So much of the music that Annie Clark makes as St. Vincent is steeped in anxiety and unsettling imagery, it’s easy to imagine Clark herself being equally intense, if not cold and detached. But much like the lilt of Disney-soundtrack sweetness that occasionally colors her spiky, baroque pop songs, or the way she transforms an otherwise-somber mood with a wry lyrical twist, in conversation Clark reveals herself to be both charming and affable—and even a bit of a smartass. That playful, push-and-pull dichotomy between light and dark defined Clark’s previous albums (2007’s Marry Me and 2009’s Actor), and it takes a slightly more personal bent on Strange Mercy, an album that Clark says, without further explanation, that she wrote during a year when she “lost some people.” But rather than a requiem, Strange Mercy sounds like catharsis, driven by some of Clark’s heaviest guitar work yet—a newfound aggressiveness glimpsed in her cover of Big Black’s “Kerosene” during the recent Our Band Could Be Your Life tribute concert, just one of many ways in which Clark continues to surprise. In advance of Strange Mercy’s release, The A.V. Club spoke with Clark about homing in on that full-body guitar style, hitting up the White House Correspondents’ Dinner with David Byrne, her appreciation for Robert Fripp’s fashion sense, her reluctantly expressed views on monogamy, and the Mayan prophecy of 2012.
The A.V. Club: Sorry, I dialed in a little early, so I eavesdropped on the tail-end of your last interview. Sounded like that got a little awkward.
Annie Clark: Oh, well, the “gender question.” Yeah. The funny thing for me about it is, it’s always such a non-question. The question is—well, there is no question. The statement is, “You’re a woman.”
AVC: So other than being a woman, how are you?
AC: Good! I’m in Washington State, in Walla Walla, about to play a college show in a few hours.
AVC: You were there before while writing Strange Mercy, apparently living a very closed-off, almost monastic routine in Seattle. How has it been for you, this process of doing press and playing shows and generally rejoining the world?
AC: Well, I went up here during October of 2010 for the month, and yeah, it was kind of like a loneliness experiment. I think it’s like how people describe a cleanse or a juice fast. Which I’ve never done, but there were these moments of elation mixed with these moments of sheer despair, where I would have given anything for a turkey burger or something. But in this case, I would have given anything to have a friend to go out to dinner with. I would have killed for some human interaction. I would have killed for a friend to go out for drinks with.
AVC: So in this metaphor, your friend is a turkey burger.
AC: I don’t even like turkey burgers. I just couldn’t think of a food. What’s a food that somebody who would do a cleanse would really, really go for? What’s the first thing that they’d eat? Not that there’s a type of person who would do a cleanse.
AVC: Gwyneth Paltrow loves to cleanse. I don’t know what she goes for. Hot lemon water?
AC: [Laughs.] She’d kill for a hot lemon water.
AVC: An ice cube.
AC: A salted ice cube.
AVC: While you were there you holed up in the Ace Hotel, which made me think it must have been like that Portlandia skit, with the staff constantly trying to impress you.
AC: Oh, I haven’t seen that one! Man, I really want to see it now. But no, the one in Seattle is not that hipster-y. The Portland one is more in-the-know, but the Seattle one is the original one, and it’s really kind of more like a hostel. It’s really well-designed, too. I like it very much. The New York one is more… Definitely, you have a panic attack going into that lobby. It’s hip times 30. It’s too much.
AVC: Have you noticed a certain leveling-up of the attention that you get? Has it gotten to where you can’t be left alone in public?
AC: Oh, no. And if people do notice, I don’t notice. The only time I’m positive that someone notices is if they come up and say, “Hi,” or, “You’re a band,” or something like that.
AVC: “You’re a band”?
AC: [Laughs.] I like it when people come up to me and just say, “Hi, you’re a woman.”
AVC: One fan that did come up and bug you is David Byrne, and then the two of you ended up going to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner together. That sounds pretty fun.
AC: It was fun. It was really fun. It was kind of like an anthropological experiment for both of us, I think. Because Washington is very much Hollywood for the—what is the expression? Don’t they say D.C. is Hollywood for the… I don’t know. Now I’m blanking on what it’s Hollywood for. [The expression is “D.C. is Hollywood for the ugly.” —ed.] But it’s definitely power games. I saw Newt Gingrich at a party. And at that party there was also Sarah Palin, who came with Greta Van Susteren. And I saw with my very own eyes Arianna Huffington speaking with Rupert Murdoch. It was weird. I definitely felt like a looky-loo.
AVC: Beyond just partying with Sarah Palin, you and David Byrne are working on songs together?
AC: Yeah, we’re about halfway through a record.
AVC: And you’re going to share that with other people?
AC: [Laughs.] We are. Probably around next year.
AVC: It seems like you two would have complementary writing styles, because he has a similarly “micro” approach to songwriting—arranging fragments and allowing them to coalesce, rather than trying to create a song right away.
