At the beginning of her fourth album as St. Vincent, Annie Clark is running and sweating and naked and alone. Well, not completely alone. There's a coiled serpent close by, shaking its tail—hence the running. "Rattlesnake" would be a perfect, panicked creation myth—a shock of metaphor and imagination—except for the fact that the song is based on utter reality.
While visiting a friend's remote cattle ranch in West Texas last year, Clark decided to step outside for a quiet walk to nowhere. There were no signs to mark her progress as she continued down a little dirt pathway, no cell phone service, nobody else around. Sensing a Walden Pond moment, she thought, "When am I ever going to be in nature like this? I want to release—I'm just going to take off my clothes." As she kept walking, her whole body exposed to the Texas sun, she noticed small holes on either side of the path. Then she heard something.
"I thought it was the wind blowing, but the wind wasn't blowing," she recalls. "I turned and I saw a snake and I just took off." With adrenaline pumping, she ran the mile or so back to the house. Then she had a shot of tequila. Then she wrote "Rattlesnake". Clark calls the song "a new mythology," one that's not based on thousands of years of Adam, Eve, and Eden, but rather the blunt physical truths around us. "I didn't come from anybody's rib," she says. "I'm just fucking terrified by a snake." Here, she laughs a sharp, no-bullshit laugh.
But "Rattlesnake" is not a frightened song; it's playful, funky, commanding. And during its climactic guitar solo—the kind of wet-socket jolt Clark has become known for over the last seven years—it's as if she's using her fear as a weapon to squash anything and everything in her way. All across her new self-titled album, Clark harnesses her existential woes until they become empowering strengths. The 31-year-old singer has become an expert at navigating these sorts of theoretical schisms—turning depression into triumph, or fiction into reality, or calmness into brutal force—so much so that it can be impossible to tell where one ends and the other starts, which can be a source of intrigue, or bewilderment, or both.
"Are you sure you don't want a seitan spider ball?" Clark asks me with a knowing smirk as we sit in the back of Angelica Kitchen, an organic eatery near her apartment in Manhattan's East Village. She picked the place because it's quiet and not necessarily because of its vast array of gluten-free selections. When I ask if she's a vegetarian, she scoffs at the thought while shaking her head no. "I've tried being one," she says, "but since I don't cook, I would just warm-up the veggie patty and call it a day. I didn't feel like I was actually getting the benefits of not eating meat."
Slouching against the wall, Clark is casual chic in a black Margiela jacket, toothpick jeans, baggy sweater, and a grey hat that barely contains her mess of dyed curls, now the color of an overcast sky. She's soft-spoken, halting, judiciously eloquent. Her pronunciation is crisp. Based on her one-on-one demeanor, you might guess Clark was an especially fashionable second-grade teacher, not someone who made a nightly habit of throwing herself into the crowd and screaming her lungs dry while touring her last album, Strange Mercy.
St. Vincent live drummer Matt Johnson, who's played with Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright, and many others across a 20-year career, had a unique vantage point for Clark's off-stage excursions, which found her crowd-surfing during the unhinged punk menace of 2012 single "Krokodil". "It was kind of scary," he admits. "I always thought she might fall on her head and break her top vertebrae or get her finger broken and not be able to play guitar, but she knows what she’s doing."
"High stakes in art are essential, and setting up an expectation and then having it defied is what's interesting to me," says Clark, intellectualizing her most primal onstage behavior. "I wanted to risk something… like my limbs." This is not hyperbole. While most of her intense trips into the audience went off without incident, there were indeed a couple of close calls. Like when she jumped down into the crowd from eight feet above (in heels) at Oakland's Fox Theater, breaking her left foot. Or when the 5'6", 115-pound singer started moshing with a crowd of "hulking, corn-fed tough dudes" in Indianapolis.
"As I jumped in, I remember immediately thinking, 'This was a terrible idea,'" she says, laughing, before quickly turning serious. "Out of the corner of my eye, I saw I this little girl at the front of the stage doubled over, just being crushed. And then I started to suffocate myself. I was like, 'Oh god, this is bad, this is bad, this is bad.'"
Johnson likens these extreme moments to "primal scream therapy—the idea that through convulsive catharsis you can allow some inner part of yourself to become exposed. During shows, sometimes she’ll turn around, come back to the drum kit, lock eyes, and just start screaming. It rips through your body because you’re facing somebody who is literally embracing the process of pulling apart at the seams, in public, for the purposes of what that can do for a performance."
More often, though, Clark's artistic self is marked by an almost-unnerving serenity. It's there in many of her videos and press shots as she stares into the camera, looking like she might know a secret that could kill us all—but isn't telling. It's there as she erupts into a wild solo onstage, seemingly putting in no more physical effort than an office drone. While some have interpreted this attitude as aloofness, the reality is more complicated.
