Monday, October 26, 2009

Interview with St. Vincent

My interview with St. Vincent was published in the Charleston City Paper while I was on holiday.

St. Vincent embraces the excitement

Magic, charm, and the collaboration of music-making

Her alter ego may have plenty of hipster, too-cool-for-school fans, but behind the Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter St. Vincent is Annie Clark, a charmingly unassuming young woman who conducts phone interviews from her mom's mini-van.

Clark's professional pedigree as a musician is a veritable who's who of indie rock icons, from her stint in the Polyphonic Spree to her role in Sufjan Stevens' backing band. In 2005 she released her debut solo album, Marry Me, as St. Vincent, and introduced the world to her brand of quirky, layered, atmospheric indie-pop. Now, four years later, Clark's about to embark on a cross-country tour with the violin-based folk-pop musician Andrew Bird, as she plays in support of her second St. Vincent release, Actor.

"Andrew's a fantastic human being," Clark enthuses. "We ended up in Paris at the same time in April. We have some mutual friends who do a French website called the Blogotheque. We ended up performing a couple songs together in an apartment in France. It was pretty haphazard, but it was really fun. Moments like that, you're like 'Yep, livin' the dream.'"

The dream has been a long one in the making. Clark started playing guitar when she was 12 years old, and thanks to her stepfather's love of computers, she got a huge jump on the digital recording process, which explains the deftly crafted, lushly textured sonic arrangements that have become St. Vincent's trademark.

"My stepdad had a bunch of spare computer-y parts lying around, and he helped me build a makeshift studio," Clark explains. "And this is before Macs with Garage Band. You had to vaguely know something about computers, and it was on a PC using digital systems that were just starting to be user-friendly. I would spend a lot of hours multitracking my own little songs and coming up with little arrangements, and that's how I learned to make music, a very layered and kind of controlled manner. And I think that's kind of still how I'm most comfortable writing."

Clark also seems to have a keen instinct for identifying clever ideas. The first single and video clip from Actor, "Actor Out of Work", seemed to single-handedly make music videos relevant again. It was a simple premise that showed Clark auditioning actors who could cry, but it went on to become a viral sensation, receiving almost 150,000 viewings on YouTube, and was embedded on countless pop-culture websites, from New York Magazine to The Onion.

"I was really surprised how powerful it was to me," Clark laughs. "When I read the treatment for it, I was like, 'Wow, this could be really bizarre and cool. Let's do it.' So I showed up on set, and it was like, 'Okay Annie, we've got the cameras set, you go sit in that chair and watch Actor A cry.' I was just sitting there, and at first I wanted to laugh just to ease my own tension, and then by the 12th hour of watching people cry, I broke down and lost it. I was weeping."

For now, Clark's solo career as St. Vincent is her primary job, but she calls collaborating a "crucial" part of her life, and credits her previous experience in bands with helping her develop musically.

"There's nothing more exhilarating when you're 13 or 14, or fuck it, when you're 32, than playing music with other people," Clark says. "That's super-exciting, like, 'Holy cow, we're making magic.' It's like 'Whoa, we build this little plane, and we're all flying it.' It's awesome."

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Amy Millan

My interview with Stars' Amy Millan runs this week in WE.

“What, me morbid?”: Amy Millan dismisses accusations of death obsession in her songs.

“What, me morbid?”: Amy Millan dismisses accusations of death obsession in her songs.

Lone Star
By Andrea Warner

The glass of wine in Amy Millan’s hand is as trademark as the sexy coo that is her singing voice — that of a little girl who’s seen too much, who grew up too fast. The Montreal-based Millan, in addition to her best-known role as singer and co-songwriter in Stars, seemingly has her hand in every major indie act in the country, from a permanent guest spot with Broken Social Scene to occasional backing vocals for Apostle of Hustle.

But right now, the 35-year-old is deep in the midst of the first round of publicity for her second solo album, Masters of the Burial, a gorgeously moody collection of pop songs that takes plenty of detours into folk and alt-country territory, and even finds Millan crafting an uptempo cover of Death Cab for Cutie’s evocative downer, “I Will Follow You Into the Dark.”

WE spoke with Millan over the phone just as she was melting into a chair with a bottle of vino, after a long day that started before the sun rose.

You’ve had back-to-back interviews all day, I hear.
Millan: It’s been quite a day, but coffee and wine make it all better now.

Just alternating mouthfuls? Double-fisting?
You know, start out with a coffee to jack you back up, and then even it up with a nice glass of red wine.

