Signs of St. Vincent's Success

Always aware: Annie Clark
Tina Tyrell

Annie Clark is too perfect a rock star, but she will do. She has the china doll features of a pop star. She is put-together and glamorous. For all her effort, she looks effortless. She's delicate and refined. She's beautiful, and you can tell she is used to being looked at and watched, as if she has been famous long before now.

Looking at her offstage, you imagine she should be doing something else, not staying up late with a guitar slung round her back and commanding a band into loud swells of her own design. It seems like the wrong job for her hands. She seems more coquettish than rock and roll as she's curled up on the couch backstage before her show in her emerald dress.

When Annie Clark gets onstage as St. Vincent, her image is mere collateral. What fixes your gaze to her is the confidence, the ease, and the naturalness she exudes. You cannot imagine she was meant for anything else but stomping around the stage, coaxing new noise from her guitar, her eyes surveying the sold-out crowd. She solos; they scream.

"I'm not qualified to do anything else," she says, sounding a little concerned—as if she had been browsing Craigslist ads for admin positions while casting about for a post-Berklee-dropout Plan B. "I didn't think I needed it. Which sounds insane now, when I say it aloud."

It's not. It's only reasonable. Clark's third record, Strange Mercy, is her best and most pop album. The signs of her success are ample. For one thing, Mercy sold 20,000 copies in its first week of release. Still, she is modest, or at least presents as the earnest anti-diva—"It would be interesting to know exactly how many people have heard my songs," she says. Her guess: "Like, 100,000?" Perhaps that would be the case if everyone who'd bought a copy of her last few albums had kept them entirely for themselves, she'd never toured, filesharing didn't exist, and her songs weren't presently all over radio and the blogosphere.

With Strange Mercy, Clark moves closer to her audience, lowers the transom a bit. On her previous two albums, Marry Me (2007) and Actor (2009), it was hard to tell what, if anything, was personal. Her debut seems to be made up of vignettes and stories. She cited "Pirate Jenny" and Nick Cave as her inspirations for its theatricality. It seemed the work of someone eager to impress—to show off, even. Actor, purportedly a tribute to Clark's favorite films, resulted in Clark rhapsodizing over Woody Allen's work as much as explaining her own. She says of her progress as a songwriter since: "I care less about impressing. Well . . . maybe. It's no longer about trying impress people with my wit."

Audiences want confessional bits from rock icons and expect them from female singer-songwriters. Clark doesn't give them up easily, but Strange Mercy is being called "candid." The singer is still cagey, though there is discernibly more of her on here. Was it intentional?

"Was I trying to be candid? Hmm." She munches an apple and considers what to say. "I want to give you answers, but I am also aware this is to be printed in a magazine, so I'm at a bit of an impasse. But I don't want to give you a rote answer, though that rote answer is quite true. There are songs here that are very, actually, candid. But I won't say which those are."

Although she hemmed over making her art more personal, the candor came naturally, which she characterizes as scary. She didn't have as much time or ability to dress up or intellectualize what was coming out of her, so some songs remained as visceral as they were when initially written. "2010 was a rough year. Tough stuff. Rough time. When life was actually hard, I had less time to wring my hands about music. It got to be what it should be, a great thing—a replenishing thing." She adds, apologetically, "Not to use a spa word."

Much has been made of the album closer "Chloe In The Afternoon," which is somewhere between "Afternoon Delight" and Anaïs Nin, lyrically; it depicts soft sadism with a girl in a hotel room. Is Clark put off by how this one song has resulted in people calling Strange Mercy "sexual"? "It's not like I should have called the record 'Get Down to Fuckin,'" she laughs. "I think people focus on something like that because it's titillating." Given that female performers often have their work sexualized, regardless of whether their work is sexual or not, was she hesitant to make a song so blatantly erotic? "I was more reluctant to write a song about that power/sex/domination trifecta, that murky water where it all swims around together," she says. "That felt more complicated than it being about something sexual."

If there is a theme to be found on Strange Mercy, it involves dissolving an identity, or another person's idea of that identity. Clark's modesty is belied by her awareness of and use of her own image—as a beautiful woman, as a gossamer shredder of skill and confidence, as a woman in charge of her career, as popular singer of pop songs. She knows what she is working with. She understands the machinations of fame, of why her audience likes (and loves) her; she is careful but solicitous enough with the press that pokes at her. "I have one answer for you if the tape record is on, and another if it's off," she says when asked about her awareness of her own image. "That's my answer there."

Still, Clark says she feels like a fraud much of the time. "It's complicated to exist in the world—everyone feels that, whether or not you have a modest amount of notoriety," she says. "I was reading this Miranda July piece in The New Yorker, and it ends with a line about how feeling like an adult also means feeling like a fraud. I think if anyone has any kind of self-awareness, they've felt like a fraud—with other people or in relationships. I feel that way. And maybe it's more powerful to put that out there. To just own that, then to keep being, like, 'Watch me sing and dance, I've got all the bases covered, don't worry.'"

The singer's measured control seems to keep her from truly letting it all (or, even, some of it) hang out. She credits her politeness to her mother, whom she describes as a saint, and to her cultural inheritance as a Texan. She says she learned the value of professionalism from her aunt and uncle, the folk duo Tuck & Patti, whom she toured with as a teen. "It's not the '80s or the '90s anymore; it's not a gravy train," she says of the music business. "If you want to have a career for a long time, you need to act right. I know it's counterintuitive to the whole rock 'n' roll thing, but I have never acted like I was a person who was so great and unimpeachably great that I could afford to be an asshole to people, nor would I want to be. I take it seriously."

To be a rock star, a real rock star achieved and bona fide, involves more than just charisma, or good songs, or talent (talent usually least of all). One must be a capable player and have an appealing image—and, perhaps, most of all, a clear confidence that one deserves to be in front of an audience. In that regard, Annie Clark is a natural-born rock star; she just happens to be working below the arena radar. She doesn't disagree. "There are plenty of things I am not confident about, but this I can do."

St. Vincent plays Webster Hall on November 3

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125 E. 11th St.
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