Before Annie Clark was St. Vincent, before she was a member of The Polyphonic Spree and before she a member of Sufjan Steven's touring band, she was just a girl growing up in the Dallas suburbs that took guitar lessons at the Zoo Music on Garland Road.
"That's just in me," the 29-year-old performer says over the phone from a tour stop in Portland. "Very much so."
It's in her music, too: Much like Actor, her sophomore 2009 release, Clark's latest and third effort, Strange Mercy, was recorded with John Congleton in Oak Cliff. Released this past September and recorded back in March, Clark and Congleton employed a number of local musicians as backing players on the album, among them Midlake's McKenzie Smith and the Spree's Daniel Hart.
Earlier this week, we caught up with the amiable Clark to discuss this fact, her in-studio relationship with Congleton, her Dallas roots and her progressively darker sound -- all in anticipation of her big homecoming weekend that's been lined up. In total, she'll be playing three shows: two sold out ones on Saturday and Sunday night as part of a two-night stay at the Kessler Theater in Oak Cliff and a third, free in-store performance scheduled for 3 p.m. on Sunday afternoon at Good Records.
Should be a fun weekend. If nothing else, it's abundantly clear that Clark herself is looking quite forward to the visit.
Obviously, you're out on the road right now. But people down here are pretty excited about these upcoming shows in Dallas, for sure. For starters, both shows at the Kessler are sold out. Plus, it's a homecoming of sorts for you. Have you been to the Kessler Theater, where these shows are taking place?
I have! John Congleton and I took a break from the studio one time in late March and went to go see Dan Savage there. I love him!
Since you've been gone from town, there's been this huge growth of the neighborhood out in Oak Cliff -- especially on the arts side. Is that something that's surprised you, to see how Dallas has changed a bit in the short time you've been gone?
Yeah! I mean, it's exciting! John lives and works in Oak Cliff, so we would go eat at Hunky's or Veracruz and we'd take lunch breaks down in Bishop Arts. The houses there are just so cute! It's a really cute area.
John's obviously doing some great work these days. It's always fun for us when a band he's produced comes back through town for a show. I can't tell you how many times we've interviewed an artist he's worked with only to have them shout out Spiral Diner.
Oh my god! I love Spiral Diner! I probably ate there every day. No joke, while we were recording, I probably ate there four times a week.
What can you tell me about that process and your time in the studio with John? I know this session for Strange Mercy was the second time you've worked with him. And he obviously produced Actor before that. How did things go this time around?
This one was, in a funny way, really kind of easy -- or easier, I should say. Congleton just knows how to keep things on track. I hope this whole interview just reads as a love letter to John. He is just one of my favorite people.
Had you known him much before working with him on Actor or was that your first introduction to him?
I mean, I kind of did. We worked together on The Fragile Army, which was the last Polyphonic Spree album. Working on that record, we ended up on the outside of Minneapolis in January at this studio called Pachyderm. And the Spree and the rhythm section ended up being there, basically all together and with very little access to the outside world, for, like, three weeks. So I got to know him then and thought he was great. Then, with Actor, I actually started that record with a different producer and that was just not the right thing. So I called John and I said, "Johnny, baby, I've got some tracks and I need you to listen to them because I think I've lost my way a little bit."
What is it that he brings to the table that keeps you on "your way," so to speak? What makes him so attractive as a producer?
He's that right amount of creative and practical. And he's a workhorse, so our energy when we're together is just like, "Get it done. Let's get it there." And we know each other really well and kind of have a shorthand in working together and both have a sense -- and often the exact same sense -- of where something needs to go.
Sounds like an in-studio marriage, if you will.
It really is. You would think that spending basically six weeks uninterrupted with someone would make you go crazy, you'd think you'd start to be bummed out by how they chew their food at lunch or something, but you're not! We just get along really well.
I was excited that you went back to John for this record because I so much enjoyed Actor. And I think this new record certainly stands as a growth and progression of that in-studio relationship. There's just that whole angular presence with the stuff you guys have been producing. Is that something he helped steer you toward?