AC: Definitely, that’s how it’s been with both of us: sending fragments, then one of us will expand on it then send it back to the other. It’s been a really nice, “tag, you’re it” writing experience. And very 21st-century, too, all through YouSendIt and file-sharing and doing everything by proxy.
AVC: Your teaming up also makes sense, because you have a very Robert Fripp approach to playing guitar.
AC: Oh yeah, thanks. I love Robert Fripp. You know what I really appreciate about Robert Fripp? He always dresses appropriately for the occasion. When he’s on stage, he’s a Dapper Dan.
AVC: Well, that just means he has good stage attire. You don’t know that he dresses appropriately for every occasion.
AC: You’re right. I don’t know that he’s not in Tommy Bahama offstage all the time.
AVC: On Strange Mercy, you definitely seem much more focused on bringing in those heavier guitar tones. Do you think that’s a reflection of having spent more time performing live?
AC: I do. I think that Actor was not very much about the guitar, and once I had gone out on the road and toured Actor, I was finding that my most fun moments onstage were very much when I was getting to do what I love to do, which is play guitar. So with Strange Mercy, I wanted to make sure that it was way more of a force and way more paramount.
AVC: You’ve also developed this very recognizable way of guitar-playing, where it sounds like—have you ever seen Laurie Anderson’s Home Of The Brave?
AC: No, I haven’t.
AC: Awesome, now I want to see that. I’m very much into that. It’s interesting that you use the word “rubber.” That’s one of the words John [Congleton, Strange Mercy’s producer] and I would throw around in the studio: rubbery. But yeah, I play a ’67 Harmony Bobcat, and I think most of it’s in my fingers, but a lot of it’s just the Harmony Bobcat, which has this really sensitive tremolo. But also I think it’s just the more I play, the more it becomes such a physical experience. You really have to throw your whole body into one note sometimes.
AVC: Marry Me had these very idealized ideas about romance, and with Actor, you set out to create new soundtracks for certain movies you liked. Did you have a similar overarching theme that you were going for Strange Mercy?
AC: “Strange Mercy” was the first song that I wrote for the album Strange Mercy, and I thought that little coupling of words was pretty compelling. I wanted to write other songs that were, in effect, other instances of strange mercy, or contained instances of strange mercy.
AVC: You teased that idea out pretty well in the promo videos leading up to its release, which took the “cruel to be kind” theme to some pretty dark places. They were like the feel-bad versions of “It Gets Better.”
AC: [Laughs.] Oh no! My dear, dear, dear friend Alan Del Rio Ortiz wrote and directed those spots and, yeah, we wanted to riff on the idea of “strange mercy.” So you have the frivolous, silly one, with all the things you say to your friends—or the things your friends say to you after an embarrassing night or whatever. Then [with the mother cat eating its kittens], you have the idea of how “strange mercy” presents itself in nature, among the animal kingdom. And then I guess we did a love one as well. The “merciful lie,” I guess. And then we wanted to do a genuinely sweet one, with the child.
AVC: It also ties into the general undercurrent of relationship anxiety running through the album. For example, “Chloe In The Afternoon,” even though it’s not a strict translation of the Éric Rohmer film, it seems like you’re intentionally making reference to that movie’s questions and anxieties about monogamy.
AC: Let me think of the factors. [Pauses.] I mean, it’s not as if I have some sort of agenda or anything like that.
AVC: It’s not a war on family values?
AC: It’s really not a war on family values. [Laughs.] Oh my goodness, “family values.” I forgot about that.
AVC: Though in the video for “Cruel,” too, you’re kidnapped and forced into this very traditional mother role, and then your family buries you alive.
AC: Well, it should be noted that it’s not that it’s my family. It’s that I’m kidnapped by a bereaved, motherless family, and they enlist me to do all these traditionally motherly tasks that I fail at—or at least, don’t reach the level of their approval. And then they bury me.
AVC: Right, but isn’t that sort of like marriage? Sometimes you’re like, “Who are these strange people that I’m suddenly tied to?” Like in Chloe In The Afternoon: Maybe one day you wake up and you feel trapped or buried.
AC: Yeah, like someone about to cheat. Well, I guess I do call all that into question. I mean, I think there’s a tremendous amount of people who just feel the pressure that this is what people do, and this is how human relationships are, and this is just kind of what we resign ourselves to. You better find somebody you like well enough and make a go of it, because you don’t want to be alone forever—or something like that. And that’s a very bleak view of it. I know that it’s more multifaceted than that. That’s just one potential viewing of it, and certainly there are plenty of people who are in very happy and functional marriages and long-term relationships and things like that… Wait, how did I get talking about this?
AVC: Oh, because I made you.
AC: [Laughs.] Oh, God.
