Actor, St. Vincent’s sophomore album, released earlier this year, is a lovely listen. In many ways it stands out as much for what it is not as it does for what it is.
Guitarist/composer/vocalist Annie Clark’s great-grandmother’s middle name was St. Vincent. Clark named her band St. Vincent as a way to bring her along on the adventure. Before releasing Marry Me, St. Vincent’s debut, in 2007, Clark performed and toured with the Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens—acts noted for their distinctive and certainly dissimilar sounds. There is nothing about St. Vincent’s music to connect the 27-year-old Clark with the Spree’s big-band sun worship or Stevens’ clockwork, pointy minimalism.
“Sufjan is kind of a great arranger and orchestrator, so I was just kind of a player in his orchestra,” Clark says. “In the Polyphonic Spree, I had some input on guitar parts, but it was not super-collaborative. I’ve been recording myself on a computer since I was about 14 or 15. I learned to multi-track and arrange things by ear by myself, and that’s kind of been my writing process since I started. So there wasn’t really a leap. I’ve been writing as long as I’ve been playing. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I’ll give this a shot.’ I was always going to do this.”
The beauty is that St. Vincent doesn’t sound much like any other band, period. As a guitarist, Clark has a diverse and still-growing set of sounds. She writes smart, literate lyrics that can sound like antique clock chimes in her voice. Instead of the confessionals or bad attitudes one often associates with music-makers looking down the barrel of 30, Clark’s lyrics lean more toward ciphers or magic realism. She says that prejudices related to her gender and being photogenic and being a gifted guitarist aren’t problems for her.
“I tend to not pay much attention to those kinds of categories,” she says. “For this record, I was more inspired by Disney films and Morricone than I was by Zeppelin or whatever. This record was more influenced by film score and me trying to stretch my legs a little as an arranger.”
Actor does have a lot of sounds on it, arrangement-wise; a lot of back and forth between big and little. Asked how she brings those sounds to life onstage, Clark describes a Swiss Army knife of a band: “I’ve got a woodwind player who also plays keyboards (Evan Smith ) and a violin player who also plays guitar (Daniel Hart) and a bass player who plays clarinet (William Flynn). And a drummer (Anthony LaMarca).”
“Laughing With a Mouthful of Blood” contains what may be the best line on Actor: “I’m sending consolation prizes to my next of kin.” “Marrow,” on the other hand, is just one of many treats for guitar wonks—spacious, orchestral loops of fuzzbox honk that have a sharper edge every time they swing back by, like strong coffee to keep Clark’s voice from seeming overly sweet.
“I was the kid who brought over Jethro Tull to second-grade sleepovers,” says Clark, asked about the process by which she learned guitar. “They really wanted to listen to Ace of Base, but I’m like, ‘No, you’ve got to check out ‘Aqualung.’’ I didn’t get invited back to a lot of sleepovers, but I had a lot of love for—still have a lot of love for—Steely Dan and Jethro Tull and Rush, anything on the proggier side of rock. I started taking lessons when I was around 12 and would go in and learn the songs that I liked. The songs I liked were pretty guitar-centric.”
Yet another guitarist whom Clark sounds nothing like, but who influenced her a great deal, is her uncle Tuck Andress, of the married jazz duo Tuck and Patti. As a teenager, Clark traveled with Tuck and Patti and worked as their road manager. If you’re interested in guitar and haven’t spent time with Tuck and Patti, do yourself a favor. Hyper-romantic and rooted in the ’70s sounds guitarist Joe Pass invented for duets with Ella Fitzgerald, it’s entirely conceivable that T&P’s Windham Hill-era records are responsible for more children than the return of troops following World War II.
“I watched my uncle Tuck play a lot,” Clark says. “I don’t know how much of it is genetic and how much I might have learned by watching him play so much. I started playing a lot more finger-style guitar, stuff that’s a lot more influenced by jazz. Now I’m in a phase where I want to feel like I’m playing the guitar with my whole body. Now I want to feel like I’m throwing the entire weight of my body into every note that I play.”
Photos by Annabel Mehran