I’ve been listening to Masters of the Burial pretty much non-stop, and a lot of the songs seem to be quite hopeful, even when they’re incredibly sad.
I appreciate that you got that. I definitely never want to be maudlin about anything. I think it’s importance to have a balance of everything. And it’s funny: With Masters of the Burial and Honey from the Tombs [her first solo album], everybody’s like, “What’s with the whole death thing, man?” And it’s not. Honey from the Tombs is from a Tom Waits song about how the mummies were buried with honey, and [the honey] preserved and still tasted as sweet as when it was buried. And Masters of the Burial is a comment on the human condition, and that in our lives we all suffer horrible embarrassment and betrayals and tragedies and loss, and in order to continue living and seeking out hope, we have to bury a lot of things we’ve been through. It’s kind of a tip of the hat to the human, really, and about being alive and not being dead. With these songs, I’m trying to poke at these places that maybe people are trying to forget, and liberate them in a way that maybe won’t lead them down a road of depression, but feel comfort that everyone’s going through similar things.

I should be asking, then, what your most embarrassing moment is...
Oh, I could never tell! (laughs)

So, instead I’ll invite you to talk a bit about what your influences were when you were writing the album.
Welllll... Uhhhhh.... I saw some people suffer in their relationships, who were close to me. That really broke my heart to watch somebody who had been in a relationship for quite a long time and have it dissolve in front of their eyes, and then not really knowing how to maintain it, but knowing that it can’t be maintained... It’s so difficult sometimes to cut the cord when you’ve been in a relationship for a really long time. I just find it so sad to watch, something turning into ash that was a big fire at one point.

I heard Stars is recording, and you’re obviously in the midst of promoting Burial. How are you coping?
It’s busy. On top of everything, I’m doing a complete gut of my house. (laughs) I just thought it wasn’t enough, you know? But as busy as I am, it’s the longest period of time I’ve gone without touring, because Broken [Social Scene]’s been recording, and Stars are recording, and my record’s just come out now. Stars hasn’t played a show since February. It’s been one of the calmest times of my life, actually, because when you’re travelling every day, your soul is kind of far behind, and it takes a while to catch up to you. I’ve been literally around the globe in a six-week period at one point. The fact that I’ve been still and enjoying my city and really discovering Montreal — because I hadn’t been able to do that, I’ve just been on tour since I’ve moved there.

Do you have a fair bit of anonymity in Montreal?
Oh, they don’t care about indie-rock in Montreal. The French people could care less about Arcade Fire, even. It’s really refreshing, you know, and I think that’s why so much good music comes out of Montreal. There isn’t the industry there, and the pressure.

Amy Millan performs Saturday, Oct. 24 at Biltmore Cabaret (395 Kingsway), 8 pm. Tickets $13 from Ticketmaster, Zulu, and Red Cat.

Jeff Lemire

My WE cover story on Jeff Lemire from Oct. 3

Portrait of the artist: Graphic novelist Jeff Lemire, and a frame from his acclaimed Essex County Trilogy, named after the region in southwestern Ontario where he grew up.

Portrait of the artist: Graphic novelist Jeff Lemire, and a frame from his acclaimed Essex County Trilogy, named after the region in southwestern Ontario where he grew up

Comic Instinct

By Andrea Warner

About four hours southwest of Toronto lies Essex County, a region that, until recently, was best known for two things: the city of Windsor (its county seat), and its spitting-distance proximity to Detroit.

But in 2008, Jeff Lemire’s Tales from the Farm, the first installment in his Essex County Trilogy, quietly burst onto the international comic/graphic-novel scene. Ghost Stories followed a few months later, and then The Country Nurse, inadvertently launching Lemire’s tiny hometown of Woodslee (pop. 5,000) out of obscurity and into the imaginations of readers around the world. At the time of this writing, Lemire is the sole “notable person” on Essex County’s Wikipedia page.

Lemire’s rise to fame is part of Canadian cartoonists’ growing role in the comics industry, according to Robin McConnell, host of the comics-based CITR radio show, InkStuds. Lemire’s success continues to raise the profile of Vancouver artists as well.

“Vancouver has some great talents, like Brandon Graham and James Stokoe,” McConnell says. “Jeff exemplifies the work of a Canadian cartoonist, not succumbing to any form of Hollywood or genre-specific pressure for light and easy fare.”

