St. Vincent sits at a crossroads of ‘the acceptable and the strange’

by Shaun Curran

Special To The Japan Times

Chatting to Annie Clark, what is noticeable is how much she differs from her artistic alter ego. The music she creates as St. Vincent — ambitious art-rock that blends avant-garde sound with melodic richness — has been refined to the point that now, four albums in, she is an artist working entirely in her own sphere. Her songs drip with anxiety, vulnerability and sexual intrigue.

By contrast Clark, a Texas-raised, New York-dwelling 31-year-old, is the polar opposite: softly-spoken, thoughtful, eloquent. You wonder the extent of the gap between her true self and the perfectly constructed moniker.

“It’s all genuinely me,” she says on the phone from Dallas. “It’s just a matter of projecting a certain aspect of your personality. I was reading Miles Davis’ autobiography and he says the best thing you can do is sound like yourself and create a world that isn’t for anyone else. I felt like I achieved that on this record.”

“St. Vincent,” her newly released fourth album, is the work of an artist operating at peak capacity. It resembles nothing else you’ll hear all year: overflowing with ideas, it is skewed, multi-layered, multi-instrumental future-pop that need not rely on her virtuoso guitar playing. Yet for all its adventure, “St. Vincent” retains a clear accessibility.

“That’s probably why we’re having this conversation,” she acknowledges. “It’s been an interesting road to learn how to fuse everything I love together into one place and how melody can go with more out there ideas. And that’s always the most interesting place to be, the intersection between the acceptable and the strange”.

The songs’ subject matter, the Instagram-generation satire of “Digital Witness” apart (“it’s just exhibitionism of the mundane”) often use the intensely personal as a springboard. “I Prefer Your Love” is an ode to her ill mother, “Psychopath” documents a date with a man who would later become a close friend, while the album’s best track, “Prince Johnny,” is a sumptuous recount of debauchery with the “New York downtown scene, characters from those wild nights out.”

It seems that Clark uses song to communicate what she might otherwise leave unsaid: “Yeah, actually. It’s harder to do it in real life than to do it in song. If you have music on your side, it’s a crazy powerful tool that goes straight to your subconscious.”

Clark was born in Dallas on Sept. 28, 1982, one of eight siblings in a devotedly Catholic family. It was also a musical one: her aunt and uncle were blues performers — Clark’s first trip to Japan was as a 16-year-old assisting the pair on tour — and a career in music was, she says, “all I wanted.” Formerly a touring guitarist with Sufjan Stevens and The Polyphonic Spree, Clark went out on her own in 2006, assuming the alias St. Vincent in tribute to a Nick Cave lyric referencing the Manhattan hospital where Dylan Thomas died.

It wasn’t until her third album, 2011′s excellent “Strange Mercy,” that Clark began to make traction. Since then, she has been prolific. There was a collaborative album with David Byrne, “Love This Giant,” which preceded “St. Vincent,” though she refutes she is a workaholic. “That word doesn’t ring true. There’s an element of being compulsive in being a workaholic, like having an addiction. I’m doing this because it’s the most fun thing to do.”

That’s not to say Clark doesn’t graft: rehearsals for her current show, with input from Love This Giant tour choreographer Annie-B Parson, were grueling, 12-hour, five-day-a-week shifts. Jealous that “everyone was getting to dance apart from me” when she performed with Byrne, Clark was determined to recapture that spirit. “There’s something about the language of movement, the way movement can travel directly to your subconscious with all kinds of meanings, sometimes very ambiguous meanings,” she says. “Once my eyes were opened to that language, it would be like walking with one leg if I didn’t incorporate it.”

The St. Vincent live experience is immersive: Part theater, part rock, it looks and sounds like the future. Addressing the “freaks and others” in the audience (“it’s very strange to be a human being and everyone is probably a freak”) with pre-rehearsed, second-person anecdotes, Clark is again challenging our means of communication.

“What if you talk about the really strange, undeniably human experiences that we have, but in the second person? Tell them who they are, and they will recognize themselves. That is much more powerful than saying, ‘Hey London, so good to be here.’ It’s another way to connect.”

The “freaks and others” at Fuji Rock that find time to engage themselves in Clark’s world will be thankful. As it happens, Clark, whose band mate Toko Yasuda is Japanese, will reciprocate.

“I’m going to stay a couple of extra days and eat amazing food and shop. It’s a fascinating place. I feel lucky to have Japanese friends so I can do the real thing rather than the touristy things.”

St. Vincent plays the Red Marquee stage at Fuji Rock Festival on July 26. The festival takes place in Naeba, Niigata Prefecture, from July 25 to July 27. Tickets cost ¥44,000 for a three-day pass, ¥18,300 for a one-day pass. For more information, visit www.fujirockfestival.com.