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St. Vincent

St. Vincent

Interviewed by
Thursday 13th October, 2011 8:53AM

Annie Clark AKA St Vincent has been steady gaining acclaim for her unique, fastidious sound. UTR caught up with the songstress to discuss what her latest album, Strange Mercy, is about, what she’s working on at the moment and why she just wants more guitar solos.

Tell me a little bit about writing and recording Strange Mercy:

Um, I wrote all of it in seclusion in Seattle. I had a friend who lent me a studio and I’d just go there alone every day for a month and I would just write. I had a technology detox and just played guitar and sang and I haven’t written like that – in a very stripped down emotionally immediate way - since I was probably 15 or 16. Then I went into the studio and constructed and deconstructed these songs with some very specific ideas about what kind of record we wanted to make.

I realized that for the longest time I hadn’t had an hour or two hours where I wasn’t getting a text message or sending an email or using technology and communications. Once I was in the technology detox I realize I haven’t been able to get to this level of thought in a long time because I’m constantly being distracted by the false urgency of a work email, you know. So in that way it was nice to peel back the layers and remember what it used to be like when you could be on a car trip looking out the window and you would just think; you would just have thoughts and they would flow together and maybe they would dovetail and then you’d have a realization or another thought. You would follow your own brain river without an eruption.

So it was really important for you to remove yourself from the modern world for this album?

I think when you remove that clutter you can get down. For me personally I’m not necessary that in touch with my emotions at any given moment but in that state and at that point I had a lot of emotional things and difficult life things to sort through and I’d never given myself that space to grieve or sort through it all. Writing songs was my way of figuring out how I felt about things. I wouldn’t tell myself I feel a certain way but if I could sing it then it would be real and valid, which isn’t to say everything is necessarily one-to-one confessional because I don’t think I’ll ever be that kind of writer but it’s definitely way more emotionally direct and emotionally honest.

Your songs seem all-encompassing, every part of the story you’re telling is considered. Is this a fair statement?

What captivates me is how filmmakers make films and you get to se the tiny expression on somebody’s face and you get to see someone dropping the keys in the bowl by the door, and you get to see all these mundane acts but somehow they end up painting an emotional or psychological picture of someone; of how people live. I try to approach songwriting in that way which is to give people enough images that they can sympathise with their own brains and mould the experience and make venn diagrams and connect the dots and let it take them somewhere in their own mind.

This album is vastly different musically from your last – were you purposefully trying to go in another direction?

Well I think that every time I start writing the record and every time I walk into the studio what’s most helpful for creativity is saying what you don’t want. Saying I am not going to use this group of instruments, this thing or this thing. Now I know what I don’t want maybe I can figure out what I do want. Let’s simplify the palette, the instrumental palette. I wanted to make a record that was more synth based because it seemed like it would be a fun challenge for me to take what is ostensibly a cold instrument and make it warm and make it alive or use its stiffness to get a point across. And so I produced this record knowing I didn’t want it to be guitar based. I wanted to have more solos and not really use violins or woodwinds or things that were that orchestral. I feel like I did that on the last record and so it was easy to then go: “OK, guitar, voice synths, mini moog, looks like we got a little bit of a palette here”.

The pre-promotion of your album has been very visual and very active. Was this an important part of the process for you?

It’s very important you get to expound on the music. Especially we did these teaser videos people had to tweet the hashtag strange mercy and it unlocked the video and one of my best friends on the planet directs these videos. They’re always based on the idea of what is strange mercy, like what does it mean. You know, part of it is being cruel to be kind or you know withholding information from someone because you’re really trying to protect them and you love them. It’s a constantly grey area but real life is rife with it.

The cover is someone being asphyxiated it’s all a little gross, but also quite a lovely image.

If you were to define your sound what would you say?

I probably wouldn’t. If I weren’t in an interview I probably wouldn’t. Oftentimes when I’m writing or in the studio I’m just going for colours; I almost see and experience in a more synethestic way than just ‘oh this chord and this thing’. It’s almost like this should sound like grey and a ghost should walk through the room here and this should feel like this. I’m going for how I want it to make me feel than basing it on theory or any of that.

How did you want this album to make people feel?

Every song was different I guess. It’s hard to say because in the moment you’re just kind of intuitively going after something. The studio is such a funny world where you can walk in and it’s daylight and the next thing you know twelve hours have gone by and you feel as if you haven’t done anything and you only realize when you walk in the next day that you did this and this and can move on. The other part of it too is about trusting your intuition at a very micro level. You’re charged with making thousands of micro decisions and if you look at it in a statistical or mathematical way that can seem incredibly daunting like ‘woah one wrong turn here and this could send the whole thing off the tracks’ but invariably you’re just going by instinct on every micro decisions you can and hoping when you yield out and you look at it in macro form you have one consistent and one very solid set of artistic macro decisions.

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