When Annie Clark, the 26-year-old singer and multi-instrumentalist who performs as St. Vincent, found herself bereft of ideas while writing material for what became her second album Actor, she popped in a few movies, screening Disney films, Woody Allen's Stardust Memories, Terrence Malick's Badlands. She imagined scoring scenes from the films, writing a line or two for each scene, then synthesizing those fragments before a computer screen, writing everything in MIDI before taking it to live musicians.
Not that Actor necessarily sounds like film music; there's no sense that these songs were ever in the background, and they would have to be main themes or credit music, each and every one of them. But there are touches one associates with different eras of film and film music - warbling background vocals ethereally ascending a scale as if Dorothy were entering the land of Oz, a repetition of themes and ideas across songs.
Clark hardly seems like she's just on her second album, though it's easy to believe that she's a music school dropout - an aggressive but smart guitarist, she was good enough to get into Berklee, but too cool to stay. The Dallas native, who started playing guitar at age 12, left school to play for the gigantic psych band The Polyphonic Spree, which might seem something like getting snapped up into a cult, given the Spree's billowing cloaks and ecstatic music. But she broke free, joining the band of orchestra indie rocker Sufjan Stevens before going solo.
Clark spoke with NUVO a week before her Sept. 29 concert with Andrew Bird at the Murat Theatre, the kickoff for a short tour with Bird. (She'll also play a free in-store at Luna Music earlier in the day.) Towards the end of the interview, I asked her if she would perform any numbers with Bird. "I wouldn't put it past us, but mum's the word. It could be explosive," she trailed off.
"Not like Great White nightclub fire explosive, right?" I jokingly asked.
"Oh, shit. It got dark there... Fear not," she assures. "No tragedies."
NUVO: Your music has been compared to film scores, and I think you might also call them tone poems, in that they conjure up a specific landscape, can be associated with a specific artwork.
Clark: Very much so. I wanted to make music that was a much visual and visceral as it was audio, and because so much of the inspiration for it was just visual, hopefully that feeds into it more.
NUVO: Would you think about scoring for a film?
Clark: Yeah, I'm still waiting by the phone, but I would love to do that. I'll let you know when the switchboard lights up.
NUVO: And do you have any interest in film production?
Clark: One thing I did recently was shoot a video for the song "Marrow" off the record [Actor]. And I think, even more so than in any other video shoot I've ever done, I was so keenly aware of how, in a film set, the most fascinating jobs, the most interesting hard work, the most gratifying labor had nothing to do with the actors. Set design, lighting design, cinematography - all of that, to me, seems like it would be so much fun and also such a gratifying job. Those people were working like crazy and then it was like, "OK, Annie. Come in here and walk 20 paces. OK, cut." Granted, actual acting is a lot more difficult or engaged than what I did, but they're the real makers of the art.
NUVO: The auteur theory of film becomes less compelling when you know all those people are involved.
Clark: It's really true, down to getting a great editor who's going to put it all together in the right way. It's really interesting work, just from the tiny bit of experience I have of something vaguely similar to film.
NUVO: How does film production compare to your own process, where you construct the music in solitude before bringing it to a group?
Clark: I used Garage Band and Logic and I would create the music. For example, on the song "Marrow," everything was scored out and written before I went in to record it. I said, "This is what this note ought to be and here's the sax line." I had to hire super-capable players to come in and play what's on the page. But that said, there was a lot of creative collaboration with John Congleton, who co-produced the record, in terms of sonics, and also McKenzie Smith, who played drums on most of the record. There was more of a creative dialog - "Hey, what if we try this?" I think that's the easiest way for me to work, to have a clear vision and have so much of it done and scored out and taken care of. It almost gives you more freedom with the rest of the parts because you have such a sturdy road map as to where it's going to go.
NUVO: Did you learn composition at Berklee or somewhere else?
Clark: No, actually, at Berklee - what did I do? - I was a guitar major. I wish I could go back again and do film scoring or something like that. I think most of my compositional knowledge, which I would really call vague compositional intuition, because it's not that studied, because it's just using my ears, really. There are people who are arrangers and who have this vast amount of knowledge about where certain instruments are going to sound best or crack or falter, but I would just have a certain giddiness - "Look, I'm writing a part for clarinet!" - and maybe there's something helpful about that in a sense, that I didn't feel bogged down with knowing that I can't do that or this ought to go this way. I'm so excited by the novelty of writing for orchestral instruments.
NUVO: What were the challenges in translating this material to stage?
Clark: Translating to stage was definitely a process. I think, with the case of the first record, a lot of the extra instrumentation was ornamentation. With this record, the arrangements and the musical interludes really are just the songs. They're so integral to the narrative of just the songs. It's not as if I could go, "OK, well, we'll just do this one solo on an acoustic guitar." The trick was I have really capable, super-talented, multi-instrumentalists in the band. My woodwind player Evan Smith plays every woodwind imaginable and keyboards and sings well. Someone like that is really valuable. My violinist is a really talented violinist and also a really good harp player. Even my bass player plays clarinet and cello. I managed to find these really talented versatile players, and that's been the key to performing a lot of it live, because I'm not relying on a lot of samplers or laptops for it. It's pretty much performed live, completely by humans.
NUVO:Tuck Andress [a jazz-musician uncle for whom she worked as a tour manager in her teens] told the New York Times this about your guitar playing, and I wonder if it rings true - "She's physically a very intense player. She takes a kind of ferocious approach to the technique of the guitar, a real high energy."
Clark: I can play guitar in any number of styles. But... I was recording a really brief guitar solo for a friend of mine's record. It's not all that often that I'm guest playing on people's stuff, although I'd love to do it more and more. I'm playing, and I realized that I was throwing my whole body physically into what I was playing, and I started to realize it. You don't think about it when you're on stage - you just kind of go. But I was in this constrained studio situation, and I realized I was spazzing out. I thought, whoa, this is how I play guitar, and not in every musical setting when it's not called for, but I try to literally throw the weight of my body into the notes. I don't know if that's audible, but it at least makes it a more visceral and tangible experience for me.
NUVO: Are you still looking to outfit your bus for bio-diesel?
Clark: It's a good idea, but unfortunately, so far, it hasn't proved that practical. I haven't done it yet... I'm probably going to do it... I might do it. It's good for the environment. I haven't done it, but I at least feel guilty that I haven't done it, so maybe that counts for something.