St. Vincent no longer at technology's mercy
To connect with her psyche, Annie Clark disconnects from the digital world for a while
Annie Clark is like a musical hadron collider, taking bits and pieces from various corners of pop culture and smashing them together to make the music of St. Vincent. Take "Cruel," a track from her new album, "Strange Mercy." In just over 3 1/2 minutes, the song takes two disparate threads and merges them to create something unexpectedly joyful. The first is a kind of 1930s, Disney-soundtrack style melody that climbs for a few measures before dropping; you can almost see cartoon daisies singing along as they bob back and forth. The second is a New Wave dance beat. Midway through, a chain-saw guitar takes over on vocals, and from there on out, all voices move forward in sync with one another.
The experiment that is St. Vincent is not limited to sound. Clark got the title of her 2007 album, "Marry Me," from the recently revived sitcom "Arrested Development." Her band name comes from the now closed St. Vincent's hospital in New York City, the place where poet Dylan Thomas went to die after drinking himself to near death at the White Horse Tavern. The lyrics from her song "Surgeon" are from one of Marilyn Monroe's diary entries.
It's funny, then, that the songs on "Strange Mercy" grew from a self-imposed period of solitude in Seattle (she lives in New York) in which she stopped checking email and texting, among other things. Constant communication via smartphones and computers had taken over her life, and she wanted to eliminate them to focus on writing the new album.
"I wanted to do a technology detox, take a quick audit of how this constant stream of text messages or emails which create this false sense of urgency which totally take your dopamine levels on a roller-coaster ride," Clark says. "I wanted to see how all of that was affecting my ability to think."
She spent long (12-hour) days in the studio writing with just an acoustic guitar. After a month, she left Seattle for her hometown of Dallas, where she and producer John Congleton, who has worked with Okkervil River and Explosions in the Sky among others, put everything "through the meat grinder." They deconstructed the songs, picking them apart and finding fragments here and there that would become "Strange Mercy."
It was a different process than Clark's last album, which she says was built from the ground up using Garage Band software without any actual instruments. She also hoped to take the music in a darker direction than in the past. To that end she uses more distortion and guitar than her previous efforts, resulting in something more forceful than "Marry Me" and "Actor." She has also assembled a new group of musicians to play what she calls more of a rock 'n roll show than anything she's ever done in a live setting.
"I wanted this tour and this record to be less about the more flowery aspects of what I do and more synthesized and heavier," Clark says.
If there is something about the music that recalls the Talking Heads, it might have something to with her long-distance collaborative project with former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne. When asked whether Byrne's music has influenced her, Clark cites the Talking Heads' 1980 album "Remain in Light" as her favorite. Like her music, that album takes familiar sounds and twists them around.
"They're all pop songs, they're all super memorable, but it's really strange. It's a pop song in a really unconventional way, and that's the golden place that I shoot for as well," she says. The two are shooting for a release sometime next year.
As for her break from technology, Clark says the results were mixed — "I was kind of relieved. I hadn't really had dinner with anyone in a month."
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