Annie Clark, the guitarist for Dallas super-collective The Polyphonic Spree, has gone out on her own as St. Vincent, with her debut solo album, Marry Me, but right before she headed out on tour, Clark sat down to talk with QRO. In the interview, Clark talks about Marry Me (QRO review), The Polyphonic Spree’s The Fragile Army (QRO review), her upcoming tour, shifting from ensembles to solo work, opening to headlining, what she owes to blogs, getting David Bowie’s long-time pianist Mike Garson to contribute, her unusual summer job as a teen with her uncle, her great-uncle’s unusual coffee table reading material, and who is the ‘John’ she addresses on Marry Me’s title track…
QRO: Your tour starts tomorrow. Are you excited? Nervous? Or do you just want to get it going already?
Annie Clark: Excited, really. It’s my first tour with a band, and so I’m really, really excited about what we’re working on.
QRO: Who’s in your current touring line-up?
AC: My friend Walker, and my friend Phil, and my friend Daniel. They’re all really, really awesome… sort of multi-instrumentalists in a lot of ways. They kind of switch around; play different things to make all the sounds on my record come alive. So each one of us is doing the job of probably three people.
QRO: How did you bring it all together?
AC: Well, the truth of the matter is: I’m a really big nerd, a sort of technophile, and [have] just been figuring out creative ways to make lots of sounds – in an organic way, but without seventeen people. So a lot of pedals, and tricks, and bells, and whistles.
QRO: Are there any particular special cities and places you’re looking forward to?
AC: You know, I had a really great time in the southwest. I’d never been to Tucson, and I was down just a couple months ago at the Hotel Congress, which was awesome. An old… I don’t know… Western, saloon-y kind of hotel; the place had such a vibe.
Of course New York, and… really everywhere. Everywhere is really fun. The people you want to know in the city are already at the show. You don’t have to do a lot of searching for friends.
QRO: What led you to a solo album? Was this always the plan, considering that you’re such a multi-instrumentalist?
AC: The first thing I did when I picked up any instrument, when I was five years old, was write a song. It’s kind of funny; I thought about it, statements that it’s a ‘solo effort’ – it’s kind of like, “Oh, well I’ve been doing this since I was five.” I was kind of doing this before I did anything else.
QRO: How many instruments did you play when you were recording Marry Me?
AC: What did I do?… I played all the guitar, sing, and played the bass, played the keyboards, played the piano, and bells, and whistles, and the kitchen sink, really… But I had a lot of help to, from friends of mine.
QRO: Actually, how did you get Mike Garson, David Bowie’s long-time pianist?
AC: I asked the universe to… No, I was recording with The Polyphonic Spree, recording The Fragile Army, and we were holed up in January in Minnesota at our studio. They called Mike in to play, and we just hit it off, in a really, really special way. Actually, the night after meeting and having a conversation with him, I sat down and I wrote “All My Stars Aligned”. And I just kind of had an idea, “Wouldn’t it be amazing if Mike Garson played? So the guy who played solo in ‘Aladdin Sane’, wouldn’t it be amazing if this guy played this song?”
And I wrote it, based on a conversation we had, but I didn’t want to ask him, because I felt shy, and nervous, and everything. It was a few months later, actually, we kind of got in touch, and, ‘Oh, what are you doing?’, and I sent him a couple songs that I was working on. I sent him “Your Lips Are Red” and I sent him “All My Stars Aligned”, just to show, you know, ‘wink-wink, hint-hint, this is what I’m doing.’ And he wrote me back, the things that we’d said, and asked to play on the record. So I was, ‘Well, okay, if you insist…’
That worked out pretty miraculously.
QRO: Was the recording process for Marry Me really different from making The Fragile Army?
AC: Oh yeah, oh yeah. Marry Me was a very intimate experience. A lot of time by myself in the studio, just working along, arranging and everything. And then I also worked with my friends Daniel Ferris and Brian Teasley. I spent long, long nights, fueled by sweet tea, in Alabama, just cracking away at it. So to me, Marry Me, a lot of it was done nocturnally, under the influence of caffeine. But The Fragile Army was much more of a collaborative effort.
QRO: With songs like “Paris Is Burning”, Marry Me has almost a sort of ‘cabaret’, occupied France, or Berlin nightclub kind of feel. What led you to that?
AC: Human history was kind of on my brain, ‘cause we’re in wartime, so I was thinking about how it’s funny how some wars, by the virtue of a hundred years, of fifty years, or of two hundred years, can be glorious, or romanticized, or what have you. For me, it was an examination of that. Sort of the reality vs. the romanticism of war.
QRO: Did you get any inspiration from your great-uncle, who was a lead prosecutor [of Nazis] at Nuremburg?
AC: My mom tells me this story, as I only knew him when I was very, very young. My Uncle Bill had a coffee table book that had pictures of the executed Nazis. It was like a taxidermy deer on the wall, but it was the Nazis. My mom, she’s a very compassionate person; she was kind of horrified, but that’s people of a different generation.
QRO: For a song like “Apocalypse Song”, or “Jesus Saves, I Spend”, was it meant to be really political, or not, or what?
AC: Well “Jesus Saves, I Spend” is kind of a love song. To me, was kind of a love song, about being in love, and also the simultaneous feeling of disconnect from reality, I suppose.
QRO: What about “Apocalypse Song”?
AC: “Apocalypse Song” is again, an examination of the kind of violence that exists. I’m not really pining for the extermination of the world. I’d like the world to keep turning.
QRO: On the actual song “Marry Me”, is there a real ‘John’? ‘Cause the song is sung to a person named John.
AC: Oh, there’s so many real Johns.
QRO: Is it a lot, The Fragile Army having just come out, and Marry Me just about to come out?
