The first truly 21st century guitar hero? A post-modern chops monster?
Annie Clark, a.k.a. St. Vincent, is an enigmatic artist on many levels. As a player, her influences are all over the map. The niece of new agey jazz guitarist Tuck Andress, Clark had some of her earliest professional experiences as a roadie and, later, opening act for his duet Tuck and Patti.
But Clark, born in 1982, is also a fully fledged child of the alt Nineties. One of the biggest honors of her career to date was being chosen to perform the Nirvana song “Lithium” at the 2014 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony.
Sporting a funky, thrift-shop Harmony solidbody, she joined surviving Nirvana members Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic and Pat Smear for a gig that implicitly positioned her as some kind of new, female incarnation of Kurt Cobain.
“I can’t possibly put into words how much that meant to me,” she says, “and how grateful I feel to even be part of that history in the smallest of ways. Nirvana changed the world. You can’t say that about many bands. They changed my life. They changed millions and millions of people’s lives.”
But Clark also has a serious metal side. Growing up in Texas, she delved deeply into the music of bands like Slayer, Metallica and Pantera. Dimebag Darrell is one of her all-time guitar heroes. Then again, she also spent three years at the Berklee School of Music mastering harmonic theory and other learned topics. Despite these antecedents, however, her music is devoid of wanky jazz chords or lengthy bouts of virtuoso shredding. She can do all that in her sleep but prefers to employ her considerable talent to create arty, minimalist pop music, as heard on her fourth and most recent album, St. Vincent.
“It’s funny that you would categorize it as minimalist,” she says. “In the context of guitar rock, I could see what I do as being minimal. But in the context of pop music, it’s pushing the level of muso—pushing the limits of what people are hearing in pop music.”
Fair enough. St. Vincent’s robotic, yet oddly vulnerable, post-modern pop songs are packed with subtle complexities, spiky discordant horn charts, polyrhythmic dance grooves and moments of Bowie-esque alien grandeur. In an overtly electronic landscape, she deploys her guitar as a stealth device, a heat-seeking missile. It sneaks up on you, and startles you at times. What seems like a synth line might turn out to be a guitar. What seems like a guitar might just be the sound of your own imagination. Like a ghost in some Orwellian machine, her guitar is very much an extension of her disarmingly dispassionate, yet somehow highly expressive vocal style.
With impeccable underground and alternative cred, Clark is eminently qualified to do this kind of stuff. Before debuting as a solo artist with her 2007 album, Marry Me, she was a member of the Polyphonic Spree and toured with hipster icon singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens. She’s also performed with one of New York avant-garde composer Glenn Branca’s guitar armies.
One of her most visible projects to date has been her 2012 album, Love This Giant, with former Talking Head David Byrne. And there’s a clear connection between that band’s subversive Eighties pop and St. Vincent tracks like “Digital Witness,” although Annie insists she was thinking more of Tupac on that one.
She is, as stated initially, an enigmatic artist. Even her chosen stage name introduces an element of gender confusion—a young woman with the name of a male saint. Officially, the pseudonym St. Vincent is an oblique reference to a song by post-punk songwriter and novelist Nick Cave, not to mention the middle name of Clark’s great-grandmother.
But while her nom d’artiste may not arise from any sense of Catholic piety on Clark’s part, St. Vincent’s lyrics are indeed laced with Christian imagery, which coexists uneasily alongside images of brute violence, quiet tenderness and digitized dystopian ambivalence.
You’ll never figure out St. Vincent on a first listen, or over the space of one interview. But it sure is fun to try.
GUITAR WORLD: To my knowledge, you’re one of the few guitarists employing techniques like two-handed tapping in a context other than shred, metal or any of the other genres where you’d expect to hear that kind of thing.
[laughs] Yeah, that’s just a little bit of a party trick.
Isn’t that all it ever is?
It’s a little more like showmanship for me than pure sound. I mean, I like it; I’m into it. It’s not like I’m doing it for laughs. But it does make me smile, because it reminds me of being 13, being in the guitar store and picking up the Dimebag signature guitar and trying to figure out how he gets that crazy sound from “Cowboys from Hell.”
What is that? I’d watch tutorials on YouTube. So tapping makes me smile a bit because it is that super-athletic zone of guitar playing that I totally love. But sometimes you have to do a delicate dance to put everything together in a way that doesn’t just feel like too many notes just for notes’ sake. That’s a big thing that I’ve learned in life. In order to serve the song, maybe it’s best to strip it back as opposed to adding more.
