Beneath St. Vincent's Arty, Complex Music Is the Heart of a Rock Star

Under the stage name St. Vincent, Annie Clark records arty, complex music that is at turns pretty and ragged, but almost always challenging to the listener. She's become a critics' darling and indie sensation.

But the 29-year-old Clark is no stuffy, pompous artist. In a short phone conversation, it's clear that she relishes the thrill of being a rock star. Witness her performance at this year's Coachella, when she dove into the crowd to surf on top of it.

"I'm not having a lot of conscious thought when I'm in the crowd," she says. "It's all chaos. You hope nobody drops you."

Was she scared? "If I had been scared I wouldn't have done it," she says. "It's the closest you can feel to possessed. You're on that fine line of maybe getting hurt. And that's fun."

Clark has been riding a wave of success, both critical and commercial. Her third album, Strange Mercy, was released last fall and landed on many best of lists for 2011. It's notable for being more abrasive than her previous efforts. And it showcases Clark's stellar guitar playing.

Clark grew up in Texas and began playing guitar at age 12. Her uncle, jazz guitarist Tuck Andress, was an early influence: Clark briefly worked as a tour manager for his band, Tuck & Patti, as a teenager.

"I didn't grow up wanting to be a guitar god or something in that revered way," she says. "It's the instrument I know how to express myself on in a way that's beautiful or really aggressive."

She bristles at the clichéd women-in-rock question, though, preferring not to talk about feminism or gender differences in the music business. "I don't like any question about gender," she says. "I find it reductive. It's also too difficult to answer in a soundbite."

The standout track on Strange Mercy is "Cruel," which contrasts Clark's ragged guitar playing, her tender voice, and a disco beat. The melody, though catchy, is elusive in an anti-pop way. But it fits the song's theme, which is emotional disconnect, as she sings: "Bodies, can't you see what everybody wants from you?/ If you could want that too then you'll be happy."

Most of the album was written in Seattle, where Clark went to find isolation. Her friend Jason McGerr of the band Death Cab for Cutie provided a studio for her to work in. She's called the experience a "loneliness experiment," as she sought to escape the chaos of New York and her burgeoning popularity. She found herself making friends with complete strangers, like the doorman of the hotel where she stayed.

Clark says that writing is often done on the fly. "I don't have the luxury of taking a week's vacation to see what comes to me. You have to be a little scrappy about it.

"Melodies and words do just come into my head, and I have to make sure I'm there with a net or an iPhone to record it," she adds. "Songwriting is often taking all the little twigs you've collected over the months and saying, ‘Okay, what goes where?' Usually, you decide here is the story, here's the arc, let's go with that."

Clark recently completed a project with one her idols, David Byrne. On stage, Clark has a presence similar to Byrne: Both have herky-jerky mannerisms. Again, the thrill of being a rock star—and fan—shines through when talking about the experience. "It was so cool," she gushes. "David Byrne is as exactly as cool and cooler than you'd think he'd be."

Did she learn anything working with him? "He's very organized. I can see why he is as productive as he his," she says. "He's all over the place, so he's incredibly organized and focused. I thought I was organized."

Slated to be released later this year, the project pushes both artists into new ground. It is centered on a brass band. "When people hear that they think, ‘Oh, this will be merely an art project,'" she says. "But we've written some really compelling songs. It's turned out even more accessible than I thought it would be."

Neither artist can play any brass instruments. But that didn't deter them from branching out. They picked the instruments as a way of focusing the project: "Besides the fact that it's a collaboration, let's have that be the color we're painting with," she says.

"Sometimes ignorance can be an advantage," she says. "I don't play brass and I'm not an arranger. My songwriting is more intuitive and by ear. But we came up with some great arrangements and songs."