Singer-songwriter is a pretty damning term. For many, it conjures the image of bedroom strummers believing their heart-on-sleeve delivery will compensate for lacking lyrics and chops. But every once in a while someone like St. Vincent’s Annie Clark comes along and breaks the mold. Her vocal and instrumental powers crystallize into whimsical songs that lend themselves to videos featuring telekinetic Cub Scouts.
Supriya Sinhababu: I really liked your video for “Jesus Saves, I Spend.” Did you contribute to the concept at all?
Annie Clark: My contribution to the concept was inviting my little brother, who is actually a Cub Scout, to be part of the filming. But yeah, I really liked the duality between [directors] Andy Bruntel and Bucky Fukumoto, which is funny but also a little bit sardonic.
SS: For the record, which one is your little brother?
AC: Um…the most adorable one? [Laughs] He’s the guy, I think it’s in one of the first frames, where I sort of tussle his hair.
SS: Oh yeah. That figures.
AC: Yeah, he’s the blond one.
SS: On your blog you mentioned a couple getting engaged to your song “Marry Me.” Can you tell me a little more about that?
AC: Sure! Actually, this young gentleman from the Boston area contacted me through my blog and said he wanted to propose to his girlfriend, and they both loved that song. So he practiced the song and I called him up on stage during a Boston concert. And I think he’d gotten lost in the sweet sentimentality of it and forgot the words have a little bit of a twist at the end. So first he sang “You won’t realize I’m gone,” and then he shook his head realized, “Oh, no no.…You won’t realize I’ll never go.” Very, very cute.
SS: You’ve already worked with a lot of big names, but do you have any dream collaborations?
AC: Dream collaborations…yeah, there’s a hip-hop artist called The Coup. Maybe that’s more within my grasp. Hopefully that will happen.
SS: Can you rap?
AC: No! Oh dear god no, I wouldn’t be rapping. I would lose a few fans.
SS: As you mentioned before, there’s kind of a dark streak through your record. I was wondering if one of the reasons you struck out on your own was because of your involvement with particularly happy artists like Sufjan Stevens and the Polyphonic Spree.
AC: Well, I’d been writing the Marry Me record before my involvement with either of those two projects…. I think their messages and music are quite honest. Polyphonic Spree is more sunshiney in general, more like a hope cult sort of thing. But I’ve been writing for a long time, and I did have definite input musically, tech-wise, gear-wise. So it was definitely not a reaction.
SS: I saw that you recommended Please Kill Me on your website. How much of a punk rock fan are you?
AC: I came along to punk, and even post-punk, later on in my listening years—later on being 17 or 18. So I was introduced to it because I was a big fan of a lot of things on the Kill Rock Stars label—Deerhoof, Sleater-Kinney, stuff like that. It was kind of my secret rebellion in quite conservative Texas. So I came upon it that way and then my friend who had an older brother said, “Check out Sonic Youth.” And I have to say my first reaction was, “Ooh, I hate this.” But I’ve learned over the years that whenever I have that reaction it means there’s a whole lot to discover and learn from. I’m proud to really like it even though I think I don’t naturally come from that aesthetic.
SS: Speaking of Sleater-Kinney, are there any other girl bands you’d recommend?
AC: Gosh, well it’s been a while. I really like Sleater-Kinney, and I tried to like Le Tigre but I just couldn’t. I really just couldn’t.
SS: I’ve seen video clips of you playing your songs solo all over the place. I was wondering how long you did that for?
AC: I hit the ground running, basically, [in] November 2006, opening for Sufjan in Europe, and then I was a professional opening act for the better part of 2007. It came down to going, “Well, I can only afford to bring me on the road,” so…I hate to draw the curtain back and say, “Oh, unfortunately they had a financial situation.” But yeah, it came about really organically, sort of going, “How can I maximize what I do onstage as a solo performer?” Because the record was completely done, and I knew what it sounded like, I knew how many elements [there were], and the production, and the subtlety there was to it. But no one else did, because no one else had heard it. So I really had to one-man-band the whole thing which really just took a life of its own, even something different from the recorded album completely—like a phantom limb.
SS: So I guess you probably prefer playing with a full band?
AC: Well, things I like about playing with a full band include, colon…[laughs] Well, the sort of camaraderie of it, the go-team kind of spirit—I don’t mean the band. The thing about playing solo is, if it’s a great show, you go, “All right! Good one….” You have a congratulatory cup of tea, and when it’s a bad show, there’s nowhere to point the finger. So I like it when the other voices on the album get to be realized. It’s really exciting.
St. Vincent plays Schubas on February 23.