Some artists find their voice by conquering their fears. Annie Clark turns hers into nervous — and nervy — pop songs.
When Annie Clark was ten years old, she had her first panic attack. She was at a Texas Rangers game, not far from the Dallas suburb where she grew up. Around the second inning, she caught a glimpse of the sky where it met the end of the stadium bleachers, like a horizon line.
“I remember looking at the sky and thinking that the universe is so big and it’s all chaos,” she tells me 18 years later on a hot July afternoon in downtown Manhattan. “I call it ‘the dark fear.’ At any moment, the dark fear could come in.”
She still gets panic attacks, but not as often, and the stimuli that provoke them needn’t be as ponderous as realizing the world is enormous and you are inconsequential. (When I was ten, the thing that freaked me out the most was that fake Saturday Night Live commercial in which Victoria Jackson had extra fingers.)
Whatever the anxiety’s source, I get a sense that it’s one of the most crucial things about Clark that not only makes her who she is, but do what she does, which is, most notably, create intricate, ambitious music under the name St. Vincent. Clark, whose pre-St. Vincent credits include an 18-month, tunic-clad membership in the Polyphonic Spree, has played guitar since she was 12, and when she does, she holds the instrument right below her collarbone, like a virtuoso. She is blisteringly talented.
She is also something of a cultural-reference hoarder. The title of her first album, 2007’s Marry Me, comes from an Arrested Development joke (and has a cocktail-jazz finale called “What Me Worry?”), while 2009’s Actor was inspired, at least in part, by Disney movies and Terrence Malick’s Badlands. She calls herself St. Vincent because of a line in a Nick Cave song about St. Vincent’s hospital in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, where Dylan Thomas passed away. (“That’s me,” she joked to the New York Times, “the place where poetry comes to die.”)
Her new album, Strange Mercy, is equally dense with allusions to art, film, books, and miscellaneous iconography — for starters, the opening track, “Chloe in the Afternoon,” takes its title from a 1972 Eric Rohmer movie. But highbrow references aside, the music exposes more of her, jitters and all, which may go a long way toward explaining why it’s her most focused and accomplished record so far and why she’s reached a career point where her idols are clamoring to work with her: She’s currently doing an album with self-described “dweeby fan” David Byrne, who first met her at the Dark Was the Night show at Radio City Music Hall in 2009.
“I went up to her and told her how much I liked her ‘Actor Out of Work’ video and how disturbing it was,” Byrne says in an e-mail. “I was kind of stunned at her playing and facility with all she was doing.”
Clark is at Quartino, a restaurant near her apartment in the East Village, when I arrive. She’s wearing something chic and black, looking slight and effortless, and reading a book about shamanistic psychoanalysis and surrealist exercises written by Alejandro Jodorowsky, the director of El Topo. We talk about that, and about films and serial killers and podcasts, and she says she listens to “Savage Love” sex columnist Dan Savage in the van when she’s on tour.
“I love him,” she says. “I want him to be my best friend. I saw him speak in Dallas and wanted to talk to him afterwards, but I was too scared.” I mention a recent article about Savage, in which he questions whether monogamy is essential to marriages, and her enormous, anime-character-through-a-peephole eyes widen even further with interest.
Like her new collaborator Byrne, Clark seems starving for inspiration. All art is text, all text is source material. She carries a notebook around and jots down ideas constantly, scanning the cultural landscape for fodder, for fuel, for food. She’s burning sugar, or nectar, as fast as she’s flapping her hummingbird wings. It’s the stuff of anxiety and, at once, of prolific talent at work.
Clark is 28, but can seem younger at times — if only in her approach. The novelty of making new art, the siren call of hard work, and the cynicism-free earnestness of success with repetition, all drive her music as much as her unstated philosophy that the dark fear can’t bring you down if you’re moving constantly.
“I don’t know how you are at taking a compliment,” I say, before asking her whether it feels like she’s about to explode, in terms of fame, success — whatever it’s called when you’re no longer a cult artist.
“It’s really weird,” she says. “But it’s not out of the blue.”
“You’ve done the work,” I add.
“It’s amazing,” she says. “I’m incredibly happy right now.”
