By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
There is performance art. There is rock 'n' roll. And then there are St. Vincent dress rehearsals.
Everyone in the showcase room of Prospect Heights' Complete Music Studios seems to know this, because even at 4 p.m. on the last frigid Friday of January, the end of two months' worth of 12-hour, five-day-a-week rehearsals, each person (four musicians, two managers, a lighting designer, a guitar tech and a choreographer) dutifully occupies their station.
On a low platform, framed by about a dozen lighting apparatuses, St. Vincent herself, née Annie Clark, stands downstage in a glittering cocktail dress made of a gold vinyl that makes her look like a bionic Metropolis figurine, her frizzy, gray-dyed curls framing her face like an electrified storm cloud. Working her guitar up and down with her signature severity, she stares intently at the opposite wall of windows, twitching her head and limbs robotically as she and her band march through "Rattlesnake," the jittery opening track on her forthcoming fourth solo record, St. Vincent. After three songs, she thanks an invisible crowd in her soothing, singsong lilt.
Then things get weird.
"You were born in the 21st century," she intones, a priestess communicating with spirits. "The corners of your mouth turn down when you laugh. Your favorite word is ..." She pauses for comedic effect. "Molecular."
Offstage, a crew member begins reading sentences aloud. She repeats them. Clark has written this eerie stage banter in advance, and is now rehearsing lines. "You once tried to make a hot air balloon out of bedsheets. You were disappointed when it did not fly, but you did not give up." The stage bursts to life as Clark and Moog player and guitarist Toko Yasuda commence a robotic dance, skittering forward and backward at opposite intervals like wind-up androids; the lights strobe terrifyingly, turning their moves into a stop-motion play. The lights slow their flicker, and suddenly it looks like there are two Clarks, a dark and a light, fighting over her body while she bends and twangs her strings.
Once in a while, between songs, she speaks to the invisible crowd again. Another song begins, a new ballad, and Clark retreats, guitarless, to the stage centerpiece: a massive powder-pink throne made of stairs, where she lies down, brushing the ground with her fingertips as one might the surface a reflecting pool. Later, she'll return to the throne and throw herself down its steps, headfirst, in strobe-lit slow motion.
Every downbeat, every dead-silent transition, every poke battle over a theremin in this proceeding is immaculately scripted, down to Clark's explosive, Byzantine guitar solo on Strange Mercy's "Surgeon."
Reminder: This is just the rehearsal.
"It's sort of like training like a professional athlete," Clark, 31, says two days later, sitting at a table with a small glass of sparkling Italian wine. Somewhere in the world beyond, it is Super Bowl Sunday, but here in the bar of The Standard, East Village, for Annie Clark, it is the end of a bizarre press day, one in which she was asked to go about a normal day with a photographer in tow. (Did they truly want to go to the dry cleaner's with her?) She wears neutral colors and her curls are tucked neatly into a dark beanie. It's a stark contrast from the wild, supernatural Ursula coiffure that has become the iconic centerpiece of St. Vincent since its cover art was revealed in December.
"People have spent money on a ticket, and maybe that money is the equivalent of them spending a day of their life at their job, or half a day. Money is absolutely time," she says. "I feel, now, that it would be disrespectful to work out the kinks on the people who spent a day of their life making the money to buy the ticket to come and have an experience."
For Clark and everyone around her over the past few months, that experience has been everything. St. Vincent is an evolution unlike any other the guitarist has made in her seven years as St. Vincent. She's left 4AD and Beggars Group, her artistic homes since 2007, for Loma Vista, a nascent label backed by the major Republic. She's making music in the wake of a massive collaboration with David Byrne, one that produced Love This Giant, an album that involved marching bands and facial prosthetics, among other wacky experiments. With St. Vincent, Clark wields multiple new swords: a creative director in Willo Perron, the artistic mastermind behind live shows like Kanye West and Lady Gaga; a choreographer in Annie-b Parson, who orchestrated dances on the Love This Giant tour as well as Byrne's previous collaboration with Brian Eno; and, of course, a host of her own innovative guitar-masquerading tricks, twisted pedal-and-synth explorations that add wattage to anything she's made before.
"It's more confident," she says of the record. "I'm extending a hand. I want to connect with people. Strange Mercy, which is a record I'm proud of, [was] definitely a very accurate record of my life at a certain time, but it was more about self-laceration, all the sort of internal struggle. [St. Vincent] is very extroverted."