Interview: St. Vincent on Actor, Onstage Laugh Attacks, and Seizures
The inspirations for Annie Clark's latest album as St. Vincent, Actor, perhaps sum up her darkly doe-eyed charm: hidden porn, guns, self-deceiving lovers, Philip Roth. One of nine children growing up in the Texas flatlands, the Oklahoma-born multi-instrumentalist left Berklee in 2003 to join the Polyphonic Spree, then toured Europe as part of Sufjan Stevens's band before releasing her solo album, Marry Me, in late 2007. Each song on her weeks-old sophomore effort Actor is inspired by one of her favorite films--the result is Fantasia narrated by a dark but smiling Alice.
Now living in Williamsburg, Clark recently spoke with us about her writing process, time with the Polyphonic Spree, and seizures.
You just got back from Europe. How'd it go?
It was really fun! Good food and good beer.
What's been the best venue and crowd you've played for so far?
I was really blown away by the response in London and Amsterdam. People really wanted to dance. That was really exciting. Often times people go to shows and really enjoy it but don't make any visible body movement that indicate as such. So being a performer--to actually see people moving, there's no mistaking that. They're not like, twitching and having seizures, they're dancing and that's good.
What's the most peculiar thing that's happened since you've been on tour?
One of my last shows of 2007--like, show number 150--I was in Milan playing with a band and the show was really fun. Italy is just awesome, and the people are really excited and excitable, and something happened on stage, something ridiculous happened--like a guitar went so heinously out of tune that it was funny, you know? And I took one look at my friend Daniel and he couldn't keep a straight face, and I couldn't keep a straight face, and it was this big release of tension and everyone--we all started laughing. We couldn't help it. We started cracking up. And you know when you start laughing and you can't stop--then the drummer started laughing until the bass player started laughing, and we were all just cracking up. We had toured so much, and we were so excited and exhausted and out of our minds. And then the audience started laughing and we had this moment--because laughter is so contagious. I know it's a show and it's supposed to be serious and professional and everything but we just couldn't help it--we went on for probably two or three minutes--just everybody laughing, and then we finished the song.
Love seemed to be the current running through your first record Marry Me. What would you say Actor deals with thematically?
I would say it deals with love as well, but it's also kind of about the subtle ways in which we deceive ourselves and deceive others--a lot of the difference between the appearance of something and the reality. I wanted to make something that was more like what grown-ups do.
What do you mean?
Marry Me was--in a good way--and in an appropriate way, sort of teenage. I wanted to make something that was more human, more real.
Each track on Actor is sort of a private film score for each of your favorite films (Badlands, Pierrot le Fou, The Wizard of Oz). What was your creative process like for this album?
Well, I was a little bit bored with writing on guitar and I decided that I'd rather write most of the record on my computer. That also evolved because I'd recently moved to New York, and I couldn't make a lot of noise in my apartment. I wanted to make music like directors make films.
Did you watch these movies and approach them as though you were composing a score?
Yeah I did--it started out that way, because you can get a lot from the cadence of how a character speaks, and you can sort of take one of your favorite spoken lines and dissect the rhythm of it, and take that rhythm and add. It just takes a little bit of a seed of something and the next thing you know you've created something that is a cousin to the source but is totally, totally, different.
Throughout Actor, you fuse melodies with grim lyrics. I'm thinking "The Strangers" with its chorus, "Paint the black hole blacker." What was your inspiration for this song?
The refrain "Paint the black hole blacker" is something I picked up from a Philip Roth novel called The Plot Against America. He says something like, "and then they painted the black hole blacker," so it's a direct quote from Philip Roth. I think it's again about the subtle ways--how much do you share about who you really are in the context of a relationship? Do you lose yourself or are you essentially just sort of playing a part? What's really going on with you is all kind of internal. I was collecting images for the lyrics and thinking about those Playboys from the late-seventies and you know, like, fights on a wedding day, and someone showing up with a black eye, so I just wanted to collect images to illustrate that whole scene.
What else inspires you?
I would say I'm as inspired by film and visual arts as I am by music; and sometimes more so. For example, [in my song] "Save Me From What I Want"--Jenny Holzer, the visual artist, wrote a really beautiful piece called "Protect Me From What I Want" and I was really inspired by her work. And "Black Rainbow" is the title of this really beautiful fireworks display where the fireworks all went off in the shape of a rainbow.
Are there certain musicians you find inspiring?
Oh, yeah! I'm pretty obsessed with the Dirty Projectors, I think they're just great. Robert Wyatt, Mingus.
I'd imagine there is a huge difference between being a solo artist and being a member of the Polyphonic Spree and performing on stage with so many people.
Playing in the Polyphonic Spree was like playing in a deranged rock and roll summer camp. It was so much fun. My first show with them was playing for 20,000 people. I went from doing my own shows and sleeping on punk-rock couches, and tours in a Honda Civic, to playing in a foreign country for 1000s and 1000s of people. So it was great to see that side of it, and to get to see how other band leaders make their vision work and what they sacrifice to make it work.
What made you decide to separate?
I'd been working on the songs for what was going to become Marry Me for a long time. I finished the record and Sufjan Stevens heard it and he asked me to tour with him in Europe and be in his band. It was while on tour with Sufjan that I got approached by Beggars [Banquet], now 4AD, about putting out my record. So I left the Polyphonic Spree in the spring of '07 because I started to be so busy with St. Vincent that I didn't really have time to do both things.
You're playing Letterman soon--and this may seem like a silly question--but are you starting to feel famous? Do you feel like your music is reaching that next level of success?
I'm really excited. It's still very bizarre and awesome to me that you can spend a year on a record and go through all these tremendous highs and lows of making it and thinking it's great, and then thinking it's terrible. It's just a natural artistic process, I think, to take stock and reevaluate and try again and fall down and get back up--so it's really gratifying that people seem to be enjoying it or appreciating it--that's amazing. That's still very novel to me. It's kind of novel to me that anyone would hear it. But I don't feel famous by any wild stretch. I mean, nothing has changed for me in life except that I get to play slightly bigger venues to slightly more people.
What are you looking to do next creatively?
Oh, man. All my energy right now is invested in putting on really, really, really good live shows. I want there to be laser lights. I want there to be animals. I want the shows to be just so massive and totally overpowering that people are having seizures. I want something crazy.
You want seizures!
I won't be happy until there's seizures!
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.