Happy, she explains, means busy. “I went out to Seattle to write,” she says. “[Death Cab for Cutie drummer] Jason McGerr had an office that was closing. He offered me the space for a month, for all of October. I was alone. I stayed at the Ace Hotel downtown, in one of the rooms with a shared bathroom.
“I would just get up in the morning and caffeinate, and run, and go to the studio for 12 hours,” she says, “come back, eat dinner alone with a book, have a glass of wine, and go to bed. And do it all over again.”
No Internet dog videos? No snacking? No Celebrity Rehab breaks? It wasn’t always easy for her, if that makes you/me/us feel better.
“Sometimes I felt like, ‘Things are going great and I’m loving this,’?” she says. “Some days it was just terrible. I’ll listen and think, ‘This is shit, what was I doing?’ Sometimes I’ll be in a moment of shame, and then I’ll try this, or maybe this, and then the next day I’ll think that it’s better than I thought. Feelings aren’t fact.”
This record abounds with the dark fear, with twists and turns and memorable lyrics that trigger unease. Then there’s the last song, “Year of the Tiger,” which Clark also uses to describe 2010, a year in which she “lost some people.” It wasn’t a breakup — I asked. But she’s not revealing much more, so I ask her how she managed to make her voice sound so different on this record, even from track to track. She starts to talk about breathing and musculature and what helps and doesn’t, then adds, smiling with sparkling eyes, “Don’t write, ‘We met at an organic restaurant and we talked about voice lessons and yoga.'”
When I meet Clark again, she is wearing a peach miniskirt and a white button-down silk top. She looks like a John Currin painting: all eyes and curls and a long pale neck and sloped nose under freckles that seem to cry out, Render me in oils. Exaggerate nothing.
We are at the student entrance of the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a tour of Savage Beauty, an exhaustive exhibit of the work of designer Alexander McQueen, who killed himself last February at age 40. Clark likes fashion, but she doesn’t talk about it with any kind of pretension or grandiosity. Fashion likes her, too. She wore a McQueen dress for her date with Byrne to the White House Correspondents’ dinner, and she’s friends with the Brooklyn-based design duo Vena Cava, but is smart enough to joke about how silly it all is when she’s asked about her involvement in that world.
“In regards to being a fashion aficionado, there’s a certain amount of taking yourself seriously in the professional world,” she says. “The self-effacing person can’t completely go down the serious road. But I design, and love when things are beautiful.”
For the sake of full disclosure, I should mention that when it comes to institutions that affect women adversely, I find the world of pornography less offensive than fashion. I’m sure that had I been born an ectomorph or if I had more of a fetishistic appreciation of material as it shapes to one’s particular body, I might feel differently. I’m the first to admit to matters of jealousy when it comes to my contempt for a world that aggrandizes the visual and cultural impact of underweight young girls in expensive clothes. That said, however: I, too, love it when things are beautiful.
Once we get upstairs at the Met, Clark politely asks me for time to focus on the curatorial notes posted in the antechamber, when I want to chatter. She is not being rude at all — she is simply overwhelmed.
As soon we enter the first proper exhibition room, I am seized with emotion in a way that makes me feel like a big, fat idiot for ever approaching fashion — or Clark’s appreciation of fashion — with anything besides curiosity. McQueen’s gowns are elegant and menacing. How could I have ever doubted that there is art everywhere, let alone in these billowing, bizarre silhouettes? The exhibit is suffocating, gothic, and beautiful. Clark stops in her tracks a couple of times to ogle the work, like a little girl in the front row at the Ice Capades. Toward the end, she stops in front of a black spangled jumpsuit on display.
I walk over to her as she stares at the suit, which is adorned with delicate, flesh-colored netting over its myriad cutouts. She looks like she is in a state of divine possession.
“You should wear that,” I tell her.
“I would never take it off,” she says, without breaking her gaze. “I’d want them to sew it onto me forever.”
An hour later, at a café on Madison Avenue, Clark takes out her notebook and a dog-eared copy of a book, Sex at Dawn, that was mentioned in the recent New York Times Magazine article about Dan Savage. All of a sudden, I feel like I’m at a deposition or in a dorm.
“Our whole idea of monogamy and marriage is based on an agricultural society,” she says.
I make a joke about kibbutz living as an alternative, and she laughs, then tells me that, according to Sex at Dawn, human beings have actually evolved to have multiple partners. I say I don’t think women are as promiscuous as men because we can get pregnant. She says something about how the father of the baby doesn’t need to matter, or didn’t matter in pre-agricultural times.