The funny thing with Actor, just because I started with all these ornate arrangements, is that I had all of the woodwind parts recorded with the previous producer. Those remained. That's actually the only thing that remained. So I kind of had all of these woodwind ghosts, and John and I had to go, "OK. How can these be pop songs?" And the term he likes to use is "pop songs with fangs," and that's one of the things that we probably just bring out in each other, this pop thing that also has an edge and is also kind of creepy if you really listen. That's just both of our personalities.
I mean, that's The Paper Chase you just described.
Yeah! They're total creepers!
My impression is that this is an even darker record and that your material has just gotten progressively darker as you've expanded your career. Is that what you see going on?
I think so. I think some of the darker sentiments were there on Marry Me, but it was more twisted into sarcasm and double-meanings and even wordplay. But this one, I think, is just more overtly dark.
Even the music video for "Cruel." That's about as dark as it gets.
What do you mean? What are you talking about? It's no big deal. I just get abducted by a motherless family, and when I can't fulfill their womanly expectations, they bury me alive. What's dark about that?
Dare I ask is if that's some sort of statement about a woman's role in rock music?
Well, you're always talked about as this sort of guitar heroine these days! And there's certainly an emphasis on the female part.
Hey, I'm psyched if people like my guitar playing. I'm a guitar player. I mean, I'm full-on Dallas suburbs: Zoo Music, Pantera.
Really? You're a Pantera fan!
Totally! Cowboys from Hell? C'mon!
Is that what you were really listening to growing up? Local music like that?
Yeah, I mean, I was familiar with the Dallas scene in, like, that I loved Tripping Daisy and the Toadies and this band called Spot. Like, I really, really liked that called Spot. I've got to find their record again. I just have very fond memories of being at the Garland Road Zoo Music and just blasting Pantera and going in to take guitar lessons and learning Jethro Tull songs. That's just in me. Very much so. That will always be close to my heart.
So that's the direct beginning of your guitar play?
Yeah. Absolutely. Like, "Keep On Rocking In The Free World." You hear that song at Zoo Music when you're 10 years old and you're just like, "Yeah, this is it."
How often are you able to get back these days? I imagine that's part of why there's this two-night stand here. It's not like you're doing that elsewhere on tour.
No, I haven't done any two-show things anywhere.
Was that the size of venue or that it was home that determined this two-night stay?
It was both. I missed Dallas, unfortunately, on my last U.S. tour of Actor, and I just wanted to give Dallas some love because it's my home town and we've missed it just because of routing, which is a bummer. But I get back a lot. All my family is there, and I have little nieces and nephews. I'm kind of especially excited to be in Dallas for the weekend just because, hey, I get to, like, hang out with my mom.
How big is your guest list at these shows?
It's pretty big! It'll be pretty big. Yeah, one of those shows is just for my family. [Laughs.] No other tickets for fans. Sorry!
So the lead single is out, the video is out, the record's getting great reviews again. What's next for you? Just gonna keep getting darker?
I think, probably, once you go there, there's no coming back. [Laughs.] I don't know. Right now I'm on tour basically till Christmas.
I also wanted to ask about the other musicians on the Strange Mercy record. Lots of locals -- McKenzie Smith, Daniel Hart. Were any of your touring players in the studio, too?
No, the touring band is different from everybody who played on the record -- for a couple reasons. McKenzie is really busy with Midlake.
And their new bar!
Yeah! He texted me about it. I still need to text him back and come in. But just because of living in New York right now, I needed a more New York-based band.
Was it tough transitioning the arrangements from the studio band to the live band? Is this the same band as the last tour?
Actually, it's completely different. Not because I didn't love those guys from before -- they were delightful and great players -- but this is a little bit more of a rock set. There's, like, a smoke machine. [Laughs.] It's definitely a darker show. There's more of a monolithic rock vibe -- for me, at least.