Saturday 3 December 2016

Strange Days

Published 21/10/2011 | 05:00

Annie Clarke tells how she cut herself off from the world to pen a new album

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Annie Clark has a guilty secret. She thinks Rick Perry, bible-thumping Presidential wannabe and fellow Texan, is quite the hottie. Living in New York's super-liberal East Village, it isn't an opinion she hollers from her balcony.

"For a while, I was like 'ooh, he's kinda handsome'," she says dissolving -- appropriately given the subject -- into schoolgirl giggles. "Then you hear what his policies are and it's like 'oh my god'. What -- is he going to pray for the national debt to go down? We've got to get past the Luddite, the earth is 6,000 years old, way of thinking in this country. We really do."

If you are familiar with the angular, introspective music Clark records as St Vincent, a conversation about the fanciability of a prominent right-wing politician will likely strike you as the far side of surreal. On record, Clark sounds like Kate Bush trapped inside a Sufjan Stevens song while someone in the adjoining flat slaps on their favourite Bjork LP. Her compositions are gorgeous and dissonant and weird (albeit with a sweet internal life that rewards ardent listening). Making her acquaintance, you very reasonably expect this 29-year-old, with the vast hazel eyes and translucent skin, to be kookily introverted and, frankly, not entirely of the earth.

As her bashful laughter attests, that isn't Clark at all. Rested up in a Manhattan recording studio, she projects quiet resolve and girl- next-door charm. With a fan club that includes ex-Talking Heads leader David Byrne and Grizzly Bear, she may have the New York alternaverse at her feet. However, you only have to scratch the surface to catch a glimpse of the regular girl from the Dallas suburbs.

She's just put out her third LP as St Vincent and it might be the one that sees her finally crack the mainstream. Already, Spin Magazine has splashed her on its cover and arranged for highbrow comedian/author Julie Klausner to interview her. Meanwhile, her Dublin show has been upgraded from the Workman's Club to The Button Factory.

It's quite a progression from her last headline date here when she performed to a three- quarters-full Sugar Club. After years of toil, how does it feel to finally see her career shoot towards the stratosphere? "I care a lot," she says, bobbing her head gravely. "I'm very excited that people will finally get to hear the record."

Not, she adds, that she expects to be topping the bill at Madison Square Garden anytime in the near future. "This is my third one and I've been doing this for 16 years now, when you add together the time from when I first started playing guitar. I've learned that things happen cumulatively. You don't get big with one massive break. It's all about placing one foot in front of the other, going places incrementally."

While writing Strange Mercy, Clark conducted an unusual experiment. She rented a room in Seattle, turned off her cell phone and went cold turkey internet. No email, no Facebook -- certainly no Twitter. Unplugging was a disorientating experience -- but it helped make the album the disorientating joyride it is.

"I had to get out of New York," she says. "It is wonderful and at the same time totally chaotic. So I went to Seattle and conducted what was basically a loneliness experiment. I didn't know anyone there. I holed up for three days and worked on songs. I realised how much of my life is usually spent looking at a screen. If some catastrophe event was to hit the planet and we were all covered in ashes, when they came to excavate us 1,000 years from now, they would probably think that we all worshipped computers."

Beneath Clark's chummy demeanour, you detect an undertow of jitteriness. She is open about the fact that she has had issues with her nerves in the past. As a child, she suffered full-blown panic attacks. Usually the trigger was something highly esoteric. She'd stand outside her house, look up at the endless Texan sky and think, 'oh my god, life is meaningless and we're all going to die' -- pretty heavy thoughts for an eight-year-old.

"My family always says it's my Irish nerves," she laughs [her middle name is Erin]. "It was probably as a result of asking big existential questions and not having any life experience with which to put into perspective. I figured the universe is incredibly huge -- so why are we here? I still don't have answers for those questions. I guess the difference is I no longer have panic attacks."

She's toured with Sufjan Stevens and Grizzly Bear and was briefly a member of the Texan cult/pop collective Polyphonic Spree (a curious affair whose cloying outpourings threatened to give 24-piece indie rock bands a bad name).

Of all the artists she's worked with, however, the one with whom she has the deepest affinity is David Byrne, the Talking Heads singer turned elder-statesman of New York art-pop. They've collaborated extensively and recently started writing an album together.

'He doesn't carry himself in a way that is ostentatious or self aggrandising," she says. "So I got past that stage of being overawed by him really easily. That stuff is background noise. He's a great musician, which is where we connected. He's a delightful person -- absolutely no airs. He doesn't have an ego and approaches things with a sense that he still has something to learn. If you start believing your own myth, you lose that curiosity. You start thinking you know best. As an artist, that's a bad situation to find yourself in."

Clark was raised Catholic, a rarity in a part of the United States where Evangelical Christianity is regarded as part of what it is to be American.

While she didn't exactly feel as if she was growing up apart, there were nonetheless, she confesses, moments of profound disconnection with the culture around her.

"It is quite an Evangelical place," she recalls, her voice retaining the hint of a Dallas twang. "I remember having a friend in junior high school who gave me a baptist version of Christianity.

"I asked her, what happens to people who haven't heard of Jesus. She told me they went straight to hell. What about animals? Apparently they were going to hell as well. I thought wow, hell sounds like it's pretty full.

"I will say that my family always had a sense of humour about religion -- I remember dad giving me a copy of I Am Not A Christian by [mid 20th-century philosopher] Bertrand Russell. You can probably attest to this in Ireland, but I think religion is often a cultural thing. It's there in the background rather than something you may yourself personally believe. That's how it was for us at least. We never found ourselves getting too carried away by it."

Strange Mercy is out now. St Vincent plays The Button Factory, Dublin, on November 13

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