Annie Clark on ‘St. Vincent,’ David Byrne, ‘freebies’ from universe
AUSTIN, Texas — Annie Clark is still learning about nature. A year ago, the singer-guitarist who performs as St. Vincent was wandering naked and alone through the hills and flatlands of West Texas, on the advice of a friend who lent her a remote cabin.
She later turned the experience into song lyrics: “I see the snake holes dotted in the sand/ as if Seurat painted the Rio Grande/ Am I the only the one in the only world?”
When she heard the sound of a snake’s menacing rattle coming from the brush, Clark was suddenly running back to civilization, a lesson learned about the natural world that she tells in the tense and playful “Rattlensnake,” which opens her new album, “St. Vincent.”
“It was hard to judge time and space because it was just this open expanse. I couldn’t really tell if I had been walking for two hours or 15 minutes,” recalls Clark, 31, of her retreat into the desert. “In terms of a sensory experience you’re really floating, way more so than you would in city life.”
On the new album, Clark gathers 11 songs that explore the mingling of reality and dream states, within art rock that’s experimental without obscuring the human feeling at its core. “St. Vincent” is her fifth album, including her 2012 collaboration with David Byrne, “Love This Giant.”
“The big criteria for everything on this record was it can’t just have the skeletal system — it has to have a heart too,” says Clark, who brings St. Vincent to the Wiltern in Los Angeles on Friday. “It has to have a human truth element. I like the idea of a narrator who is flawed and not that likable but ultimately human.”
It’s midafternoon in the Texas capital, and Clark is on the patio of her hotel with a tall glass of ice tea, rummaging through the small basket at her fingertips. “No Sweet’N Low?” she says from behind large sunglasses, a black scarf over her head. “It’s not Texas without Sweet’N Low in your ice tea.”
At a nearby table sits Carrie Brownstein, singer-guitarist from Sleater-Kinney and Wild Flag, and star of TV’s cult hit “Portlandia.” In a few minutes, Neil Young will pass by.
Clark is in Austin for the South by Southwest music festival. Though officially based in New York, Texas is still her home. She grew up in Dallas, another classic case where the cocoon of suburbia was a laboratory for un-suburban musical ideas.
The singer returns often to the Lone Star State, usually back home to Dallas, her place in New York often just a place to crash during the rare weeks when she isn’t on the road. She wrote much of the album in Austin.
The sound is uncompromising but accessible, in the tradition of forward-leaning pop and rock artists like Talking Heads and David Bowie. There are overlapping horns on the danceable “Digital Witness” and bristling funk on “Birth in Reverse” before sliding into the torrid space-funk grooves of “Prince Johnny.” Her weakness for images dark and unsettling emerge during the soaring ballad “Severed Crossed Fingers,” which closes the album.
“Certain songs on this record were just freebies from the universe,” she says of her creative process. “It’s always a journey. That’s the whole fun of being an artist — that perpetual carrot on a stick. You can always do better, you can always reach for the most outermost things, and try to reach out to the future and bring back something that feels unique and singular.”
There are many layers to the sound and lyrical content, and during a February appearance on TV’s “The Colbert Report,” host Stephen Colbert mischievously asked if it’s possible to enjoy her music if you don’t get it. “I think there’s nothing to get,” Clark says now with a smile. “You don’t have to do trigonometry. These are pop songs.”
Now a decade into her career, Clark has attracted a growing audience of devoted followers, and a reputation for a dynamic stage persona. Playing large theaters feels right to her, and she is less concerned with joining the hit parade.
“There’s certain music that just won’t sound that good in an arena, and I don’t know if I’ll ever make the kind of music that will sound great there,” she says. “I’m talking sonics. I’m talking the nerd stuff. Who knows? I don’t really think about it in terms of numbers.”
As a child, she was drawn to the music of Nirvana and Pearl Jam and took notice of Texas musical heroes like Tripping Daisy and the Toadies, who were finding a national audience in the ‘90s. As an adolescent she played guitar in local metal bands but was soon drawn to other sounds, in the hands of such guitarists as Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew, Nile Rodgers and Prince.
“My guiding principle up until this point has been about making sure I serve the song,” she says of her own playing. “Sometimes that means there should be a guitar burst, and sometimes it means there shouldn’t be guitar in this song.”
She spent time in the Polyphonic Spree, an experience she called “a really pleasant apprenticeship,” even as she plotted her own debut as an artist. “I was always geared toward being a solo act,” she says. “I was writing songs for 20 years.”
She met David Byrne in 2009 at a pair of charity events in Manhattan. He mentioned her video to the song “Actor Out of Work,” which he called “creepy.” She took it as a compliment. Their album, “Love This Giant,” emerged naturally, beginning with emails trading musical ideas between him in Chelsea and Clark in the East Village.
“The reason that the collaboration was so fruitful was that it wasn’t this master/student dichotomy,” says Clark, who also toured with Byrne. “It was incredibly powerful to even get to interact with him, but the reason he’s stayed vital is because he’s open and he wants to learn. He was just as curious about my process as I was about his. We met as artists.”
In other ways, Byrne’s career is a template she hopes to follow as St. Vincent. “That’s the kind of spirit I would want to take forward,” says Clark. “I want to be 40 years into my career and still be just as excited as I was at the beginning.”
Where: Wiltern Theater
When: 8 p.m. Fri.
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