“It’s largely cultural,” she says, intensely serious. “If we’re talking about a society in which the reason to be sexually proprietary over a woman is to ensure your paternity. And why do you want to ensure your paternity? Because there’s property involved. It’s not necessarily natural.”
I tell her I disagree with Savage, who is gay, regarding his theories about monogamy — straight men are different than gay men in that they are inherently more proprietary when it comes to their sex partners and they’re not as cool with the idea of their wives fooling around with other men, whether or not they’re in the room or the couple is honest about it.
Clark sits a moment, then says, “We should be really careful about what we call nature. So much of what we call nature is just cultural bias.”
Soon after that, we get our food, and I realize that we are sort of fighting. I tell her my theory that women naturally assume guilt for things that aren’t their fault — their husband cheated on them, they didn’t get a job they were up for — in order to prepare themselves for one day having children, and the task of putting another human being before themselves.
“Nobody’s told me that theory,” she answers. “I think human beings have a really broad spectrum of traits, and I almost feel implicated when we say, ‘Men are like this, women are like this.’ Nobody was telling me, ‘Don’t get dirty, don’t play in the mud, girls don’t do that.'”
I ask about a song from the new album, “Surgeon,” which takes its refrain, “Best finest surgeon / Come cut me open,” from one of Marilyn Monroe’s journals. I ask if she relates to Monroe..
“In some ways, from what I know about her life, or her depression. That’s a sentiment we have: Maybe there’s someone who can save us.”
“I feel like there’s two kinds of girls,” I say. “Those who love Audrey Hepburn and those who love Marilyn. Who do you love more?” Even as I ask, I know I am provoking her.
“I think that kind of gets to the core of a lot of things that I see in popular culture,” Clark says, frustrated. “It’s really destructive and doesn’t make any sense to me — the idea that if there’s an exalted female, there can be only one, and if there are more than one, then they must be in direct competition with each other.”
I didn’t mean to scrutinize the femaleness of her fame. I could’ve just as easily asked her, “Beatles or Stones?” But I struck a nerve, and I got to see firsthand how she recoiled at the idea of being dismissed — of being chalked up to something, or as something — when her talent and her ideas and her abilities, combined with the creative metabolism of a caffeinated prodigy, could make her something so much more than this or that.
“It must be frustrating to be branded,” I tell her. “You just pour a lot of energy down the ‘Who am I?’ rabbit hole.” She agrees, seeming tired, or just quiet. After that, we talk about chimps and Facebook and grilled cheese sandwiches, and the tension seems to have been diffused.
I’m here tasked with judging her in some way, and I guess I’ve done that, and I hope I was fair, but I know I was honest. And I know that what we talk about when we talk about categories, beyond the example of astrology being fun, is “What would it be like to civilize nature? To make something chaotic seem orderly?”
Sure, it is folly. But it’s also an essential component of the two percent of DNA that make us different than apes.
One of the factors that contribute to a person’s natural anxiety is how sensitive she is to her surroundings, or to certain stimuli. I remember when I was little, I was afraid to watch TV and movies because I lived in fear that I would see something scary that would affect me adversely, the way Victoria Jackson’s extra digits gave me nightmares.
Annie Clark is so porous and intuitive that her sensitivity is comparable only to her talent and commitment. She is remarkably open for an auteurlike artist who is closer to 30 than 20. Hers are not youth-based tremors, however girlishly or mysteriously they may manifest. And isn’t mystery a part of femininity? Enigmatic womanhood? She would fucking hate that question. She’d want it to suck her dick.
It’s scary to explode. It’s scary to have no control over how the world perceives you when you are about to break through and become famous, or at least successful at doing what it is you’ve always wanted to do, because that which defines you is created by you, and is personal and beautiful in its own unique way. But just as she said: Feelings aren’t fact.
Clark and I part ways after lunch — she’s heading to the 6 train, I’m getting a cab on Park Avenue. I say goodbye, we hug, and she’s off, a tiny silhouette in the distance. Her silk shirt and skirt billow in the hot breeze. I look uptown at the horizon, processing the memory of her, and my eyes creep up to the huge sky.
From the September 2011 issue of Spin Magazine.