Gig preview: St Vincent at Leeds Metropolitan University

St Vincent
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A SONGWRITER of sharp intellect and a way with words, Annie Clark, the artist otherwise known as St Vincent, understands the power of untamed curiosity.

Her latest album, her fifth and most successful since she left the band cult American choral rock band The Polyphonic Spree 11 years ago, after all ends with a song bleakly titled Crossed Severed Fingers.

“I feel pretty okay about announcing my dark thoughts,” says the 31-year-old who was born in Oklahoma, raised in Texas and now resides in New York City.

“It’s not like a secret confessional, exactly. It’s a way for me to explore every facet of what it means to be human. Some of it is very conflicted, some of it is admitting terrible things you think or that great vulnerability.

“Private hopes and wishes are the absolute best place to be able to explore humanity.”

Having once noted all her heroes “live on this axis of accessible pop music and also in the lunatic fringe”, she admits that’s where she would like to be too.

“Yes, that’s where I would like to live. I’ve carved out a spot for myself.”

St Vincent, which reached the top 30 in the UK, US and Canada, is her most direct collection of songs to date. It was written in a flurry of activity shortly after she returned home from touring with David Byrne, the ex-Talking Heads singer with whom she collaborated on the album Love This Giant in 2012.

“I was still coming off a high from touring and threw myself into writing.” She says. “Everything that I was writing it was almost like being somebody in a desert finally finding water. I had not been able to write because I had been on the road for about a year and a half. There was almost a sort of mania to it – as a result a lot of things came fairly quickly.”

Intuitively she knew she wanted to make “something that was very propulsive in terms of groove that was about the song”. As much as she likes ambient music, “stuff generated on a computer”, she wanted to concentrate on the craft of song writing.

“I think there’s a realm of music that has not been made as easy. I thought, ‘I’m going to zero-in and focus as a song writer on this record,” she explains. Above all, she wanted to write something that “has a heart”.

Clark’s fuzzed-up guitar and electronic beats are at the forefront of the new record. “It’s hard to say what goes where and what comes from where,” she says of the new emphasis in her music. But admits Byrne has “been an influence on my life on previous records and still is”.

Her collaboration with Byrne was “not a master and student dichotomy”, she is keen to point out; they met as equals. “The reason I say that is I don’t think it would be fun for David to do a collaboration with someone he felt was stringing along. The reason he’s so vibrant this many years into a great career is because he’s excited and wants to learn, he wants to peep behind the curtain at the way other people work. He’s a born collaborator; I am too.

“The Press made it out to be teacher and student but that’s not correct. It does not give credit to David for being as open and interested as he was.”

Clark’s new album opens with the song Rattlesnake, based on a real life encounter in west Texas. “It’s new Creation myth,” she says of the lyric’s Eve in the Garden of Eden undertones.

“It’s a true story: I was in west Texas writing and I went out walking. I decided to take my clothes off – there was nobody around for so many miles – I wanted to fully appreciate the experience. I heard a sound. I stopped and listened and thought, ‘Maybe that’s the wind’. Then I heard the sound again and thought, ‘No, that’s a rattlesnake!’ I took off and ran. Then I made a song out of it.”

In another song, Digital Witness, Clark addresses the common search for approval in the age of social networking.

“The internet was not existing in my life until I was a teenager,” she says. “As a result I was allowed to dream in silence. I found out who I was and who I wanted to be in that silence.” She doesn’t criticise the fact that technology has made “dreaming in silence” virtually impossible in the modern world – “kids today are so empowered, the ones I’ve met have all these skills and are so self-possessed” – but merely wonders “where it’s going and what it’s doing, it’s not necessarily saying it’s a bad thing, I’m not a Luddite by any means”.

Clark’s own musical career began in childhood. At 12 she started to play the guitar. Four years later she toured with her uncle, the jazz musician Tuck Andress, before attending Berklee College of Music in Boston. She dropped out after three years.

“I just knew I wanted to be a solo artist,” she says. “I did not know how to do that in terms of how people get record deals or anything like that. I knew I was more interested in cultivating my own voice, not trying to play like Jaco Pastorius. He’s great but only he can play like that.”

Berklee was “more like a trade school, operating on a model of a business that was crumbling as we were in school”.

Learning to play bossa nova, samba and jazz then head out to Los Angeles to become a session musician was not for her.

Besides, she realised, “unfortunately there was not the kind of money in the music industry that there used to be for sidemen, the studio thing had totally dried up, that world was falling apart, meanwhile they are teaching about the good old days”.

“It was something really distant,” she says. “I had to get out of there. I joined The Polyphonic Spree shortly after. I’ve never looked back, I’ve not stopped touring since.”

St Vincent plays at Leeds Metropolitan University on August 20, 7pm, £16.50. www.seetickets.com

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