"I spend a lot of time trying to make things that aren't effortless look effortless," Clark says. This makes her think of a blowout basketball game she watched recently, where a bunch of rookies were thrown on the court in the meaningless final minutes. "They were expending all this extra energy—it was like they weren't just playing basketball but performing playing basketball," she says. "It takes a certain amount of athleticism to go on tour, and when you're young, you want to thrash around to prove that you're working hard. But people in their prime just make everything look effortless. Confidence is like leaning back. It becomes a grand sleight of hand."
Annie Clark's poise has only gotten more resolute over the course of her four albums, but her musical life began years before her 2007 debut, Marry Me. Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, she moved to Dallas following her parents' divorce when she was three. Including step- and half-siblings, she has four brothers and four sisters, though she mostly grew up with her mom, stepdad, and two sisters. "It wasn't like 'The Brady Bunch'," she quips. Though she's loathe to talk about her family with a recorder on—"That's not anybody's business"—Clark offers the following when asked about how her childhood may have affected her later accomplishments: "Pain and feeling unworthy is just as good a motivator of success as feeling like you're entitled to everything."
At the start, she wouldn't play guitar and sing unless her family was talking amongst themselves in another room, though that shyness ended quickly. She played her first show around age 15 in Dallas, performing Jimi Hendrix's "The Wind Cries Mary". Standing in the shadows near the back of the room were two musical virtuosos who flew in just for the occasion: Tuck Andress and Patti Cathcart, aka world-touring guitar-and-vocal jazz duo Tuck & Patti, aka Clark's uncle and aunt.
"Even at that early age she was able to go into an all-or-nothing performance mode," says Andress. "She was no more ridiculously outgoing than the average person, but when she was on stage she was like a fireball, even that first time."
Watch an old video of Andress playing an entire band's worth of parts just with his guitar, and his influence on his niece's fingerpicking style and posture (and swirling hair) is instantly apparent. (One YouTube commenter enthused, "He's the fucking bob ross of guitar," which probably isn't too far off.) But while Andress' sister let him know that Annie was following in his footsteps early on, he stresses that he never went out of his way to guide Clark's hand. Instead, he and Cathcart invited Clark to help them out on a Japanese tour less than a year after that first Dallas show, so she could see what the life of a musician was like up-close.
"She would be sitting in the dressing room playing guitar," remembers Andress, "and these Japanese rock stars would walk in and their eyes would open wide when they saw little Annie just tearing it up." Three years later, before heading off to Boston's prestigious Berklee College of Music, Clark road managed one of her aunt and uncle's European tours, handling everything from security, to press, to the equipment onstage.
"I was just in awe of their musicianship," says Clark of Andress and Cathcart, whose original songs and covers of hits like Cyndi Lauper's "Time After Time" could reasonably be described as easy listening. "My tastes were more rock or pop-leaning at the time, but it's unpretentious music and it moved people to tears every night. It's far too easy in this culture to dismiss someone's life's work with arrogant snark, but it's like, 'What have you ever fucking done?'"
Clark's education on the road would arguably prove to be more enlightening than her time at Berklee, where the self-taught guitarist struggled with the school's more pragmatic approach to becoming a musician. "Berklee's primary responsibility is to make you competent and employable, not to learn how to be more creative or more yourself," says Andress. "Annie found that side of it off-putting." After three years, she dropped out.
On the subject of her own startling aptitude on the guitar, Clark can be strident ("I'm an actual musician—I didn't start playing guitar yesterday") and also somewhat proudly ignorant ("I can't read music"). She bristles at the idea of being a "trained" musician. "I feel lucky that when I put my fingers down on a guitar I'm not 100 percent sure what's going to happen," she explains. "Knowledge is something to fall back on if you get stuck, but ultimately the goal is to play with abandon."
St. Vincent keyboardist Daniel Mintseris, who's studied various types of music since childhood, backs up Clark's philosophy. "More than most educated people I've met, Annie's able to use her education selectively, so she develops a language of her own," he tells me. "In some aspects she really can point out a specific step in the scale or a chord, but that doesn't come up all that often. Usually we're able to communicate musically directly—we don't need too many words."
That semi-spontaneous alchemy is on display throughout St. Vincent, with songs flitting from style to style—from the Who-style lizard-brained riffs of "Regret", to "Huey Newton" and its Parliament-meets-Sabbath back half—while always remaining distinctly Clark-ian. Gone are the superfluous flourishes and self-conscious cleverness of Clark's first two LPs, replaced by svelte arrangements and point-blank lyrics that beam with certainty. Take one look at Clark's quizzical expression on the cover of Marry Me and her steely "near-future cult leader" glare on St. Vincent's sleeve, and her artistic evolution becomes that much clearer.
