St. Vincent is the latest project from multi-instrumentalist and singer Annie Clark, a veteran musician who has performed in some of the most revered ensembles in the indie-rock scene, including Sufjan Stevens' touring band and The Polyphonic Spree. More recently, Clark struck out on her own with Marry Me, a Beggars Banquet release that showcases the Dallas-bred musician's talent on for creating complex, moody pop and her equal handiness with sly lyrical metaphors and the various instruments she wields. Following breakout solo shows at SXSW and a tour with John Vanderslice, Clark recruited a band—including violinist and multi-instrumentalist Daniel Hart (Physics Of Meaning), bassist Bill Flynn, and drummer Walker Adams—for a string of dates supporting The Arcade Fire and an extensive summer tour with Scout Niblett. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Clark about what it's like proposing to John Vanderslice every night, the secret to The Arcade Fire's dominance on the Whirlyball court, and her phobia of voicemails.
The A.V. Club: So, Marry Me. Kind of desperate, no?
Annie Clark: Completely. But you're supposed to say it like my old Jewish grandmother, like, "Marry me!"
AVC: Oh, like Maeby says it on Arrested Development?
AC: Like on Arrested Development. Exactly.
AVC: When you did that song on your tour with John Vanderslice, you prefaced it by saying that he was the "John" you were proposing to. Is that true?
AC: Well, he was the nearest John around. He's a pretty good John, I think, to sing it to. He's a hell of a John.
AVC: That must have made for some awkward moments.
AC: He has a girlfriend too, so that's super awkward. He was cute about it though. He never actually said yes or no. He just kept me hanging on. That's why I had to sing it to him every night, because he wouldn't give me a straight answer.
AVC: One of the lines in that song that always gets a laugh is "We'll do what Mary and Joseph do / Without the kids." What is that, exactly?
AC: Well, I guess it was pre-birth control when they were doing their thing, so they probably made immaculate love.
AVC: And that's what you want to do?
AC: [Laughs] Make sweet, sonic, immaculate love.
AVC: You use a lot of Christian iconography, both in your name and your lyrics. Are you a religious person?
AC: I grew up around a lot of various religions, so it's a part of my consciousness in a way. Everything from heavy Catholicism to followers of Indian spiritual masters to Unitarian universalists—all in one family. Though the family aspect was stronger than any particular dogma.
AVC: Are you mocking the faithful?
AC: Oh, mocking is such a harsh word. But I think anything that you can't poke fun at is a little too precious.
AVC: What's more precious than God's love?
AC: [Laughs] Sweet, immaculate conception.
AVC: Speaking of religions, what was your experience like with The Polyphonic Spree?
AC: Yeah, speaking of religions. Although, there was no "sign here" kind of thing with The Spree. It was more of a happy commune. We didn't sacrifice any babies.
AVC: Though it does come off a bit like a cult.
AC: I think cults are probably a little less scary. To me, it's scarier that 25 people would wear robes and jump up and down and try to convert everyone to happiness than a Kool-Aid suicide.
AVC: Actually, it was Flavor-Aid [at Jonestown].
AC: Was it really? I'm fascinated by Jonestown. It's pretty amazing, someone having that kind of charisma—and it still happens in micro and macro forms—to convince a whole gaggle of people to kill themselves. Or put on robes and jump up and down. That takes a very charismatic leader.
AVC: Did you feel pressure to be happy all the time in that band?
AC: For me it was happy to the point where it turns maniacal. Where a smile becomes a really creepy grimace. I enjoyed that.
AVC: Speaking of giant ensembles, any stories to share from your recent tour with The Arcade Fire?
AC: I think that because The Arcade Fire has been a band for a while and really have that chemistry on stage, they also have really great chemistry on the Whirlyball court. They totally mopped the floor with us. It was abysmal.
AVC: What's Whirlyball?
AC: Whirlyball is only the most awesome sport on the planet! It's like bumper cars plus lacrosse meets basketball. Meets beer.
AVC: Was there a reason you toured with a band this time around, other than needing a team for Whirlyball?
AC: I wanted to give the songs a run for their money, to see if they stood on their own without a lot of accoutrements. It made more sense—and it was easier, too—to go out alone and see if these songs could get in a couple of fistfights and still be standing.
AVC: You cover Nico's "These Days" in your set. What is it about that song that you like?
AC: The mood of it is a real departure from the things I do. I like that contrast. Also, I'm a bit of a vagabond—a person who loses time and space because you don't know where you are—and it captures that sentiment. It's really grounding.
AVC: Who were some of the people that influenced you? Was Nico one of them—or ["These Days" writer] Jackson Browne, rather?
AC: I've always wanted to make music like people write plays, so I was inspired by writers as much as musicians. I was a lusty kid who loved Tennessee Williams. Sexy plays. [For musicians] there are so many that it's hard just to say one. Certain things, like the first time you hear A Love Supreme, you're floored. It takes whatever you were listening to and blows a hole in it.
AVC: You surround yourself with nice people—John Vanderslice, The Arcade Fire, Sufjan Stevens—but is there a dark side to you we don't know about?
AC: Everybody's got a dark side, but mine doesn't include being around people who are mean. I like to deal with my dark side in a creative way, and just sing about killing people instead of actually doing it. [Music] is kind of a strange business, and it's too weird of a job to have mean, conniving people around.
AVC: What's something about yourself that would surprise other people?
AC: I have a phobia of checking voicemail. I watched a lot of TV as a kid, and everything is, like, you're gonna get kidnapped, or somebody's gonna die, or killer bees are going to take you out. I'm a very anxious person. Checking voicemail is like, "When's the other shoe going to drop?" I'm always afraid it's going to be terrible news I don't want to hear.
AVC: Most people I know don't leave tragic news on voicemail. They'll just call you back.
AC: [Laughs] I guess you're right. That would be pretty amazing, the idea that they would leave tragic news and then not call back, like it's not urgent enough. I guess it is kind of a silly phobia.