The passion of St. Vincent

CHRIS RIEMENSCHNEIDER | Updated 8/17/2012

Movie scenes helped indie chanteuse Annie Clark veer from heavenly to hellish on her career-making sophomore album, "Actor."


"Sorry, I've lost my train of thought."

Annie Clark, the burgeoning singer/songwriter/guitarist who performs as St. Vincent, directed her bright, doe-ish eyes toward the source of her distraction: a New Orleans-style brass band busking its way up the sidewalk while a metal group thundered from inside a club across the street. Such is the competitive din heard along 6th Street during the South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas, where she sat down for an interview in a cafe in March.

Clark herself had kicked up a lot of noise, musically and figuratively, the previous night onstage in a packed Presbyterian church. Her SXSW show marked the live debut of the second St. Vincent album, "Actor," which is quickly cementing the Dallas-reared, Berklee-schooled, Brooklyn-based songstress, 26, as indie-rock's new It Girl. She got off to a pretty good start with her attention-grabbing 2007 debut, "Marry Me." Before that, Clark toured as a guitarist and backup vocalist with fellow orchestral-pop acts the Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens.

Much like the brass band's disharmony with the metal group on 6th Street, "Actor" is loaded with divergent sounds careening into one another. Songs like the grandiose opener "The Strangers" and the cinematic "Black Rainbow" -- all reportedly inspired by some of Clark's favorite movie scenes -- veer from serene, elegant balladry to stormy, floor-scraping rock 'n' roar at the drop of an effects pedal. Throughout the breakthrough album, the line between beauty and chaos is wafer-thin and razor-sharp.

Clark's thoughts were thrown as she talked about being back in Texas, where she grew up in a Catholic family with eight children. Her youngest siblings got to see her play at the church the night before -- "It was all-ages and obviously a wholesome environment, so it was perfect for them," she said.

Back on track, she offered a focused explanation of how "Actor" came to light.

Q: How did it feel, debuting the new songs onstage last night?

A: I really like these songs. I spent a lot of time on the arrangements for them during the recording process, so I'm actually really anxious to make the beautiful parts more beautiful live, and more fleshed out, and the sort of gnarly parts more grosser and disgusting. These two diverging lines really play out live.

Q: Did you worry about heightened expectations for your second album after "Marry Me" was well received?

A: Not too much. I knew this would be a very different record, because I was thinking I wanted to be a composer. Everybody has these very highfalutin ideas about what they want to do, and mine was I want to score a film. Well, how could I score a film but make it pop songs?

I was excited, too, because "Marry Me" was put together over many different phases. Some of those songs dated back to when I was 16. It was kind of a collage. This one, I wrote it all in a very specific time period, and I wanted it to have a cohesive theme. I wanted the beautiful parts of "Marry Me," and I wanted just to have something that's more sweeping and more dramatic flair.

Q: How did the inspiration come from different movies? Did you literally watch a movie and then go record something?

A: It started as a writing tool. I got off a really long tour for "Marry Me" in March of 2008. I didn't take a break; I just went straight into writing. I didn't really know what else to do with my time, you know. I replayed that scene in "Adaptation" where Charlie Kaufman's character is sitting at the typewriter getting ready to write, and he's thinking, "Maybe I should get a muffin. No, a coffee's what I need to get started." That's sort of what it was like for me, except my thought was, "I'll just watch a movie." I thought it'd be a distraction, but it wound up being an inspiration.

I'd watch a scene and think, "How could I rescore that?" There's the scene in "Stardust Memories" where it's a closeup on Charlotte Rampling's face, and Woody Allen's talking to her. That scene was very much in mind when I wrote some of the music.

Q: To which song?

A: I'll never tell which songs are from which scenes. But some of it was very literal, and some of it was really more influenced by just certain film scores.

Q: I understand some classic Disney movies, in particular, played a role. Not exactly typical rock 'n' roll fodder. How did that work?

A: Everyone has seen those movies, from the 1930s-40s on up. I found myself watching them, thinking, "This music is so beautiful. There's no room to be cynical in any of this." You can just get swept away in the grandiosity of the music in "Sleeping Beauty" or "Snow White." Those songs are just magic.

Q: When you played with Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens, were you sort of biding your time until you got to do your own thing?

A: I always was writing and working on my own recordings, but I was lucky enough to be involved with two projects like that, ones that had such vitality. I learned a lot from those projects. Some of the press with "Marry Me" sort of painted this as my side project. No, this is my main thing.

Q: Will you always record as St. Vincent, or is there a proper Annie Clark record to come, too?

A: It remains to be seen, but I don't think so. It would be too much of a schizophrenic divide. St. Vincent is not like an alter ego.

Q: What's been the high point of St. Vincent's career so far?

A: I love just getting to do this. I'm so lucky. Touring -- while not glamorous from an amenities standpoint -- is really fun. It's so rewarding getting to play for people every night. And then I got to meet Nick Cave a couple months ago. That was pretty cool. I was backstage in Australia at All Tomorrow's Parties. I was a little intimidated, but I didn't get to talk to him long enough to say something stupid.

Q: You're playing bigger rooms this tour, like First Avenue in Minneapolis. Is the move up at all intimidating?

A: No, I'm very excited. I played 7th Street Entry a couple times, and then the Cedar Cultural Center last time, that was really wonderful. But now I get to do the "Purple Rain" stage. Yes!