"I have more of a clear sense of what's right for me musically now," says Clark, who also switched over from legendary indie imprint 4AD to the one-year-old Universal subsidiary Loma Vista for St. Vincent in an effort to "shake things up." It's a testament to her individuality—and perhaps the ever-shrinking divide between majors and indies—that the album betrays no trace of compromise. For Clark, who admits she was "never necessarily the easiest sell," control over her own work is paramount. Very paramount. "You have to stick to your guns, otherwise you're truly lost—and I mean in the fuckin' Dante sense of the word," she says. "I could've made different choices in my career to step more into the middle of the road and cross my fingers, but if I don't have the music, then I may as well fucking die."
Even so, she's well aware that, no matter how much she believes in her own work, music as a medium is having a tough time capturing anyone's imagination in 2014. To this end, Clark spends hours upon hours thinking about how to "elevate" her live show, how to cut through the monotony of another rock band on a stage. One of her ideas involved enhancing the audience's experience through subtle smells piped into each venue, though it was scrapped due to pragmatic concerns. "What it would take to execute would be so expensive and potentially annoying," she says, "and people have allergies." But the one-time theater kid is incorporating some theatrical body movements into her sets now, partly inspired by the dance-friendly tour for her 2012 collaborative album with David Byrne, Love This Giant. It's all in an effort for both her and the crowd to, as she says, "suspend disbelief for an hour and a half."
Naturally, the biggest enemy of disbelief-suspending at modern concerts is the smartphone, and on new single "Digital Witness", Clark takes on the voice of information-age propaganda—"I want all of your mind"—as strutting horns fight back amidst a gloriously human groove. "We have this feeling that we're being watched, and our psychic response is to make ourselves transparent," Clark muses. "The real currency in the future will be privacy." If she's right—if our worth will result from how much we can keep hidden from prying eyes and bright screens—Clark may become a secret billionaire. Because even with all of her striking visuals, she still doesn't like her picture being taken. Though her songs are ripped from her heart, she prefers not to talk about the personal events that led to their being.
"There have been things in my life that were super heartbreaking, and I could've made that fodder, but I don't want to do that," she says. "It just makes me feel weird, and it doesn't really help anybody else. I mean, I don't take selfies. It makes me feel empty inside to take a picture of myself at an event, like, 'Isn't my life cool?'" Clark refuses to Google herself, too, for good reason. "The last time somebody showed me something on there, it was some fucking freak ejaculating onto my Actor record cover," she says, still grossed-out. "I'm just like, 'I really didn't need to see that.' I have enough actual things to worry about other than the conjecture."
Besides, she says, it's all there in the songs, some of which she describes as "absolutely literally autobiographical." Though her nonplussed attitude under the lights, along with the disparity between her pitch-black subject matter and put-together personality offstage, can suggest a distance between Clark and her music, she makes clear that there's "no pretense or big mystical aura" surrounding her lyrics. The new album bears this out. Weary slow-burner "I Prefer Your Love", which recalls the very best of Madonna's 80s ballads, is an ode to her mother; "Regret", which could be her most straightforward-sounding track to date, is that rare breakup song that faces the morning after with a puffed chest and a trembling lip; and while the soulful "Prince Johnny" seems to describe the type who snorts coke in bathroom stalls, Clark calls it a "very bare song." "I mean, I don't do a lot of drugs because I don't have time to do drugs," she adds, with a chuckle. "I don't have a moralistic stance on it. I'm just really busy."
The album ends with "Severed Crossed Fingers", a song about finding hope as a performer when an endless stream of gut-spilling and spleen-draining constitutes your existence day-to-day, year-to-year. "I sang that in one fucking take, cried my eyes out, and the song was done," Clark says. "That's me." The track has a similar dramatic arc to David Bowie's "Life on Mars?" but there's still no mistaking it: This is a St. Vincent song.
"We live in a postmodern age when it's pretty hard to come up with anything new, especially on a fundamental level," Clark's uncle tells me, talking about how his niece has managed to become such a unique voice, how she's cut through years of history and reams of static with her dignity intact. "It all got blown out at an earlier point—John Cage destroyed a piano and Jimi Hendrix burned the guitar onstage long before Annie was born. There's always someone playing faster, louder, more distorted. So you can't really go anywhere except into yourself. All that's left is to figure out who you are—because that's what's going be believable to somebody else."
all that and not one word about her sexuality, homegirl got that shit on lockdown