AC: I’m very excited! I’m really proud about what I did on The Fragile Army and The Polyphonic Spree, and I’m really proud of Marry Me.
QRO: With you going on tour, are not still in The Polyphonic Spree, or are you still in it, but you’re not going to be in this tour, or what?
AC: I’m gonna to be pretty busy with the St. Vincent thing for a while, but I think the door’s open, sure.
QRO: The Polyphonic Spree wasn’t your first ensemble. You’ve worked with Surfjan Stevens and even Glenn Branca’s ‘100 Guitar Orchestra’?
AC: I played with them, in Glenn Branca’s ‘100 Guitar Orchestra’. He’s like a really delightful madman. I love what he creates. It was the noisiest, loudest, just exponential sound.
QRO: What’s it like now, going from all those ensembles to doing solo work? Is it strange, or is it just ‘this is what I normally do’?
AC: Well I think, like friends of mine say, “It’s good to have a gig.” In that regard, I enjoyed, and I tried to soak up and learn everything as fast as I could from doing any kind of music. It’s good to have a gig. If you’re a musician, it’s good to be working.
I love doing all of it, but Marry Me is my baby, St. Vincent is my child.
QRO: What’s it like, also, as you’ve previously done solo stuff as an opener, but now you’re going to be a headliner?
AC: It’s strange – My name will be on the ticket. It’s very, very exciting. A little nerve-wracking, but it’ll be fun no matter how it goes, I think.
QRO: How did you meet The Polyphonic Spree?
AC: I went to high school with a number of the members. I played in bands before with some of the members.
QRO: What was it like, in such a big band, with so many people?
AC: In a really great way, you simultaneously try to take up as little and as much space as possible.
QRO: When you were fifteen, you were the tour manager for your uncle, [jazz musician] Tuck Andress – Why, and what was that like?
AC: I think most people have to have summer jobs when they’re teenagers, mowing lawns, and what have you. Depending on your outlook, I guess, I lucked out. My uncle would take me on tour during the summers, take me to exotic places and make me work my ass off. It was a wonderful experience, to have that so young, to see the reality of the world: ‘This is what being a musician is.’ It’s like ‘Take Your Daughter To Work Day’.
QRO: Do you come from a musical family?
AC: I come from a pretty smart family. My uncle parlayed that into music, and everybody else has got their own thing. I guess everybody thinks their family is pretty smart. But The Clarks are resourceful people.
QRO: How long had the songs for Marry Me been bouncing around in your head when you finally made them?
AC: Some songs I wrote that night, and some songs took nine months to arrange, get how I positioned them. Some songs I wrote parts of when I was twelve, thirteen, fourteen, fifteen… Just putting it together, just finding the right place for it. So it’s really been a long time coming.
QRO: Since it’s taken so long to make the first album, are you not even thinking about what it would take to make a second album?
AC: I’m actually really restless, in the sense that I’d rather be always making something new. I’m really excited about making a second record. I’ve got a lot of things up my sleeve, I guess.
QRO: Do you have any full-fledged songs, or are they still ‘up the sleeve’?
AC: Oh, sure, but I’ve gotta put them out there at the right time.
QRO: When you made Marry Me, how did you know what songs were going to be singles?
AC: I think that people with ears that work differently than mine say, “That’s a single!”, and I go, “Really?”, and then they go, “Yeah, don’t you see?”, and I go, “Oh, I guess so…” I think people like upbeat things, so that cancels out a couple songs on the album already, and I’ll figure it out from there.
QRO: Are there any [songs] you particularly like playing live?
AC: Yeah, I really like playing “Your Lips Are Red” live. I had a prog faze when I was about thirteen or fourteen, so sort of getting back to that primordial prog side, I guess. I like playing any song where I can shred a little.
QRO: You do some blogging at http://lovelettersofstvincent.blogspot.com/ . How do you feel about artists doing blogs?
AC: Oh, I like it. I read my friends’ blogs, and some of them are artists – actually, a lot of them are artists of various sorts. I like it; I think it can be a real art form, if left in the right hands.
QRO: Do you intend to keep doing it when you’re on tour?
AC: Yeah, I’m gonna try. I think it’s a nice way to have an interface with people who are into the album and stuff. I enjoy it.
I certainly owe a lot of awesomeness to blogs, to people who have been blogging about a show, or blogging about a single, or blogging about something. It’s just amazing to me that it seems to be a nice equalizer. People don’t necessarily need the clout of a big ‘record company machine’ to put their face on a billboard. Blogging seems more organic and honest in a lot of ways, for fans of music to be critics I suppose.
QRO: Do you ever get the downside of it, people being too critical?
AC: I think if you’re going to open yourself up, and really internalize the praise, you have to kind of internalize the criticism. That’s too much to deal with. You can’t really worry about all that stuff.
I do care, but so far, it’s been positive. I’m a debut artist, I’m not established – nobody would write about it if they didn’t like it. So I’m waiting for the next album for the backlash.
QRO: Are there are any great tour stories you have, of something going horribly wrong or something going wonderfully right?
AC: Oh man… Okay, here’s an awesome tour story: I was playing these two shows last fall in Europe, we played at Reykjavík, and the three or four days we were in Reykjavík happened to be the one and only Sugarcubes reunion show… So it was like, tour of a lifetime.
QRO: Oh, actually, are you going to be touring Marry Me in Europe?
AC: I am, I’m going to be over there in October.
QRO: ‘Cause you’re doing a pretty extensive tour, even in America.
AC: Yeah, five weeks… Middle of America is something. Highways? Oh, man. Highways? The same five restaurants, the same five hotels – It’s like, you might as well be in The Twilight Zone.
No, but I’m really looking forward to playing.