St. Vincent does it herself
Few musical careers have stranger or stronger foundations than that of Texas native Annie Clark, better known as St. Vincent. At 12, an age when most kids are just starting to fiddle with their chosen instrument, Clark was recording and mixing her own songs on a computer patch-worked together by her step dad. Throughout her late teens, she served as the summer tour manager for her aunt and uncle’s jazz duo, Tuck and Patti. At 22, she donned a giant robe and lent her voice and guitar to the sprawling Dallas symphonic-rock collective Polyphonic Spree; two years later, she joined the backing band for wonderfully weird singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens.
Clark’s uncommon breadth of experience was evident on her first album as St. Vincent, 2007’s marvelously accomplished Marry Me, which was recorded when she was not yet 25. Its 2009 follow-up, Actor, was widely hailed as one of the year’s best albums (including a No. 12 placing in the Village Voice’s prestigious Pazz & Jop critics poll).
WE spoke with Clark over the phone about how an arty feminist from the American South managed to grow up into one of the indie world’s quirkiest talents.
How did you begin recording your own music?
My stepfather is actually an accountant, and he had a whole lot of computers, and he’s a really smart engineer kind of guy. So, he had a bunch of parts lying around the house, and with his help and the help of my uncle, who’s also a big kind of genius musician, but also a mathematician, I wanted to build a studio and record myself. This was in the days before Garage Band or anything like that; it was a PC — really slow, non-intuitive software. But as a result, I spent most of my formative music-making years alone making music, and I think that really has informed the way I do things now. I feel very empowered to really just DIY.
I’m just a few years older than you, but computers were often considered a “boy” thing back then. Did you run into that attitude?
I grew up in Texas, and definitely there are stricter gender roles there and in the South than you would necessarily find in Vancouver — just in general; I’m not necessarily indicting Texas. But, luckily, my mom’s a feminist, and I grew up with empowered women around me. My step dad’s a kind-hearted guy and a nerd, so if I was interested, he was thrilled and wanted to show me how to do that or how to clean a fish or how to change a tire or that kind of stuff.
Knowing the digital side would also put you in the unique position of not needing other people to make your music.
Yeah. I think, generally, there’s the concept that technology allows you to make music better than you are. If I can conceive of something, or hear something, maybe it’s painstaking to input it into the computer, but I can make something that’s harder than something I could normally play. It’s this way to push your creativity. You’re not limited so much by your own motor skills. It’s really empowering if you can harness it.
What was going on with you when you were writing the songs for Actor?
I’d pretty much been on tour, solidly, for a year. I’d never toured to that extent before. You spend a lot of time on tour in these non-spaces: in transit or a motel or hotel, where you don’t know who was there the night before or who’ll be there the night after. It’s all part of this non-space, so I started to feel like this non-human. And I’d just moved back to New York, and there’s something about the physical space of the city. I couldn’t make a lot of noise in my apartment, and you could hear other people through the walls, and ostensibly other people could hear you. I’d never really been in that situation where there’s so much anonymity and then a total lack of anonymity.
The music on Actor is just packed with ideas and sounds. What were your sources?
Partly it was the Disney films and the scores from the ’30s and ’40s. For a lot of kids in the Western hemisphere, our earliest memories and conceptions of magic are fairy tales and Disney... You have fairy tales that, on one hand, are magic and sweet, where the whole world can turn around with the flick of a wand. On the other hand, you have the really dark stories, with rape and famine and horrible things that happen in fairy tales that get cleaned up and repackaged into something you can sell at Walmart or whatever. That dichotomy in the fairy tales was really inspiring. I find that to be true to life, in a way. Nothing is ever very simple or a one-to-one ratio, and I wanted to combine that musically.