By Zac Taylor & Ann Driscoll
On April 13, Annie Clark, a.k.a. St. Vincent, played a private, intimate show at Café 939 to a seated audience. Business Professor Jeff Dorenfeld was responsible for the invited guest list, among which was Newbury Comics CCO Duncan Browne. The nimble Clark strolled onto the stage and said, “Thanks for coming to the open mic,” with a sly grin before tearing into her first number. Banging away on a Fender Jaguar with an army of loopers, stompboxes, and an auxiliary vocal mic for distorted phrases, the chanteuse created sparkling, verb-drenched tapestries that elevated her songs to sonic compositions.
A former sidekick for The Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens, as a well as a Berklee alumna, the multi-instrumentalist songstress has got the magical ‘it.’ She occasionally set the guitar down and played some ballads on piano, like the title track off of her 2007 LP Marry Me, riffing with the crowd with an unabashed, unflinching stage presence between, and even during songs. She closed the set with a tune off of her new record Actor called “Marrow,” which had everyone humming afterwards.
The full band version of St. Vincent will be performing at the Somerville Theater May 19. After doing some meet and greets with some important music business clientele in the audience, Annie Clark was kind enough to chat with The Groove.
Zac Taylor: You made a few Berklee cracks during your set—that was cute.
Annie Clark: I did. You got to represent.
ZT: How long were you here?
AC: Three years.
ZT: Did you feel well-prepared?
AC: I think it’s good to learn as much as you can, then get out and unlearn as much as you can.
ZT: What would you have done differently on your first EP Ratsliveonnoevilstar? Were you still at Berklee when you made it?
AC: It was horrible. I did that my sophomore year or something. I haven’t listened to that in a really long time. I would say I should have put a little more Bill Callahan and a little less Herbie Hancock in it.
ZT: Did you really come to Berklee with 2s [for your ratings] and leave with 2s?
AC: Totally. I wasn’t a very good student. What’s the magic secret? Oh— Practicing.
ZT: I think tighter jeans and cigarettes works better than practicing around here. And blogging a lot.
AC: Really? Everybody blogs?
Ann Driscoll: And Twitters. Are you into twittering?
AC: I have to be honest—I started twittering, and I feel very uncomfortable about it. No one cares if I’m like, “Woke up. Ate a bagel.” My life is very boring. I would never want people to know how boring it is.
ZT: Did you go straight to Brooklyn from Berklee?
AC: I did. Then I ran out of money and moved back to Texas. It’s really expensive.
ZT: A lot of kids here are planning to make the move to New York to pursue music. What are some tricks of the trade on how to survive?
AC: I’m the worst person to ask, because I didn’t survive. I ran out of money. Sold a guitar to pay rent, which was way dumb. And then moved back to Texas. I only moved back to Brooklyn a year and a half ago, when I could afford to live there and not have to sell guitars. I’m not like a high roller or something. So I have no idea, because I tried and failed. So I wouldn’t ask me.
ZT: So you moved back to Texas, saved some money, and recorded some stuff?
AC: Yeah. I joined this band the Polyphonic Spree and finished the Marry Me record, and toured a bunch, then wrote with Sufjan, and then blah blah blah. And then started touring with my own St. Vincent thing a whole lot starting in 2007.
AD: So it’s really not that important to move to New York or LA, you can do it from Texas or a variety of locations.
AC: Yeah. I certainly know a lot of musicians in New York now, but I feel like I kind of know them because we’re on the same label, not because I necessarily know them as organically as I would have if I was like, “Oh yeah—I saw you at the open mic.” I know that people can do that and totally make it work, but I have no idea how to do that.
ZT: How’d you hook up with Sufjan Stevens?
AC: I had done about half of the Marry Me record, and he had heard it and liked it, and I had just agreed to work with Billions Corporation, which is his agency, and so many other bands. I kind of sought out the Billions Corporation, because I looked at their roster—Antony [and the Johnsons], Joanna Newsom, and Sufjan. It was like all my favorite artists ever.