Lemire’s trilogy covers vast narrative terrain, but is consistently rooted in its fictionalized version of his hometown, a rural community where everyone’s histories are neatly and inextricably weaved together through complicated backstories, expressed through sparse but evocative drawings that perfectly capture the books’ themes of loneliness and family. Tales from the Farm focuses on a young comic-book-obsessed boy who wears a superhero cape everywhere he goes, and is forced to move in with his uncle after his mother dies. Ghost Stories best shows Lemire’s innovation as a storyteller as it details an old man’s backward glances at his troubled life, his thwarted hockey career, and the complicated history he shared with his brother. The Country Nurse ties the first two stories together, and follows a tireless woman with her own troubles as she tries her best to tend to the emotional and physical issues of everyone around her.

Top Shelf Comix, the Portland-based independent publishing company that discovered Lemire, recently released The Collected Essex County.

“In some ways, it’s a romanticized view of where I grew up,” Lemire says. “In other ways, it’s a colder, starker version as well. Essex County is flat, with family farms spread out along very flat land. My closest neighbours were miles away, and that led to a lot of time playing alone on the farm, and a lot of time in my room reading and drawing comics.”

Lemire’s early artistic training came from those hours in his room, during which he devoured comics and observed the various styles used by different artists, particularly those featured in DC Comics’ Who’s Who directories.

“That was a real turning point for me,” Lemire says. “It was like an encyclopedia of all of their characters, featuring artwork by every comics artist working at the time. I copied different entries in the styles of [my favourite] artists. I remember my Mom and Dad would sit and go through the books with me; they would cover the artist credit at the bottom of the page and I would tell them which artist drew each page. I got them all right, and they couldn’t believe it, because to their untrained eye all those drawings just looked the same. But I had studied and poured over these drawings and knew the way every different artist created lines and shadow.”

Visually, Essex County’s illustrations offer up starkly contrasted images of people in varying states of despair, discovery, or delightful escape, usually interacting with some element of nature. Long country roads, a frozen river, the high-stakes hockey game — all are rendered with varying intensity. Hazy memories are represented by loosely penciled renditions, while present-day confrontations are liberally shaded with rich black ink. These drawings, more than the stories themselves, fulfill the mission that Lemire set for himself with the Essex County Trilogy.

“I never really sat down and wrote,” Lemire says. “I still rarely do. For me, it’s always been about the drawing first. It all starts visually, and story and character and plot all evolve out of my drawings. In a way, my drawing is my writing. I don’t see a separation between the two when it comes to making comics; they’re all part of the same process... I took the things I loved the most about the Essex County landscape — old rusted farm equipment, tattered wooden barns, vast open fields, endless telephone lines running off into the horizon — and focused on creating an idealized, timeless visual shorthand for the setting.”

Lemire’s ascent has been both arduous and breakneck. The 33-year-old former film student self-published his first book, Lost Dogs, in 2005. Flash forward four years, and he’s now part of DC Comics / Vertigo, one of the biggest players in the comics market. Lemire’s first novel for DC, The Nobody, came out this year, and he’s now working on a monthly series called Sweet Tooth, and another book for Top Shelf about impending fatherhood (Lemire himself is a proud new dad). Ultimately, he says, it was self-publishing that was key in launching his career.

“There is just no other way to get started,” Lemire says. “Who’s going to publish someone who’s never been published before? I mean, of course that happens on the rare occasion, but really most publishers need to see a published — or at least a finished — work to be able to get a sense of who you are and if it’s something they want to take on. In comics we’re lucky that it’s seen as cool to go the DIY route, and there’s actually grassroots support for that.”

And taking chances on new writers is continuing to pay off as the audience for graphic novels continues to widen. According to Publishers Weekly, North American graphic-novel and comic-book sales is one of the few areas of growth in the publishing industry, up to 715 million in 2008, versus 705 million in 2007. It’s a relatively small increase, but in an industry on the decline, any growth is deemed a success. Lemire’s view of his industry’s future is decidedly similar to the tone of his work: realistic with a dash of hopefulness.

“Eventually, it will all be digitally distributed and viewed, and only a few really high-end print editions will be done as collector’s items,” Lemire predicts.

“In terms of the medium itself, it’s really limitless.There are going to be more and more interesting young voices coming up in the comics, telling really diverse stories. It’s not just going to be white boys bred on superheroes like me anymore. I also think we’re seeing more and more female cartoonists emerging each year, and that’s really going to change a traditionally male-dominated medium for the better. The more diverse comics get, the more the medium can continue to grow and evolve... There are a lot more women coming up to me at shows and getting their books signed. It’s not just 18- to 40-year-old men with Batman T-shirts anymore.”