Indie songstress Annie Clark tunes out the past, fine-tunes her scream 

The Spirit of St. Vincent

The Spirit of St. Vincent

Annie Clark is turning 30 this year, but the traumatic romantic-comedy consequences of that event don't seem to be plaguing her too much. In the life of her alter ego — the ass-kicking, art-rock guitar goddess St. Vincent — there just isn't a lot of room for dwelling wistfully on the past.

"I think there's a fine line," Clark says. "You want to be respectful of the past and take what you can from it. And obviously, to make anything, you have to mine the past. But generally speaking, I'm less interested in nostalgia. I think that's a product of working with David Byrne, who's always looking forward — always wondering what the next thing is, and in some ways always imagining that the future is brighter. That's kind of the trick, maybe. Even though nostalgia can inspire certain feelings, it can also be sort of a cynical mindset, because it relies on the supposition that the past was better than the present. And I don't believe that."

Clark has consistently backed up this philosophy in her work, with her most recent single, "Krokodil," serving as a fine example. Released hot on the heels of the third St. Vincent studio album — the lushly orchestrated and electro-funky Strange Mercy —"Krokodil" stands alone as an entirely separate species in the Clark catalog. The two-and-half-minute track is fast, hard and vicious, with Clark cursing her way through an onslaught of noise-punk riffage. It's not her first foray into darkness or decibels (fans have long known St. Vincent's ability to wail away on the ax), but in comparison to her better-known chamber-pop works, it does lead one to wonder if "Krokodil" is a harbinger of things to come.

"I can't exactly say, because I think I'll always just need to make a record that is indicative of where I am at that exact moment," Clark explains. "But I always want to keep pushing. And it definitely feels really satisfying to me to get to scream every once in a while [laughs]. So the next record may be pretty heavy. We'll see."

In the meantime, Clark continues touring in support of Strange Mercy, her most ambitious and highest-charting album to date — peaking at No. 19 on the Billboard Top 200. Just a few years removed from her days as a side player for cuddly folk-pop acts like The Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens, the Tulsa-born Clark is now one of the undisputed indie queens of New York in her own right, with Strange Mercy confirming the clever songwriting craft, adventurous spirit and unorthodox guitar chops of her first two LPs: 2007's Marry Me and 2009's breakout hit, Actor.

In December, even pillar of above-ground rock journalism Rolling Stone ranked Strange Mercy the 26th best album of 2011. But as Clark is quick to note, the listing habits of that particular publication are not always in line with her own sensibilities.

"I mean, don't they still put Jimmy Page on the cover of the magazine, like, three times a year?" she quips, referring to Rolling Stone's latest rollout of its 100 Greatest Guitarists (a list with a notable 98:2 male-to-female ratio). "Rolling Stone is invested in keeping the mystique around that 1967-1975 era, so it doesn't surprise me much to see what they came up with. When I saw Eric Clapton at No. 3, I pretty much thought, 'Yup, I can ignore this now.' [Laughs] It's baloney."

All Slowhand bashing aside, however, Clark acknowledges that the lack of women in the supposed guitar-god pantheon does cast her — however unwittingly — as a potential role model going forward.

"Well, I wonder about this, because when I was young, and it's still this way — I don't really think about music in gender terms. So when I was young and thinking about playing guitar, it just didn't even occur to me whether the guitar players I liked were men or women. But, that being said, if a little girl sees me playing and says, 'Oh, I want to do that, too!' ... I'd be glad if that happens. Of course."

When it comes to the actual craft of guitar playing, though, St. Vincent has a tip for anyone she might inspire to pick up a six-string: Technical prowess is a great thing, but it's not the only thing.

"You always have to be striking a balance between the athleticism in what you do and the artistry in what you do," she says. "Sometimes those things are very symbiotic, but sometimes you have to make sure you're keeping the athlete in check and thinking, 'What's the meaning of this in the first place?' If what you're doing isn't serving the meaning and the big picture of the song or record, then it might be time to put it away and go somewhere else with it."


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