out on Tuesday. You know, there's this amazing tension that I feel in your music - it's been in all your albums - where dissonances and distortions, you make them sound beautiful. And then there can be a simple melody, and then when that comes through, it's disturbing.

CLARK: I just do that because that feels very natural, and that's what's going on in my brain. So, of course, that would manifest itself in the music. And some things that people even find ugly or harsh don't register to me as ugly or harsh. I'm just like, oh, that's beautiful. I don't get it, but OK, yeah, I guess if I take a step back, I can see how that's not everybody's cup of tea all the time.

RATH: You don't sit down and say, I'm going to find the beauty in that hideous thing or vice versa.

CLARK: No. I just think - I think it's all - you know, it's like people. Like, just these weird Petri dishes of emotion and reason and all this. So that's the same thing with music. I love it all.


RATH: Your songs seldom have a single simple identifiable mood. There are different things going on, just - where there are different instruments with different lines. There are different emotions, sometimes contradictory emotions, it feels, that play at the same time. I think of something like "Every Tear Disappears" that there's a lot of different feelings.

CLARK: Yeah. Well, I mean, to me, I was like, oh, this is a really hopeful song with a hopeful message.


CLARK: Because it's true. Every tear does disappear. You know, I've said it before, but I wanted to make a party record you could play at a funeral.


CLARK: I wanted to have that groove, that root of things and felt communal and felt very human and might inspire people to dance. But then I also wanted it to have the emotional weight and empathy and humanity and ugliness and all that stuff that is just human nature.


RATH: So you wrote this album - or started this album barely a day into your so-called vacation. Now, can you take a rest after this little press - actually, I saw - I've seen your tour schedule, so I know the answer to that question.

CLARK: No. No. It's a funny thing because I feel this strange imperative - and I'm not sure where it's from - but I feel this strange imperative to, like, because I'm one of the lucky few who gets to do what I love, I need to do it till my arms fall off just to honor it, just to honor - just to kind of show my - psychically show my gratitude, you know, to music. If there's anything fit to worship, I think it's music.

RATH: That's Annie Clark also known as St. Vincent. Her new album comes out on Tuesday. It's called "St. Vincent." Annie Clark, thank you. A real pleasure.

CLARK: Thank you for having me. This was such a pleasure.


CLARK: (Singing) Running down the highway like a psychopath. All the flames and fury coming out my back. Wanna make a bet whether I make it back, 'cause I'm on the edge of a heart attack.

RATH: And for Sunday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. Check out our weekly podcast. Go to WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR app. And you can follow me on Twitter: @arunrath. We're back next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.