AVC: Well, there was that recent Julie Klausner profile in Spin where you got into a very serious conversation about Sex At Dawn, and of course you commented on monogamy sort of archly with “Marry Me,” and now there are these all-new examples. It just seemed like a subject that maybe you thought about a lot.
AC: Well, I don’t necessarily think that human beings are built for monogamy. Not that it isn’t a very viable choice, but I just think generally, culturally, we have a narrower view of how various and strange human nature actually is. I guess that’s my worldview… Aargh, why’d you get me talking about this? [Laughs.]
AVC: Let’s talk about something else you don’t like talking about. So, given that you don’t like “the gender question,” “Cheerleader” seems unusual for you, since it has a decidedly feminine point of view. It also seems much more personal, since you’ve also mentioned in older interviews that you had a “stereotypical high-school cheerleader” sort of adolescence. Did you feel like you were taking an unusual step with that song?
AC: Yes and no. I had the entire song written except for the chorus. I had the “I, I, I, I don’t want to be a ‘blank’ no more” line, and my original—I probably shouldn’t admit this—but my original thing was “dirt-eater.” Because I was thinking of the people in medieval times who were sin-eaters, and I was thinking of a word that could describe that sentiment. I went through a million different ideas, like, “Wait, what’s this many syllables and can describe this thing that I’m trying to get at?” And there were a lot of really bad ideas. John was like, “Dirt-eater sounds like you have a scatological fetish.” I was like, “Oh no, gross.” And then we Google it, and it’s also some obscure racist term, so I was like, oh no, that’s not going to work. “What’s the word? What’s the word with this many syllables that’s going to describe what I’m talking about?” And if you’ll notice in the song, at the end I do sing “dirt-eater.” I also sing “bird-eater,” like a “the cat who ate the canary” sort of thing.
But after brainstorming, I was like, “Cheerleader.” And John looked at me, and was like, [resigned tone] “Yeah, cheerleader.” It just said it. It just said it. And it’s funny: I wasn’t an actual cheerleader in high school. I was a theater nerd and was in the jazz band, and I was not that person. But I also didn’t harbor a secret hatred for cheerleaders or anything like that. I was pretty mellow and egalitarian. But that was just the word that summed it up. So there it was, take it or leave it. Somewhere there’s a list of all the bad ideas that we brainstormed that are varying degrees of foul and inappropriate.
AVC: Don’t you also say “bandleader” at one point?
AC: No. [Laughs.] I don’t say that.
AVC: Maybe that’s just the power of suggestion, since you do have an entirely new band. How has bringing in this new group changed things for you?
AC: It was definitely a difficult decision to switch things up musically. I really like and care about all the guys I was working with before, and I may very well work with them again. In the end, any decision to try something else was completely musical, and not in any way personal, and not in any way a reflection on their abilities or anything like that. It’s just that sometimes you need to reinvent. So… what was the question? [Laughs.]
AVC: Have you been able to make a personal connection with this band yet, or is the upcoming tour going to be the time to do that?
AC: Oh yeah, they’re great. I haven’t been able to spend that much time with them yet, but I think in any situation, unless someone has a deeply antisocial personality, [on tour] you’re in an incubator with people and, in a lot of cases, high-stress, low-personal-space situations with people. And as a result, you just get to know people a lot faster. It’s like camp mentality. And couple that with the fact that you’re all on the same team and trying to pursue a common goal, and that equals human bonding in a rather quick way. All these people so far have just been delightful, and I don’t have any reason to think that it won’t just continue to be that way. I’m sure we’ll all be inseparable by week two.
AVC: You’ve said that “Year Of The Tiger” is a reference to 2010 being a sad year for you, generally. How do you feel about the Year Of The Rabbit so far?
AC: Rabbit’s been great. Rabbit has been really great. I feel like I’m finally out of the woods. It’s great.
AVC: And 2012 is the Year Of The Dragon, which is supposedly always a year when major events occur—and it’s right on top of the Mayan prophecy and all that.
AC: Oh yeah, hey, what do you know about the Mayan prophecy? I was just having this conversation the other day with a friend who was saying that she had gotten way down the rabbit hole on the Mayan prophecy. She was actually contemplating getting one of those portable, put-it-together-yourself homes and living off the grid.
AVC: I probably know way too much about the Mayan prophecy.
AC: So do you think that it’s viable? Do you think that we’re headed for something?
AVC: Well, most of the theories have to do with our planet supposedly lining up with the center of the Milky Way on the winter solstice, and some people think that means we’re due for everything from the huge tidal waves to massive solar flares to the magnetic poles reversing. And then Dan Aykroyd thinks that aliens will come down and take over human consciousness.
AC: [Laughs.] Whoa.
AVC: But a lot of other people think that it’s just the end of a calendar kept by an ancient civilization, and it all probably just starts over. But there’s definitely a lot of anxiety there. Could make for a good St. Vincent record.
AC: Yeah, if we’re not submerged in water. [Laughs.] If we haven’t all grown gills by then.