There’s a scene in the video for the song Cruel, in which Annie Clark, the 29-year-old multi-instrumentist who records and performs as St Vincent – is held prisoner in the boot of a car by a Stepford-style family, feet bound and head hooded. Despite her captivity, she has inexplicably managed to hold on to her electric guitar, out of which she plucks the song’s spectacular, Blondie-like hook, over a percussion line snagged from Lipps, Inc’s 1980 hit Funky Town. “I’ve been playing for so long that I don’t remember not being able to play. I just remember being obsessed with it,” Clark says, nibbling on an octopus and potato dish in the candlelit patio garden of a small Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village in Manhattan. Why on earth, in those circumstances, would she ever have dreamed have letting go of her guitar?
Does she still have her first guitar? “No. It was a three-quarter-sized classical guitar. I traded it in for an electrical, a Peavey Raptor – one of those terrible guitars you’d sell with the terrible amp in a package bargain deal.” Her current favourite is a 1967 Harmony Bobkat, which she explains is “not technically a great guitar, it’s not necessarily a player’s guitar, but the pickups are fantastic, and it has a super-sensitive whammy bar, so you can bend notes really quickly”. It’s a trick she deploys with aplomb on her recently released third album, Strange Mercy, sending thick crunching strings off into jagged waves of noise. “Oh, I use and abuse it,” she says. “Guitar is just something I can do. So much of it now is muscle memory, just instinct.”
The unsettling, cinematic quality of her most recent videos is fitting for an artist who steeps her work with film references: Strange Mercy lifts from the work of director Eric Rohmer and the barbiturate-laced musings of Marilyn Monroe’s diaries. Clark writes eerily elegant rock songs, pristine numbers weighted with unsettling subtexts. In Cruel’s case, the video seems to point to the communicative power of music, and it’s ability to speak for us when we are otherwise voiceless. She declines to accept credit for the video, which was written by director Terri Timely, but concedes the interpretation feeds neatly into the album’s themes of bondage and release. “That’s a beautiful way to look at it,” she considers. “I guess trying to throw my body into the guitar is so natural for me that I don’t even know how to explain it. I can’t imagine life without it. I’m unqualified to do anything other than music.”
Clark started playing the guitar as a 12-year-old in Dallas, holing herself up in her bedroom to master chords. She taught herself to sing by yowling along to Pearl Jam albums (three solo albums in, and she’s “only recently” taken singing lessons). In 2001, she moved to Boston, to study at Berklee College of Music, but dropped out after three years and joined the Polyphonic Spree, the group who truly put the “cult” into “cult band”. Then came a spell in Sufjan Stevens’s backing band, before she went solo for 2007’s thrilling debut, Marry Me. The followup, 2009’s Actor, was written using the software program GarageBand, but for Strange Mercy, Clark underwent a “technology detox”, coaxing sketches of songs from simple guitar melodies. Starting them that way, she explains, “meant they’d have a compass, a whole roadmap”.
She wanted to create “something to really dig into live” with Strange Mercy. That meant out with riffs, and in with hooks. “I don’t do a lot of strumming on this record because I think it’s really boring,” she says. “Guitar can take up all of the mid-range, and I can’t think of a more boring thing to put in this wide swath of EQ. There’s a little strumming on Cheerleader, and Year of the Tiger, but it’s tucked in.”
The resulting work is a sublime affair, sewn together with intense, ambiguous narratives and Clark’s beguilingly languid vocals. Performing the songs has become something of an exorcism for her. “A song has a life of its own. It’s an autonomous thing, separate from your own experience, almost,” she says. “And the mere repetition of it means it’s subject to change; it means approaching it differently, expressing different emotional aspects of it. It doesn’t feel like wallowing.”
The talk of wallowing is interesting, given the word’s association with depressive illnesses. Clark is candid about her past experiences with anxiety attacks, which began when she was eight or nine. “I was very ashamed of it,” she says. “I thought I was going crazy and I didn’t want anyone to know. Everyday life was fraught. I always needed to know where the exits were.” Out of her anxiety bloomed a skill for dark, disarming humour. In the song Northern Lights, she gazes at the aurora borealis and sees only a harbinger of the “end times”. “I guess I thought that line was kinda funny,” she says with a gentle shrug.
If Actor smothered Clark’s darker self under a permasmile of Disney sunshine symphonic pop, Strange Mercy is an ecstasy of release. There’s a breathless, sultry sense of sex pervading the record, from the striking fetishistic art cover to the opening track Chloe in the Afternoon, an electrifying S&M fantasy based on Eric Rohmer’s 1972 film of the same title. “I’ve always been drawn to the subversive. I think power and how to wield power is an interesting thing to unpack. And the dynamics of power, be it in a sexual context, or general life, is interesting to me.” Her recent frenetic, shred-heavy covers of Big Black’s Bad Penny and Kerosene seem to fit in with that direction, given Big Black’s consistent interest in the most violent and unpleasant expressions of power relationships. Those songs also let her explode in a way her own songs perhaps do not. “I was in rehearsal the whole weekend,” she said. “We were playing a song – Northern Lights, I think – and I had a real guitar moment,” she says. “My keyboard player just looked at me and said, ‘Annie, why are you so angry?’ He was kidding, of course, but there are few outlets that let you really sort out your head without hurting anybody.”
Strange Mercy, she says, is very much about anaesthetising pain, and searching for ways to transform, “to be a whole person”, a sentiment expressed in a line Clark lifted from Monroe’s diaries for the song Surgeon: “Best finest surgeon, come cut me open.” “Marilyn was this relic of the 60s, and not particularly compelling when I was younger, but when I started reading about her, I really sympathised,” she says. “For all the Hollywood glitz, it was a pretty dark life. That line was just the strangest, most poignant line. I wonder how she’d feel about it being put into a pop song.”
The Monroe story, of course, ended badly: she was found dead in her bedroom by her psychoanalyst, her blood filled with nembutal and chloral hydrate. It was ruled to be suicide, though conspiracy theories abound. For Clark, though, there is something somehow redeeming in having been able to look back at Monroe’s troubles and find a spark that could give life to new art. “Creating something out of something unfortunate feels productive,” she says. She gives a small, satisfied nod.
Charlotte Richardson Andrews, The Guardian