The gospel according to St. Vincent
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Singer-songwriter Annie Clark, a.k.a. St. Vincent, is no stranger to the jangly, bright landscape of indie pop, having racked up years performing with The Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens’ touring band. Clark broke away from the ensemble in 2007 with her debut solo album, Marry Me—named for a quote by Maeby Fünke from Arrested Development—and took her collection of dreamy, cinematic songs on the road for a year and a half. Now Clark returns with a sophomore album, Actor, which stitches together bits of original scores inspired by a truly eclectic mix of films, like Badlands and Sleeping Beauty. The A.V. Club caught up with her in advance of Sunday's show at Metro to talk about being inspired by Charlie Kaufman and singing like a Disney princess.
The A.V. Club: You recently played in L.A. at the Masonic Lodge inside the Hollywood Forever cemetery. What was the feel of that show like?
Annie Clark: There was sort of an Eyes Wide Shut thing to it. There was a Kubrick symmetry to the stage and these giant, throne-like chairs and it just had such a cool vibe. Obviously, you couldn’t forget for too long that you’re surrounded by people who’ve long since been dead.
AVC: Did that add a macabre feeling to the whole performance?
AC: There was a little bit of an eeriness. I think, too, when you’re in a space like that, you’re even more aware of the fact that you ought to make it as special and intimate as possible. And as human as possible, because it’s not a space to be taken super lightly.
AVC: For Actor, it sounds like you watched lots of films for inspiration and went in the direction of film scores.
AC: Well, I did. I think how it happened was, you know that scene in Adaptation where Charlie Kaufman is sitting down to write and his brain starts going off on, “Oh I need coffee to write first. Oh, I need a bagel”? I think I had something similar when I came back and tried to write a record. I kept saying, “Oh, but I can’t start writing because I have to get a coffee and a muffin.” And so I decided, “I’m just going to watch movies to get my mind off of it and then I’m going to go back and work.” It was really just to distract me and enable my laziness and sloth, but it ended up really working out to my advantage. I was like, “Oh, I don’t have anything interesting to say because I’ve been brain-dead on tour for a year and a half, so maybe I will score this scene with actors who are saying interesting things. Maybe I’ll score this scene from Stardust Memories and see what I can come up with. Maybe I’ll try to mimic the cadences of this particular cartoon.” The next thing you know, I had a whole lot of really pretty, orchestrated fragments. Then it was time to get out the superglue and the pinking shears and just go to town, sort of combining and stretching and shaping all the stuff into something that resembled a pop monster.
AVC: Were you a big fan of film scores before this?
AC: Well, I’ve grown up with [Ennio] Morricone and David Axelrod and am just generally a fan of the whole Disney sound.
AVC: Was there a specific Disney film that lent itself, sound-wise, to the process?
AC: Snow White and Sleeping Beauty are great ones. The ones that really slay me are the ones where the female leads still sing like they’re gurgling water. They’re the ones that really kill me—where their voices sound like theremins.
AVC: Right, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty both have that high vibrato speaking and singing voice.
AC: It’s a singing style that I’m sad has gone the way of the dodo. I think every child watches Disney films and that it’s inextricably linked in our minds to, like, [adopts dreamy vibrato voice] magic and wonder. These pure feelings of innocence and glory.
AVC: There’s that scene in Cinderella where the mice are helping make her dress and singing with her, which sort of ties all of those ideas and visuals up so neatly.
AC: Absolutely. And, of course, you get older and realize, “All right, this is life as imagined pre-feminism.” [Laughs.]
AVC: There are some less positive themes here for young women.
AC: Right, and you’re 15 and a riot grrrl but still loving that sort of sweetness and wonder. I just think it’s magic. I don’t mean it in any sort of ironic way, like, [adopting the voice of Butt-Head from Beavis & Butt-Head] “Huh huh, it’s so stupid but I’m cool.” No, I love that “I know you, I walked with you once upon a dream” sincerity. It’s fetal.
AVC: The other films you’ve said inspired the album, like Badlands, seem to stand in stark contrast with these Disney films.
AC: Well, there’s the moment in Cinderella where the mice are building her dress. As for Badlands, the only moment of reprieve is the part where they’re self-sufficient in the forest and living kind of peacefully. It’s kind of like this dream world. I mean, everyone knows that it’s going to go south pretty soon, but they at least have this moment of total serenity and magic.