ZT: Working with Producer John Congleton on Actor—
AC: Johnny C. We’re getting married. Could you start spreading that rumor?
ZT: We’ll tweet it for you. But you seem to be quite a savvy sound technician yourself. What was it like working with him? Did you reach a happy medium? Was he the boss or were you the boss?
AC: I think any good producer-artist/co-producer relationship has nothing to do with someone assholishly asserting their ego. It’s all about a common goal. We can sometimes disagree about what it would take to get there, but there’s no throwing your weight around. That’s a weird thing to put into a communicative situation. You both want the ship to sail. You just resolve to both commit to that, and not have an ego about it.
ZT: How much of the production and the arrangement is preplanned and how much do you experiment?
AC: All of the clarinet stuff, and all of the orchestral parts I arranged before recording. They were all put together, I knew what I was doing with those.
AD: What do you use to demo your ideas?
AC: I use Garageband and Logic. I wrote a lot of the music for the record in Logic. Technology. Awesome.
AD: How many pedals do you have?
AC: Too many. The pedals that I’m using right now are a fraction of what I own. Which is disgusting. It’s totally unnecessary. But it’s like Tourette’s or something. I can’t stop.
ZT: What year Jaguar do you have?
AC: That’s a weird Frankenstein Jaguar that I found at this place in Tuscon. I managed to find that guitar for like $200, and I think it’s Japanese, which is probably a rip-off. It’s kind of a monster of a guitar. Somebody did this really wonky job putting in new pickups. So some of the wiring and knobs don’t even work. It’s a guitar I don’t mind abusing, or being really brutal with. Not because I didn’t pay a lot for it, that’s the nature of that guitar. It just wants to be beat up.
ZT: Kurt Cobain would have been proud.
AC: It wants to be abused, and it has a whammy bar. Which is necessary.
ZT: Coming out of the gate of Berklee, what’s some general advice you have as far as the craft of songwriting? Did you scribble in a notebook for hours? Were you out gigging? What was your priority?
AC: Well, I knew I wanted to make an album, and release an album. I didn’t have any idea if anyone would hear it or any sense of that. But part of life is being moderately prepared at the right time at the right place. But I would say there’s not like a theorem or a formula or anything, except to just do what you really love to do, and follow that. Whatever makes you feel really awesome about yourself, about life—do that. And keep doing that. And keep doing that. And the other stuff, the ephemeral, and the things that are out of your control, will remain out of your control. Always. So focus on the things you can control. Make music that you love and believe in it. I know it sounds cheesy, but there’s not a shortcut in that regard. And in the process of doing that, you typically attract like-minded people.
AD: What’s your take on the music industry? How’s it treating you? Do you think it will recover? Is it possible to really be successful?
AC: Totally. There are so many tools at your disposal. Maybe the idea of the big father record company whose going to roll up, pork barrel, and there going to be tons of money flowing like wine—that’s not happening, because that’s not a very successful business model. But there are still labels that are thriving, and still booking agencies that are thriving. Because a $12 ticket—people can prioritize that if they want some escape. I think it’s changing but there will always be a supply and a demand.
AD: Well that’s encouraging.
AC: Totally. It’s not like the 80s. The idea of the ‘rock star’ I don’t think really exists anymore. Maybe Nickelback. Maybe that’s something.
ZT: The music video you made for “Actor out of Work” is really cool. But music videos aren’t really commercials for records anymore. So you have a beautiful video and website, and an excellent internet presence. What excites you the most about the way this industry’s changing? How are you capitalizing on that the best?
AC: I’m with a label called 4AD, who I really like, and everyone there is good at their job, and smart, and totally capable—and I kind of let them think about that. I used to do a blog, which was kind of okay, and I twitter, so I try to keep current, but I’m in my late-mid twenties, so things are changing and I feel like I’m older. I guess it means more access for people. There are a lot ways to get your thing out there. And I twitter. Usually about the bagel.