Enigmatic, intellectual, cunning and otherworldly are just some of the adjectives music scribes have affixed to St. Vincent’s Annie Clark over the course of four albums. A dazzling guitarist, masterful writer and mesmerizing live performer whose songs transcend the worlds of jazz, rock, new wave and pop as they lodge in your head, Clark is a challenging, provocative talent in the vein of Prince and David Byrne (with whom she collaborated on 2012’s Love This Giant). In other words, not necessarily a shoe-in for pop stardom. But that may have changed in 2014. With the release of her acclaimed self-titled album in February, her performance with the surviving members of Nirvana at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in April, a much buzzed-about appearance on the season finale of Saturday Night Live and an “insane” world tour that has taken her to such far-flung countries as Korea, Japan and Mexico, Clark is in the midst of her own world domination. She spoke recently to Playback about how she taps her creative juices, where she draws inspiration and how she is surviving what is truly a breakout year.
Q: Your music career has benefited from your mastery of the guitar. Who or what made you first pick up that instrument?
I saw La Bamba, the biopic about Ritchie Valens, when I was five and I begged my mom for a guitar like the one Valens played. And so I had a red plastic guitar at first. Then when I was 10 the whole grunge scene swept the nation and I wanted to do what my heroes were doing, so I started playing guitar when I was 12.
Q: Were you as interested in writing songs at that point?
I like to use the phrase “I’ve never practiced a day in my life. I only ever play.” How I learned to play guitar was to take songs that I liked from my favorite bands, which at that time were Nirvana, Pearl Jam and a whole host of classic rock bands. The guitar teacher would teach me the songs I wanted to learn. But midway through learning a song I would get a little disinterested and start to write my own song out of the rabbit hole of someone else’s. So I’ve been writing since I was 12 too.
Q: You’ve had a solid musical education; you went to Berklee, you have family members that are musicians and you’ve collaborated with a lot of really great artists. Taken together, what do you feel has been the most valuable factor in advancing your craft?
I would thank my aunt and uncle, Tuck and Patti, for showing me what the road was really like at a very early age. They were also incredibly nurturing with positive reinforcement, and at other points letting me know when when my musicality wasn’t quite happening. It’s a lot easier today because people can record themselves and receive instant aural feedback. It’s good to be able to hear what you sound like, refine it and make sure that what you are hearing in your head is actually coming out through your body by means of your fingers or your voice.
Read the full interview at ASCAP. Video from ASCAP's youtube.