It is the summer of 1988, far as she can recall now, at the ripe old age of 24, and Annie Clark is in the backseat of the car, on a family trip from Minnesota back to Oklahoma. Everyone is sick with a stomach flu, and frequent pit stops are necessary, say no more. But Annie will not be deterred. She begins to write a song, her first. She teaches it to her sister, keeps insisting she sing the melody while Annie provides the beat beneath it. This goes on and on, until Annie's sister becomes annoyed. But Annie, the middle child of nine brothers and sisters, will not be deterred.
"It was just fun to me," she says 19 years later, the girl grown up into a woman who looks and sounds and writes older, somehow. "It was more fun, in a different way, than just going outside and playing and riding bikes and doing kid stuff."
It is the summer of 2005. Of this date she is sure. This time, she is leaving Manhattan for Dallas, where she moved when she was 7 and her parents split and her mom remarried. She had saved some money and moved to New York City because she thought she was supposed to—the city being "a bastion of culture," you know? She played a little with old-guard avant-gardist Glenn Branca in his 100-guitar symphony—not quite the place to get noticed. And she'd saved up some dough and took some odd jobs but spent most of her time up there writing and recording her own collection of songs. They became her first demos—a sparse, bare-bones collection of lush-life, torch-song, country-and-cabaret, bossa-new-wave pop songs that would eventually garner her gushing comparisons to everyone from Kurt Weill to Burt Bacharach to the Roches to Edith Piaf to Patsy Cline to Bjork.
St. Vincent performs Friday, July 6, at Hailey's Denton.
Turns out, though, when she got done with them in NYC in 2005, she hated them all. Every last one of 'em.
"You don't spend a year on a record, mix it every day for a week and then listen to it the day after you finish," she says, laughing. Clark looks in person like she does in her vast collection of publicity stills—small and fragile, pale skin and wide eyes beneath tousled black hair.
"But I listened to it, and it was heartbreaking," she continues. "It was totally heartbreaking. So I did what any young girl on the wild streets of New York would do, and I went out and partied for a long time. Well, not a long time—a summer. And then my money ran out. And then I came with my tail between my legs back to Dallas."
Annie Clark the 5-year-old had fun writing songs. Annie Clark the 22-year-old almost quit writing songs. And now, Annie Clark the 24-year-old better known as St. Vincent is awaiting the release of her first album, Marry Me, out July 10 on Beggars Banquet—home to Radiohead's Thom Yorke, Voxtrot, Tapes N Tapes, the National and other trustworthy brand names among those who reside in the MP3 blogosphere, where Clark's been a burgeoning star going on a year now. Fact is, she could have had her pick of labels; Capitol Records was among the most major of labels courting her a few months back, and others tried to date her as well.
She didn't give up in the summer of 2005 because when she came back to Dallas, she signed on with the Polyphonic Spree, some members of which she'd known from her days at Lake Highlands High School. Took all of, oh, three weeks to get the job—nice, necessary validation for someone on the verge of calling it quits. "It was like getting nursed back to health or something," she says over lunch, sitting on the patio of an East Dallas restaurant as the sky blackens and the wind howls and the rain begins to pelt the corrugated tin rooftop.
She toured with the band, played on its new The Fragile Army (which she still hadn't heard, as of last week), went on the road with indie sweethearts Sufjan Stevens and John Vanderslice, got mash notes on every influential blog around and kept on writing and recording. She had the entirety of Marry Me finished before she even met with those record labels. Turns out, it's hard to shake the confidence of someone who's been writing songs since she was 5, because, in the end, what else was she ever going to do with her life?
When she was talking to labels, she says, "I learned a lot about what I wanted, but I also learned a lot about what I didn't want. I love playing music, I love doing this thing. This is all I've ever wanted to do, so I wanna do it for a long time. I'm really happy that Marry Me is coming out and that some people seem to be excited about it—that's so awesome. But I also want to make a next record."
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But people outside those lurking in the virtual listening room have yet to hear the first one, which sounds like...like...
Like nothing and everything, like the whole history of modern popular music and something at the end of rock and roll. Ethereal and frail in spots (that piano intro to "We Put a Pearl in the Ground," say), gritty and downright apocalyptic in others ("Your Lips Are Red," even its title a threat), Marry Me is a constant surprise a dozen listens in. It's everything you've ever heard and nothing you've ever been able to pin down—the kaleidoscopic sounds of yesterday, today and tomorrow made by a woman just at the beginning of a career.
"It comes from being sort of restless and ADD, and if you listen to the record, it's like, 'I wanna make a jazz standard, I wanna write a song like this, I wanna write a song like that...,'" Clark says. "I was listening to Billy Strayhorn's 'Lush Life' and going, 'This is the best lyric I've ever heard. I wanna do this.' It's all these little challenges. I wanna be the kind of person who can really write a song that has continuity, and maybe my taking on the sort of traditional American realm was my way of making a catalog for myself of what I could do.
"I'm not really necessarily motivated by, 'That's gonna be my name in lights on the marquee!' I'm more interested in, 'What's the next song I'm gonna do that I really can be invested in and feel proud of and feel like is a place that people can go?' So much of life can be really boring and tedious and hurry-up-and-wait and pay your bills. That's modern existence, I guess. But I still think there's so much power in art. I know—it's like, 'OK, kid, get back to '69,' or whatever, but I think that it's vital. I don't think I would do this if I didn't think that music in some way was a vitalizing experience, a validating experience, like, 'Oh my God, we're fucking alive, and isn't this insane that this is happening?' It's a reason to live, I guess."