Annie Clark of St. Vincent // the You Ain’t No Picasso interview

A few hours before St Vincent played the Dame in Lexington, KY I got an email (and later, a phone call) asking if I’d like to interview Annie. While I hadn’t really read anything or done any research on her new album Actor, I knew I just had to interview the girl who makes my ears so happy. So I said yes and scribbled questions all through shift at the record store and drove over to watch and interview Annie.

MP3: St. Vincent – The Strangers

I’d only spoken to Annie for a few minutes before her Lexington appearance, but I can now say for sure that she’s in the running for nicest musician I’ve met. Definitely nicest female musician (her buddy John Vanderslice is tough to beat for the gender-neutral crown). In this interview we chit-chat about her change in life view from Marry Me to Actor, what films inspired the new album and make public pleas for Zach Galifianakis to play piano on her next album and Owen Pallett to be her best friend.

You Ain’t No Picasso interviews Annie Clark of St. Vincent

I’ll ask the most trivial question first. You said that Marry Me was sort of an Arrested Development reference. Any chance of a Tobias Funke reference on Actor?

SV: I was really obsessed with “Marry Me” when I was writing Marry Me. This record was more of a Criterion Collection record.

Are you referring to the fact that it’s a lot of cinematic movies that you watched and tried to score or were partially inspired by? Or is this like a “best of” Criterion Collection?

Yes. I was asked recently to collect the best of Criterion Collection and I feel like I was honored to get the opportunity but then I felt like this was a curse—“how am I going to pick the best of the Criterion Collection?”

Wait, did they ask you?


Wow, what became of that? What’s that for?

I wanted to make sure it was a really good list. They just do it for the website and they ask artists [to do it.]

I work for the local record store in town and its always funny to see who’s willing to plop down the big dough for the Criterion stuff, but they have a really devoted fan base. But about the movies and the inspiration for all that, that was not something that you imposed upon yourself, that was something that came about as you were sort of coming off tour of the last album?

Yeah, I think sometimes if you’re a little but lazy or spacey you have to trick your brain into working. And I think that’s kinda what I did, I didn’t really take any breaks. I think I might have slept in the day I got back from tour, but other than that I didn’t take a break from working because I was itching to get back to writing after being on the road for so long. So, I just kinda dove in and then got a couple weeks into writing and I was like, “I’m exhausted and a space cadet—and I’m gonna watch some movies today. It’ll be my homework.” And then next thing you know, it really was working.

Before that moment, did anything carry over onto the album? Did anything work back in like, “Oh, I came up with a guitar part before I started doing this inspiration for movies?”

Very few things were written before, very, very few things actually.

When I interviewed Owen Pallett of Final Fantasy…

[Annie grins]

He’s a fantastic fellow.

Wonderful, I want to be his best friend.

I’m sure—Owen, are you listening?

I love you Owen. We’re gonna be good friends some day.

Have you met?

Yeah, we’ve met.

But when I interviewed him about He Poos Clouds, which has sort of this loose thing that is about areas of Dungeons and Dragons. And he said sort of giving yourself a really strict guideline for song writing or inspiration like that actually helped him come up with songs so much faster than if he had had unlimited space to work with. Was that the case with you?

Yeah, you have to sort of set some boundaries and self-impose some rules. And obviously the object isn’t to see how strict you can be on yourself—its more just to get your foot in the door in terms of creativity. Just put me in the game and I’ll worry about if I can hit the ball.

Read the rest of the interview after the break…

I’ve heard a couple of films that you’ve looked to for inspiration. What were some of the films you were watching and either pulled like a cadence or line of dialogue from?

Um, a lot of Stardust Memories. I really love Woody Allen in general. I don’t want to be an actress but I just wish I could be in a Woody Allen film.

Like somebody to hand someone a pie or something?

Yeah, that’s all. Or just live in them. I had a dinner not to long ago in New York and Dianne Keaton was sitting at the next table and I was just—my diner companions must have thought I was so rude. You know, just “What? This is Dianne Keaton!” And she looks great too. She’s probably in her 60s and she looks great.

That’s weird, I just thought of this. But, that’s an actress that’s got a very specific fan base that would go absolutely crazy for her, but sort of everybody else—maybe not so much. Is that what it feels like to be Annie Clark? I mean 99% of the people pass you by and one girl flips her lid because she loves your music. Indie famous!

I wish that were the case, my friend.

Indie famous, we’ll call it. There’s 200 people in there [the Dame] that just absolutely went crazy, but no paparazzi are following you….

Yeah, no. [laughs]. It’s funny. You see people at levels of like Justin Timberlake. What must life be like for Justin Timberlake? I’m sure he’s a super-nice normal guy, but he’s got people stalkin’ him and that is crazy. I can’t even imagine that kind of crazy.

But like, you did Sasquatch recently. Can you walk around Sasquatch? I don’t mean to turn this into a question of what you can get away with, but do you get to go out and watch the bands and stuff?

Yeah, I’m in no way like a “famous person.” I’m a nerdy musician who is lucky to have fans. But uh, yeah. Oh, I sang a little something with Zach Galifianakis.

Yeah, my friend who I abandoned, unfortunately, was at Sasquatch said “ask her about being up on stage with Zach Galifianakis!”

I love him. He’s awesome.

Have you seen the Hangover yet?

No I haven’t seen it! That’s not a Judd Apatow movie is it?

No, it’s the guy who did Old School. What was working with him like and how long had you had that planned?

