The holy rites of St. Vincent

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The weather on Mt. St. Vincent is ruled by inconstant winds. In the songs that Annie Clark makes as St. Vincent, somber verses are never more than a lyrical twist away from sardonic, and anxiety seethes at the edges of even the most cheerful baroque pop moments.

Singer and multi-instrumentalist Annie Clark, known onstage as St. Vincent, plays the Jefferson on Sunday, October 30.

Though Clark’s songs are playfully capricious, her career has risen untroubled for years. Born into a large Catholic family and raised in a Dallas suburb, Annie Clark left Berklee in 2003 to join the Polyphonic Spree, then toured Europe as part of Sufjan Stevens’ band before releasing her critically acclaimed solo album, Marry Me, in late 2007. The sudden popularity of her sophomore effort Actor—an ornately textured album of songs written as pseudo-scores to some of Clark’s favorite moments in film—was recently superseded by Strange Mercy, an album more dark, personal and aggresively guitar-driven than the previous two.

When I spoke with Clark over the phone, she explained some of the stylistic developments at work in Strange Mercy, and the stories behind them.

Your first album and your latest are both named after title tracks. In what state was Strange Mercy the album when you wrote “Strange Mercy” the song?

Non-existence, pretty much. I wrote “Strange Mercy” before I wrote all the other songs on the album. Once I had that title I thought “O.K., I’ve got a theme,” and once I had a theme I was able to write a lot of other songs with instances of strange mercy in them.

The chorus of “Surgeon,” the fourth track on Strange Mercy, is a quote from Marilyn Monroe: “Best finest surgeon, come cut me open.” Is there a story behind stumbling upon that quote?

A bit of one. I went off to Seattle last October to just have a month of solitude, a writing retreat. At one point I had been in the studio for 12 hours a day every day for about two weeks. And then out to dinner alone, hotel rooms alone, just very much in my head and in that way, and I was getting kind of frustrated and feeling like things weren’t really going as well as I had hoped. So one day I just broke early from the studio  and said “to hell with it, I’m gonna go drink.” And by that I mean I was going to go have dinner, have a couple glasses of wine and just read a magazine to get my mind out of making music for a second. So I just picked up a Vanity Fair and read that quote from Marilyn Monroe, where she was referring to Lee Strasberg the acting coach, and I remember writing it down very big and circling it a few times. So the next day when I had a bit more wind in my sails I went into the studio and wrote “Surgeon.”

Throughout your work, especially in 2009’s Actor, acting seems representative of the greatest triumphs and risks of the artistic process. Marilyn Monroe would seem to embody that, as the archetypal doomed starlet. 

I think it’s a fair claim to make. In “Surgeon,” there are elements of what I know about her life, her struggles with depression, but much of what’s in that song comes from my own experience. It isn’t completely dedicated to her, or something like that. 

The instrumentation on Strange Mercy sounds as if you were trying to take cold, synthesized instruments and make them warm. What took you in that direction?

I think with every record that I’ve made I’ve tried to give myself very specific parameters and directives, because creativity kind of comes from limits as opposed to allowing yourself any indulgence. So with the previous record, Actor, I had used all these woodwinds and violins and real orchestral instruments and was going after this sort of film score thing, and it seemed like a fun challenge to break away from the organic. I’m a guitar player for the most part, so I don’t really know anything about synthesizers, only the most cursory, Wikipedia knowledge. And it was fun to be out of my element in that way, and to approach something with a lot of naivety.

Innovation often comes from naivety. Do you have a first artistic memory from childhood?

The first one I can remember happened at the beach with my family. And I should say that I’m not really a beach person, none of us are. We’re Irish and pale and I don’t know why we thought a beach vacation was for us. I know I preferred to be indoors, and Jaws had also come out a few years before, so there was no way I was getting in that water. I mean what did they think I was, stupid? So I remember spending a day at the beach collecting trash, like Coke cans and Popsicle wrappers, and spending all day indoors making simple machines out of them. Things like how to fill an ice pop wrapper with air using other pieces of beach trash.

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