St Vincent, aka Annie Clark, is one of the hottest acts on the rock circuit at the moment with her last album, 2014’s St Vincent, featuring highly in best-of-the-year lists for Pitchfork, New York Times, NME, and Rolling Stone, while The Guardian named it as its album of the year.
2014 also saw her turn in memorable performances, from Saturday Night Live to a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony fronting a reunited Nirvana, while NPR Music acclaimed her live show as the No 1 concert of the year, raving, "Nothing was better than this". It is no surprise then, that St Vincent’s upcoming concert at the Big Top is one of the most eagerly awaited events at this year’s Galway International Arts Festival.
St Vincent features Dap-Kings drummer Homer Steinweiss and frequent collaborator McKenzie Smith of Midlake and includes the tracks ‘Bring Me Your Loves’, ‘Regret’ and ‘Digital Witness’. An eloquent blend of passion and precision, the album was widely hailed as the strongest material of Clark’s career so far, with The Guardian calling it "a straightforward triumph".
'Half Catholic and half whatever'
Clark was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and later, after her parents separated, she relocated to Dallas where her mother and stepfather raised her and her sisters “half Catholic and half whatever.”
“I loved the ceremony and theatricality of it,” she tells me as she recalls that Catholic aspect of her childhood. “I loved the symbolism too, it’s theatre at its highest.” It is tempting to see a link between her childhood pleasure in the visuals of church ritual and the bold theatricality of St Vincent’s live shows, though she must surely have also picked up a few ideas from her time collaborating with David Byrne on 2012’s Love This Giant, another critical smash. “Originally we were just going to write a couple of songs and perform them in a club in New York,” she explains. “So we started writing and we were so excited about what we were coming up that eventually, and it was a long process, we did a whole album and a worldwide tour together.”
Clark has spoken of the conservatism of Dallas when she was growing up there; music provided her with a refuge. “I cultivated an inner world and a real obsession with music because when you're young that's your armour, how you form your identity."
She was nine when Nirvana’s Nevermind was released and the album had a huge impact on her - her youthful musical heroes were Kurt Cobain, Pearl Jam, and Sonic Youth. She started playing guitar when she was 12, and four years later her family let her join her uncle on tour by way of allowing her learn about the realities of life on the road. Clark’s uncle, Tuck Andress, is one half of the jazz duo Tuck and Patti, and Clark was basically another roadie on a tour that took in dates in both Europe and Japan. “I never worked as hard in my life,” she says of the experience.
Clark enrolled in Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music but dropped out after three years and decamped to New York, with dreams of commencing her musical career proper. Alas she ran out of money after three months and was compelled to return to Dallas. However, just a few weeks after going home she joined the symphonic rock/pop band The Polyphonic Spree as guitarist. This led to her working with Sufjan Stevens' band, and the following year saw the release of her debut album, Marry Me. Clark's career was up and running.
Notwithstanding her apprenticeship with other groups, Clark always wanted to be a solo artist. She took the name St Vincent from the Nick Cave song ‘There She Goes my Beautiful World’ which refers to the St Vincent hospital in New York, in which Dylan Thomas died. The name also alludes to her own great-grandmother whose middle name was St Vincent.
'The machine is well-oiled'
Marry Me took its title from a line in the TV comedy Arrested Development. Clark describes herself as “a comedy nerd” and she has made guest appearances on Portlandia. I ask her who her favourite comics are and she replies Louis CK, Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, and Bill Hicks.
Marry Me showcased Clark’s multi-instrumentalism as she is credited with playing 17 different instruments on the recording and the album was well received by the critics. After a lengthy tour supporting the album Clark returned to New York and released her follow up album, Actor, in 2009. Her third, Strange Mercy appeared in 2011. Each St Vincent album has increased steadily in musical ambition, sophistication, and accomplishment and has met with a corresponding growth in critical acclaim. Last year’s St Vincent has propelled onto her a whole new level of ‘stardom’.
These days interviews with the likes of your humble scribe are done in clusters, with each of us allotted a strict ration of minutes in which to interrogate her. I venture to ask does she not find the process one of the more tiresome chores of being a successful artist as she is inevitably going to be asked the same questions over and over. “If I get asked the same questions I sometimes just give the same answers,” she replies with disarming matter of factness. “The machine is well-oiled,” she adds with a laugh, “And what happens is if I try and think of a new answer on the fly it always comes out wrongly!”
Two of the songs on St Vincent - ‘Birth in Reverse’ and ‘Severed Crossed Fingers’ take their titles from Lorrie Moore short stories. When I ask Clark what her current reading material is, her reply ends up sounding uncannily prescient in relation to the Charleston massacre which occurred a week and a half after our interview; “I’ve been reading Malcolm X’s 1964 speech at Oxford University. I think I was drawn to it because of the spotlight right now on the killing of citizens who are disproportionately African-American, the violence that is going on and the presence of American racism which seems so entrenched. Malcolm X’s speech is great because it contextualises all of that and places the struggle in more of a worldwide civil rights way as opposed to a uniquely American problem, a problem that is specific to America.”
Clark would seem to be someone with her finger very much on the pulse of the vital currents in modern life. Her music is equally fresh, of-the-moment, urgent, and compelling - as Galway is about to discover.
St Vincent is a 'Róisín Dubh and Galway International Arts Festival presents...' concert. It takes place in the Festival Big Top on Tuesday July 14. Support is from Little Green Cars. Tickets are €35. See www.giaf.ie and www.roisindubh.net