Beginner’s Guide to St. Vincent
There’s a reason everybody is talking about Annie Clark.
May 1, 2014 | Festival | May 2014
A lot of conversations about St. Vincent go like this: “Dude no, she’s actually, like, a really incredible technical guitarist. Yeah. Plus like she’s so, so hot.”
I first overheard the above comment (with some variation) in high school. It wasn’t often that my wannabe-shredder, indie rock obsessed male classmates gave female musicians any credit for their musical ability–girls were supposed to dance at rock shows, not play their own. I went home and listened to her first album. I was hooked.
My appreciation turned to worship after seeing her live at Bonnaroo 2012. “Marry me, Annie!” shouted a wearing a metallic tank top and a goatee. He was calling St. Vincent by her real name, Annie Clark. He pushed his way into the press of skin and spandex as the first scratchy chords pumped into the air.
Any description of St. Vincent requires a lengthy list of her talents and successes, which pile up and make a legend out of her. She’s a guitar player and a charismatic performer, and a poetic lyricist. In interviews, she does little to dispel her own myth, talking freely about her composition process (most recently, about her use of distortion and synth) but never delves into her personal life. If her lyrics ever reference private heartbreak or her dating life, we’d never hear it from her. She’s made a career as a musician without sweetening her center to gain fans, or conforming to a popular idea of how female musician approach composition–her lyrics aren’t confessional, and her music is uninterested in revealing her private life or sexuality.
Clark began playing the guitar when she was 12 (she’s now 32). Her first studio album was Marry Me, released in 2007, and her recent eponymous album was released last year through Lorna Vista and Republic Records. Clark constructs her songs around impossibly intricate guitar riffs and inventive narrative personas within her lyrics, which range from cult leader to housewife. And is she really, like, so hot? Decide for yourself in the videos below–if you can focus on anything besides the music.
Guitar and good looks aside, Annie Clark writes fascinating music. Clark has said of her compositions, “I’m more intuitive—it’s always more about chasing an abstraction.” The result is a complex study in contrasts: hyperactive anxiety with dreamy instrumentals and crooning melodies, sudden transitions and contortionist guitar. Her lyrics are darkly humorous, full of cultural references ranging from Arrested Development to Eric Rohmer films. In many songs, including 2012’s Love This Giant, her collaboration with David Byrne, heavy electronicized horns deepen and expand into base lines topped with sculptural guitar riffs. In her latest album, St. Vincent altering her voice and emphasized electronic sounds to a larger extent than ever before.
Listening to St. Vincent is about how I’d imagine an outer-space adventure with exuberant alien abductors, or a trip to a musical Twilight Zone. You might get uncomfortable, and you won’t come back the same.
Here are my top tracks from each of her albums:
The perfect introduction to St. Vincent, off her debut album. “Marry me, John/ I’ll be so good to you”—d’aw, it’s a love song! Wait..no. No it’s not. She sings, “But you, you’re a rock with a heart/Like a socket I can plug into at will” and she wants to “do what Mary and Joseph did/without the kid.” A cynical subversion of a classic lovey-dovey ballad accessorized with perky backup vocals and romantic strings.
Calm, quiet. Too quiet… then wham, distorted guitar out of nowhere and cries of “H-E-L-P/Help me, help me.” Badass instrumentals and subtle, pleading vocals come together into a startlingly fun-to-dance-to song.
My favorite video: a stoic housewife singing at us while she’s kidnapped, tortured and buried by her husband and two kids. Quiet desperation and domesticity gets edgy with a jagged guitar.
From St. Vincent’s collaboration with the infamous David Byrne, I had to include this song largely because of the video: David Byrne, shaking his butt at the camera. Give me more, please. Then he leads Annie Clark in a butt-shaking dance down the street. Amazing. I’m also a fan of the self-deprecating lyrics, which chronicle one man’s difficult search for a special lady friend (though with moves like that, who would turn him down?!)
This one’s off St. Vincent’s most recent album. In an interview with the Boston Globe, Clark said “I feel like every record I make, there’s some sort of archetype that tends to emerge… on this record, the thing that started to emerge was near-future cult leader.” Her comments might shed some light on the video, a gorgeous aesthetic hybrid of The Jetsons, the Communist bloc and my old orthodontist’s office, shot outside Madrid. Surreal lyrics probe our relationship with technology while Clark’s voice slides across a backing surface of distorted guitar, horns and a strong beat. She wants all of your mind…
If you’re at Pitchfork Fest this year, be sure to catch St. Vincent live and in person. She does a cover at every show. She performed this version of The Beatles’ “Dig A Pony” at the 2009 All Points West Festival—she takes Lennon’s mostly-nonsensical song and somehow turns it into an incredibly sexy rock’n’roll ode with, as per usual, incredible guitar.
See the North American leg of St. Vincent’s 2014 tour at: Pitchfork Fest 2014, Hopscotch Music Festival, Festival International de Jazz de Montreal, Festival d’Ete de Quebec, Ottawa Bluesfest or Halifax Jazz Festival.