Annie Clark has re-imagined her St Vincent alter ego on her new album, says Ed Power.
WHAT’s happened to Annie Clark, aka St Vincent? She used to be earnestly unprepossessing, a picture of girl-next-door innocuousness, with frizzy, loose-hanging ringlets. Three years later, she’s the indie Lady Gaga — a pasty mannequin with a platinum-bleach fright wig, a retro-future wardrobe worthy of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and plastic mirror-shades concealing half her face.
How can she have changed so much?. “I start from the premise that everything is performance,” Clark says, in the austere function room of a fashionable Dublin hotel. “Whether you are on stage with an acoustic guitar or doing a choreographed dance, you are still communicating something. I just wanted to heighten that. It’s better than going out and strumming along. That doesn’t interest me at all.”
The makeover goes beyond hairstyle and fashion. On the cover of her new album, St Vincent, Clark pouts and preens like a refugee from a Fritz Lang science fiction movie. She sits atop a throne, delivering her best fembot scowl, while her hair, immaculately styled, explodes in eight directions at once. The changeover carries through to her music — more angular and clattering, and far, far catchier than previously.
“I love art and design and all these things,” she says. “I wanted to synthesise the images that inspired me, to elevate the music, as a result. I wanted to have fun. In a way, it’s always been like that. If you go back to the very start of my career, the reason I chose to go as ‘St Vincent’, rather than by my own name, is because I was eager to create something bigger than I am.”
St Vincent the album was put together over a few months, shortly after Clark came off a year-long tour in support of the album, Love This Giant, she recorded with former Talking Heads leader, David Byrne (including a memorable stop-off at Electric Picnic 2013). She’d told her manager she planned on travelling to South America — to venture “off the grid” a while. A few days later, she was back in the studio, hard at work.
“It took about 36 hours for me to get the itch,” she says. “I’d gone on the road with my last album, Strange Mercy — then straight into the ‘Love This Giant Tour’, with David.
“It had been such a blur — all these wild nights out, galleries I’d visited, places I’d seen, books I had read… so, so much. You don’t take it in, because you are travelling constantly. I wanted to throw all that down in a room.”
Clark has described her new sound as “party music for a funeral”, which speaks to the tension between the stark lyrics, the industrial instrumentation, the sugar-dust melodies.
“The sounds are manipulated to the point where they feel alien,” she says.
“Touring with David definitely influenced me. It showed me how to be more light-hearted. It was very joyful, very bizarre. Every night, I’d watch the audience get up and dance. That is tremendously inspiring. I said to myself, ‘I want to write an album that gets people dancing’.”
Clark’s ten-year career has followed an unusual trajectory — in that she has had a ten-year career. “I feel very lucky that I have had a chance to develop. I am aware that’s not always the case. Mostly, nowadays, people get maybe two records. Then, it’s a case of ‘okay, we’ve got it, now we’re onto the next thing’,” she says.
Clark grew up in a suburb of Dallas, the eldest of a family that has Irish roots (her middle name is Erin and she claims Cork origins). Clark honed her guitar playing in a local metal covers-bands, before moving to Boston to study. She dropped out of college, spent time in New York, and returned to Texas, where she joined Polyphonic Spree, a 24-piece outfit fronted by local scenester, Tim DeLaughter.
That led to a support slot with ethereal folkie, Sufjan Stevens, and, then, a record deal with 4AD in the UK. “You can’t rush into finding your voice,” she says. “I don’t know many people who are that amazing when they start out. They have to mature into it. It seems as if my audience has grown with each record. I’m happy with that.”
Clark was never a show-off growing up. Early in her career, she was ambivalent about whether she wanted to be the centre of attention on stage. She outgrew her worries, because she had no choice.
“Nervousness is always an issue,” she says. “I can’t actually remember how it felt like at the start. It’s been so long. I just know that it [stage-fright] was there. I feel lucky — I’ve had room to develop.”
Clark is aware her new image may unsettle some older fans, even as it wins new ones. In the end, Clark is wary of placing too great an emphasis on the aesthetic choices she has made. If the songs don’t hold their own, everything else is window-dressing. That was true at the start of her career and remains so now.
“It all comes back to the music,” she says. “You could re-work your image every day. If the music doesn’t stand up, everything else falls apart.
“You always have to keep that in mind.”
* St Vincent is out now.
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