Interview: St. Vincent, Playing Tonight at the Firebird



Tonight at the Firebird, St. Vincent -- a.k.a. Annie Clark -- is performing, a night after she played with Andrew Bird in Columbia. Elsinore opens. In this week's paper, Shae Moseley says Clark is "a one-woman wrecking crew -- especially when it comes to layering loops of guitar, pristine vocals and crunchy, pulsating drum-machine blasts. But Clark's latest album, Actor, takes things to another level, by incorporating flourishes of chamber-orchestra goodness -- flute, French horn and violin are featured prominently -- alongside heavy bursts of sawtooth synths, bombastic drums and imaginative, finger-picked guitars."

Clark chatted with A to Z after the jump.

Shae Moseley: I saw you a couple years ago at St. Louis University opening up for John Vanderslice. Annie Clark: Oh yeah, right next to the student center.

It was a really fun show. I think it was the night that John lead the entire crowd out into the courtyard to end the show. Yeah, I had a really great time that night actually.

So, at that show you played solo and have a lot in the past but all of you touring for Actor has been with a band. Will that continue on this upcoming tour? This tour will be with a band. It's me plus four other people.

Was it challenging to bring together players to recreate what you did on the album? Well, it was sort of easier than I though it would be. But I lucked into finding a really wonderful woodwind player named Evan Smith. He kind of plays every woodwind ever and also plays keyboard and sings well. My violin player is also a very good guitar player and my bass player can play clarinet. So everybody is a really talented multi-instrumentalist, which is very necessary to carry off the music.

Did it take a lot of wood shedding to find a way to accurately represent the album? The arrangements seem very involved. Yes. Many weeks of solid rehearsal.

I've heard that you did a lot of the writing and arranging for the songs on Actor on your own completely "in the box" on computer in your apartment. Did you have a pretty good handle on what the songs would be before you entered the studio with (producer) John Congleton (Explosions in the Sky, The Paper Chase)? Well, in some cases I did. The song "Marrow" was mapped out note for note. There's a clarinet part at the beginning and then there's big saxophone lines that were all written from start to finish. And the same with "The Bed" those things were arranged in the computer and ready to go when we got to the studio. With some of the other songs there was a little bit more of working things out in the studio but most of the arrangements for woodwinds especially were all prepared ahead of time.

Did you build off of your original demos on some of the songs? There are a couple of instances where there are actually the Garage band sounds mixed in with the real thing. I had an instance in either "Marrow" or "Save Me From What I Want" but I tried to sort of duplicate this frenetic, no breath, clarinet part with actual clarinets and it just sounded kind of silly. But if it was mixed in with the computer's Garageband sounds it's like, "Okay." There's something disembodied about that. I'm very into the idea of classic orchestral instruments melded with things that are harder to identify. I don't want to be all pretentious and say like, "You're recontextualizing sound" or something, but there is mystery there.

They are really familiar sounds that you can't quite put your finger on. It's interesting how accessible recording software is these days. Yeah, who was I reading about that did their whole record in Garageband? Oh, it was Justice you know the French duo? I mean, I mostly used it as a composition tool or a template, but it's super easy and functional so it's a great place to start.

I'm assuming you've known John (Congleton) for a long time since you're originally both from Texas? I had heard of John and his band The Paper Chase but I didn't know him until I worked on the Polyphonic Spree record with him. But we really hit it off. We were in like the middle of nowhere Minnesota for three weeks recording in the middle of winter with no transportation.

So you had no choice but to get to know each other? Yeah, exactly. But we just really hit it off and the way he was able to work with everyone in such a large ensemble and pull good things out of everyone. The decision making process in any studio situation is often kind of tricky but he really navigated the whole thing in a really admirable way.

I'm sure it's great to have someone you can trust to see the big picture when you're so engulfed in something? Yeah, definitely. I could see the pixels.

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