Inspiration strikes St. Vincent

Annie Clark's Actor is a defiant statement against the sophomore slump.

By Joey Vergara | Feb. 12, 2010

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An intellectual in sheep's clothing, Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, makes the kind of complicated pop music the strangest composers would adore.

Earning her chops in the creepily clad Polyphonic Spree and indie icon Sufjan Stevens' live band, Clark's pedigree lends itself to experimentation. On her sophomore effort Actor, an album inspired by her favorite films, she jumps from idea to idea, uniting them with an overarching sonic curiosity. "Actor Out of Work" is the closest thing to a punk rock version of St. Vincent as Clark has gotten, with wry lyrics and a dizzying guitar/kick drum combo. The wistful woodwinds at the start of "Marrow" rapidly give way to a frantic beat and dirty, fuzzed out guitars.

Contradiction has become Clark's greatest musical weapon.

"I think that feels very natural to me," she said in a mellow tone, jet-lagged in British Columbia on the first night of a headlining tour. "I'm not a very good actor, but I did a lot of theater growing up. I think one of the very valuable things I learned in theater was that sometimes, in order to really display the emotion or to have impact, you have to sort of play the opposite of the emotion."

For an album that sounds so extraverted, Actor forced Clark to work on a small scale. Actor's unusual beginnings resulted from the noise complaints Clark received in her Brooklyn apartment. She opted to go "micro" instead of "macro," scoring the album entirely on her computer.

Clark's unorthodox approach to songwriting highlights her artistic adventurousness. She consumes various creative stimuli and generates her pop music.

"I find visual art and films and theater almost more inspiring to me than music," Clark said. "Any time you can take an idea from another medium and just try to see, 'How would I apply this concept to what I do?' That's really exciting to me. I just find that there are a lot of ideas that can be applicable to music in those other mediums that don't necessarily have an analog in music."

It's this thinking-man's approach to music that distinguishes her work from the rest of blogger-friendly indie rock.

"I also feel like I like to look at things from an analytical perspective," she said. "I find that a lot of times, unless you're talking about modern orchestral music or more avant-garde music, you don't get a lot of intellectual discourse about pop music. Not that there aren't intellectual underpinnings, but you don't get to talk about it, really."

Clark is finally feeling her success near the end of the touring cycle for Actor, onstage at New York's Lincoln Center two weeks ago with Talking Heads' David Byrne and Bon Iver's Justin Vernon, she found herself wondering how she got here.

"You sort of get swept up in the moment of playing with other people, and you're like, 'Wow! This is incredible! This is really powerful!' " Clark said. "I had a moment onstage, and I was like, 'My God. I'm a kid from Oklahoma and Texas. I'm sitting here playing a song I wrote with David Byrne. That's insane. That's crazy.' "

Despite Clark's accomplishments, her neighbors' verdict on the album that they originally considered a nuisance remains unknown.

"I hope that they heard it and enjoy it very much," she said.

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