Worshiping St. Vincent

Annie Clark is an indie star two decades in the making

It is the summer of 1988, as far as she can recall now, and Annie Clark is in the backseat of the car, on a family trip from Minnesota back to Oklahoma. Everyone is sick, and frequent pit stops are necessary. But Clark will not be deterred. She begins to write a song, her first. She teaches it to her sister, and keeps insisting she sing the melody while Clark provides the beat beneath it. This goes on until Clark's sister becomes annoyed. But Annie, the middle child of nine siblings, will not be deterred.

"It was just fun to me," Clark, the singer now known as St. Vincent, says 19 years later. "It was more fun, in a different way, than just going outside and playing and riding bikes and doing kid stuff."

It is the summer of 2005. This time, Clark is leaving Manhattan for Dallas, where she moved when she was 7. She had saved some money and moved to New York City because she thought she was supposed to — the city being "a bastion of culture." She played a little with old-guard avant-gardist Glenn Branca in his 100-guitar symphony — not quite the place to get noticed. She also wrote and recorded her own songs. They became her first demos — a bare-bones collection of country-and-cabaret tracks that would eventually garner her gushing comparisons to everyone from Kurt Weill to Burt Bacharach to Edith Piaf.

Turns out, though, when she got done with the songs in N.Y.C., she hated every last one of 'em.

"You don't spend a year on a record, mix it every day for a week, and then listen to it the day after you finish," she says, laughing. Clark looks in person like she does in her vast collection of publicity stills — small and fragile, pale skin and wide eyes beneath tousled black hair.

"But I listened to it, and it was heartbreaking," she continues. "So I did what any young girl on the wild streets of New York would do, and I went out and partied for a long time. Well, not a long time — a summer. And then my money ran out. And then I came with my tail between my legs back to Dallas."

Clark didn't give up in the summer of 2005. When she came back to Dallas, she signed on with the Polyphonic Spree. It took all of, oh, three weeks to get the job. "It was like getting nursed back to health or something," she says over lunch, sitting on the patio of an East Dallas restaurant as the rain begins to pelt the rooftop.

Clark toured with the Spree, played on its new album The Fragile Army, went on the road with indie sweethearts Sufjan Stevens and John Vanderslice, got mash notes on every influential blog around, and kept on writing and recording.

Annie Clark the 5-year-old had fun writing songs. Annie Clark the 22-year-old almost quit writing songs. And now, Annie Clark the 24-year-old, better known as St. Vincent, has released her first disc, Marry Me. The disc came out on Beggars Banquet — home to Radiohead's Thom Yorke, Voxtrot, Tapes N Tapes, the National, and other trustworthy brand names in the MP3 blogosphere, where Clark's been a burgeoning star going on a year now. Fact is, she could have had her pick of labels; Capitol Records was among the most major of companies courting her a few months back, and others tried to date her as well.

Marry Me is ethereal and frail in spots (the piano intro to "We Put a Pearl in the Ground"), gritty and downright apocalyptic in others ("Your Lips Are Red" — even its title a threat). The disc is a constant surprise a dozen listens in — the kaleidoscopic sounds of yesterday, today, and tomorrow made by a woman just at the beginning of a career.

Clark says her approach came from a restless, ADD-riddled attitude. "If you listen to the record, it's like, 'I wanna make a jazz standard, I wanna write a song like this, I wanna write a song like that ... ,'" she says. "I was listening to Billy Strayhorn's 'Lush Life' and going, 'This is the best lyric I've ever heard. I wanna do this.'"

The St. Vincent star adds that she's more interested in songcraft than superstardom. "So much of life can be really boring and tedious and hurry-up-and-wait and pay your bills," she says. "That's modern existence, I guess. But I still think there's so much power in art. I know — it's like, 'OK, kid, get back to '69,' or whatever, but I think that it's vital. I [wouldn't] do this if I didn't think that music in some way was a vitalizing experience, a validating experience, like, 'Oh my God, we're fucking alive, and isn't this insane that this is happening?' It's a reason to live, I guess."

 
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