We had been trying to do something special together for over a year. And [I would say], “Hey, I’m playing in New York come and sing on this” and I want him to sit in sometime on piano. Something, but it never worked out until we were both at Sasquatch. And he’s great. I love comedians.

That would be like that weird bit of trivia that Gene Wilder played congas on a Talking Heads album.

Is that right?!

[Laughs] Yeah. Now it could be “Zach Galifianakis played piano on the third St. Vincent album.”

Yeah, I’ve got my fingers crossed! That would be so funny. And Patton Oswalt too. I love Patton Oswalt.

You’re naming the greats. Well it seems like there’s a group of young comedians that are all helping each other out. Does it feel that way with the music scene right now? I don’t know if I’m finally hitting that age where I’ve got my music set, but it feels like the National, Grizzly Bear, everybody is making the best music of their lives and they’re all working together. Does it feel that way from the inside too, or are you just like, “this is what happens when you’re really good at music.” It just feels like there are so many good people working together finally.

It feels like a really exciting time to be around and to be in New York too. So I’m contented that I’ve been in New York for the past couple years. The thing I think that is most vital to realize is that this isn’t the 80’s where there are crazy budgets and people kissing off. This is “recession mania” and all the musicians I know—friends of mine—are really hard working and totally have their shit together and are so smart and competent. I think Bryce Dessner Is going to rule the planet.

They are poised to be the most influential people in the next decade.

He is like, such a powerhouse. I don’t know how he does it all. I just feel really lucky to be like, “oh yeah my friend so-and-so,” and have people say “yeah, they are an incredible musician.” How did I get here, hanging out with such wonderful people?

I was reading about Adrian Belew, who is from Kentucky, about how when he started playing guitar and then went more to Frank Zappa and was like, “that was super pressure, but I learned so much.” And while I was reading a little more about you today, I was like, “well that’s Annie with the Polyphonic Spree.” Did that help you on your guitar work or had you pretty much already gotten your sound down by that point?

No, not at all. I didn’t play with any pedal—I was like a singer-style guitar player. I didn’t ever play acoustic guitar that much. Then I got asked to be in the Polyphonic Spree and I kinda like, seemed a lot of “hey can you make that sparkly like ABBA?” Or something.

That’s how he would describe things to you? “Shimmer?”

Yeah, he’s got cool esoteric ways of describing what he wants. I’m totally down with that. So I had to invest in a little more “shimmer” and “pizzazz.” I kinda stated getting really into foot pedals—I guess I’m sort of an obsessive person so once I got “the bug,” I got really obsessed with it. Then it just kinds snowballed and I was able to use everything I’d learned in making my own record.

Whenever you got on with the Polyphonic Spree, how far along were you with what would eventually become Marry Me? Because you were pretty much done by the time you got into Sufjan’s group, right?

Yeah, I was done by the time I was playing with Soof. I had about half of the record done by the time I joined the Polyphonic Spree. Then I started reworking some things and working on the new stuff that was going to be Marry Me with Brian Teasley, who I met in the group playing percussion. And he’s a tremendous person. I finished the record about nine months from the time I started working with Brian and putting the old stuff together. And then Sufjan heard it and then he asked me to go on tour with him opening for him and Shara Warden of My Brightest Diamond, who is a dear friend of mine. I miss her. Where is she? She’s out with the Decemberists right now.

Yeah, she did a feature for my site called “Mixmas.” And she mentioned you in it. She said “I was having a hard time and I asked Annie for help. And she helped me.”

I love her. I really miss her.

The downside to having so many talented friends is that they’re all gone?

They’re always on tour. Actually that’s the ironic thing. You see me of people on tour than you do otherwise.

Yeah, I’ve heard that a lot: “Oh, we get to catch up, Sasquatch is coming up!”

Exactly. Its not even “let’s have dinner.”

So Marry Me sort of felt kinda like a female High Fidelity moment. A lot of past relationships, a lot of love was in there.

I just saw that movie again. It was on TV like three days ago.

It blows my mind. Its so good but its also almost too real. At the end its like, “Oh, everyone’s back together but its so….not good for them.”

I know.

But that’s sort of the gist I got. Its always different, but its kinda the same story and its what you take away from it. But, on Actor, is that sort of progressing to the next level in realizing that no matter what, you’re not always gonna be yourself and they’re not always gonna be themselves. But, maybe you can still be ok together?

I think that Actor is a lot about self deception and desperation—themes that kind of run through Actor. I think Marry Me is kinda a sweet, romanticized version of what life might be like—what love might be like. And Actor is sort of a seedier version. Its not really very romanticized at all. And that’s ok too.

I don’t mean to pry too much, but is that a change that you or maybe friends of yours would say has gone on within yourself or is it just a different way of looking at the same story?

Well, I’ve realy grown up a lot since I was making Marry Me. I was 20, 21 or 22 when I was writing the Mary Me record…and now I’m 24….how old am I? I’m 26. When did I turn 26? I was 25 writing the record. Big difference. Huge difference. [laughs] A whole new “shedding my skin.” You kind of grow up a little bit. I still think that I’m a big romantic, but this is not a very romantic record.

I was gonna say you picked some pretty romantic movies. Snow White, I know, is among them.

That is romantic. I suppose. It is sort of pre-feminist. All those Disney movies are sort of like “wait a second…”

Yeah, “you just sit here and be pure and wait. Eventually I’m gonna come to this cottage!”

Exactly! But if I don’t look at it through that lens, I think I’d love it there.

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