The philosophy of self-belief is one of the most powerful tools us mere mortals can possess and utilize. A vague concept to some, while to many female musicians today, it has revealed itself to be the driving force behind their tenacity and irrepressible confidence.
From Savages, Angel Olsen and Warpaint, 2014 is undoubtedly the year of the so-called fairer sex; who’ve been creating some of the most innovative, wild and courageous music we’ve experienced in years. And sitting poised on this reigning plinth is Annie Clark of St. Vincent.
Images of Clark ooze with a whimsical coolness and, with her newly acquired cloud of lilac hair, her dream-like persona is often tangible. The voice that greets Otwo on the other line is acerbic yet undoubtedly warm. “I just got back from church,” she asserts before falling into a quiet giggle confirming otherwise.
Her soft-spoken voice stands as a contrast from her punchy melodic inclinations, yet from the offset it’s clear music is the etheral core of this art rock darling.
“Music at its core is honestly magic and my first experience of it was ‘Wow, there’s this magic to the world’ that made me feel emotions I didn’t have and still don’t have reference or words for.” She explains, “It’s sort of everything to me. If there was anything fit to worship, I would say it would be music.”
For years prior to her 2007 debut album Marry Me, Clark certainly had been, and still is, a dedicated worshiper to the world of music. From the youthful age of twenty, Clark had meandered from project to project, notably the symphonic rock/pop band the Polyphonic Spree and then accompaning Sufjan Steven’s band in 2006, building up quite the early repertoire.
Melody courses through her veins while her heart beats with the rhythmicity of a steady drum. Her individuality is something that has inherently always been present, particularly in her artistic outlook. “I don’t really know another way to be” she explains.
“I’ve always just tried to make art that made me feel something or moved me or I thought was interesting because ultimately that’s all you have. Say you compromise and you make something that you frankly don’t really like and you think, ‘Well, maybe the punters will get into this, maybe this will make me a superstar.’
“The only trick with that is that you’re stuck singing and playing music you don’t like or care about, even if you become massively popular doing that, it’s a curse. I don’t think there’s any amount of money or fame that’s worth making art you don’t like. It never occurred to me to be any different.”
While Clark’s previous musical endeavours may have portrayed her as being more comfortable in a group utility, it wasn’t long before St. Vincent became a powerful entity of its own. With her eccentricities and dumbfounding talent for a plethora of instruments, Clark erupted on the scene with her twisting experimental debut.
However, it wasn’t until 2011‘s installment, Strange Mercy, that Clark truly blossomed. While themes of hurt and loss echoed through Marry Me, she opened her own emotional self in Strange Mercy; showcasing a more raw, personal side. To do so, the Dallas native underwent what she described as an “isolation/loneliness experiment.”
“I got out of town and I think that was the first record that I did the more Nick Cave approach to song writing where you just block out a big window and just go to work everyday; put on a suit and tie and just write and go to the studio for hours upon hours a day, just hoping something comes of it,” Clark explains.
“The writing process is very mysterious in that it’s almost kind of strange that anything ever gets made. Sometimes you feel in the midst of it like, ‘Oh wow, this is really going nowhere, but I’m still here, I’m still plugging away’. That’s one of the things I’ve learnt, and it’s not to trust my subjective mind.”
Her thought process is measured and astute, often taking prolonged pauses in the middle of her sentences to pick up the jumble of thoughts obviously cascading through her mind and align them into something outsiders can interpret. She stops and starts, allowing one to wonder is it down to her personality or your own foolish awkwardness in thinking such a thing.
Following the racuous success of ‘Strange Mercy’ what her audience were unaware of was that, behind the scenes, Clark was in cahoots with the great David Byrne of Talking Heads. Much like Clark, Byrne is a beast unable to be tamed. His talent and vision, both endearingly askew, have made him one of the most influential musicians since the mid 1970s.
“He’s a genius, he’s David Byrne and he’s managed to make pop music, make accessible music that also involves the lunative fringe. He’s not sentimental, he doesn’t look back, he’s always looking forward, hurling himself into the future,” gushes Clark.
“When I started making the record with him, many years ago, I mean it was a long process to get it here, I just had to pretend he wasn’t David Byrne. It reminded me of something I was told when I was a kid, when I was socially awkward and riddled with anxiety.
“I think it was my uncle who said, ‘Well, you know if you’re a shy person just pretend not to be shy and eventually you’ll become outgoing’. And it’s the truth. I just did the same thing and pretended he wasn’t David Byrne.”
What resulted from this enigmatic mix and years of email communicative toing-and-froing was Love This Giant, a pristine album of madness. From record to live show, their skills moulded together into a choreographed piece of utter delight. However, just 36 hours after falling off the touring bandwagon with Byrne and their brass ensemble, Clark was back up on the horse.
“I think when you come home from tour, there’s always some sort of reality shock. You’ve esentially been out in a travelling circus and you’re dropped off to your apartment looking around wondering why there isn’t someone tell when I should eat lunch.”
Clark admits, “That was an uncomfortable position for me and I was actually only in it for about 36 hours, I just started writing because I just needed to have some self-imposed structure.”
A master of transforming the banal into a twisted fantasy, Clark’s fourth album, St. Vincent, sees her embark on her darkest adventure to date. “I think that our subconscious mind really guides us more than our conscious mind have us believe.
“That’s what’s so great about music. You can go to the far regions and dark nooks and crannies and push things out, throw them up on the wall and really look at them. With music you can go to those places in a safe way. Like, you can go into the darkest shit and you’re not in any actual, imminent danger.”
One of her chosen singles, ‘Birth in Reverse’ is a prickly sea of percussion that takes everything about an ordinary day and turns it on its head. The line “Take out the garbage / masturbate” sneers at the banalities of our world which Clark peers at “through the blinds.”
‘Prince Johnny’, meanwhile, is a dense, taught character analysis where it’s difficult to seperate whether Clark is pitiful, mocking or enamoured by this elusive Johnny. Meanwhile, ‘Digital Witness’ takes a magnifying glass and holds it up to the social media lives we treasure so preciously for all to scrutinise.
“Well, I wonder now that we know the NSA is spying on us, have we kind of subconsciously made ourselves more transparent? There’s a gnawing sense that we have in fact lost all privacy,” ponders Clark in relation to the obligation we now hold for sharing every aspect of ourselves online.
“I wonder if a part of it is a defensive, reflexive move. But I think the trick is that when we’re dealing with the same interface all the time we have a hard time sifting through what’s meaningful and what’s not.
“Our brains lack the bandwidth to make that many valuable assessments in one day. Also, the idea of what fame is in 2014 is a confusing one because a cat with a really grumpy expression is arguably, well not arguably, is more successful that I will ever be. So, it’s not the same thing it was thirty years ago.”
Continuing her successful collaborations with producer John Congleton seems an integral ingredient to Clark’s creative process. “I think that there’s something that we understand about each other because of our southern roots.
“I grew up middle-class, and so did John, in Texas, surrounded by this very conservative, hilarious, and sometimes totally backward land. We had to navigate that.
“It’s one thing to grow up in New York with artists as parents and be a bohemian, but it’s another thing to grow up in the southern suburbs and be totally in a vanilla environment and you realise you don’t really belong there.”
Although Clark confirms she “feels like a weirdo” in her native Texas, she embraces and cherishes this obscurity. Inspired and strengthened in her individuality by Miles Davis. “He had said that one of the most important things for a musician to do was to sound like themselves.
“I think that that’s true, it’s easy to imitate because that’s how everyone learns, but to have a singular voice as a writer, a player, a singer; that’s harder to do and I think I’ve gotten better.”
Annie Clark is a gushing breath of fresh air whose intransigence ripes the sweetest of fruits. Be ready for the intrusion of her world into yours because with the tunes Clark has up her sleeve described as “totally fucking evil, it’s great,” you need to prepare yourself.
St. Vincent’s new self-titled album is out on February 24th and tickets for her gig in the Olympia Theatre on February 22nd are available from Ticketmaster.ie