Do you always play fingerstyle? Do you never use a pick?
No, I’m using a pick more and more. In certain songs like “Cruel” [from 2011’s Strange Mercy], there’s a riff that’s kind of “Ali Farka Toure lite” and it needs that sort of African-style double picking. And there are a lot of other songs, like “Bring Me Your Loves” and “Huey Newton” on my new album, that I definitely use a pick for. I mean, I could play these things with fingers, but sonically it doesn’t read as well.
How concerned are you with getting away from any kind of obvious or clichéd guitar tones?
Well, I’m not precious about what I write on. I’ve written some of my favorite guitar passages on a computer. Or sung them first as a vocal line and then decided, “Oh, maybe that would be better as a guitar part.” The more you can get out of lizard-brain muscle memory—like the fast-blues idiom we all know as guitar players—the better it is. Because we all learned the same pantheon of rock music, so we all know the same pentatonic scales and riffs. And that’s amazing stuff, but it’s important to get away from it as much as you can. Get away from muscle memory and just let your ear be your guide.
What were some of your main guitars for your most recent album, St. Vincent?
I was playing this guitar that [producer] John Congleton had, the Thurston Moore edition of the Fender Jazzmaster. It’s super chopped—just a volume knob. You either like the way it sounds when you play it, or you don’t. I really like that on/off kind of thing. You don’t mess around with a million permutations. So I was using that a lot on the record, but I don’t play it live. For live work, I play the Music Man Albert Lee model a lot. I’m not a very large person, so even though I love the sound of a Seventies Les Paul, there’s no way in hell I could ever play one live unless I wanted to have a chiropractor on tour.
There’s a lot of functionality in my choice of instruments, especially for playing live. I’m using a Kemper modeling amplifier for live work. Originally I was bringing out vintage ’66 Kalamazoo kind of small amps—the kind of little guy that you could ram a lot of signal through and get a nice breakup and saturation and all of that. But I just stopped.
Those weirdo custom and vintage amps need a lot of attention on the road, and I didn’t want to make my guitar tech’s life a living hell. So I decided to go with straight-up Kemper. Which really works well, because my entire show is programmed, in terms of effects. I program my pedal board, and my keyboard player uses Ableton to send cues to switch programs, so I don’t have to look down at my pedal board. So both [co-guitarist/keyboardist] Toko [Yasuda] and I use Kemper modeling amplifiers, because they’re consistent.
How did you discover the Kempers?
I got turned on to them by my guitar tech, who was on the Nine Inch Nails tour, and that’s what they were using. So I gave them a shot and really liked them. I don’t know if they’d be my go-to amp in the studio, but they’re definitely my go-to live. Hey, if they’re good enough for Trent…
Okay, so what are some of the army of small vintage amps you use in the studio but could never bring on the road?
Oh, things like a little Sixties Dan Electro. I use a lot of effects, but there are some amps where I just really love the sound of their distortion. I have a couple of little Kalamazoo amps with the built-in tremolo. I never use the tremolo, but the amp is nice. I have a few custom TRVR amps as well. It’s sort of like a boutique silverface Champ, and another one is kind of like a Sixties Deluxe.
A lot of effects, you said. Any must-haves?
The people at Eventide have been really rad to me over the years, and I’ve been using their H9. I have a couple of those going. I have all the Eventide effects at my disposal with those. So I just program those for synth sounds, tremolos, delays, reverbs…
In your song “Regret,” there’s a nice harmonized solo guitar section. Is that some kind of harmonizer, or are you playing the lines?
I play them. You couldn’t get a harmonizer to do that particular harmony.
I guess it’s too interesting to be a preset, you’re right.
Yeah, it would take too much time to program what that harmony is. It’s easier just to play it.
There’s a lovely distortion tone on that song as well.
I believe that’s a [Bixonic] Expandora that John [Congleton] had in the studio. I liked it so much I bought one of my own. It’s a Japanese distortion pedal. John said that’s what Billy Gibbons used.
You get this amazing sustain on some tracks. Is that the amp? Are you using any kind of sustain device?
I think I was using an Electro-Harmonix Micro Synth. The new generation of Micro Synth has a lot of sustain. I used sustain on the record for things like the solo in “Rattlesnake,” which is all on one string. Just a big slidey thing. I was trying to cop the style of a Turkish instrument called the saz. I was listening to a lot of Turkish music, and you know, they just overshoot the note and slide into it. It’s a really sexy approach. I spent a lot of time trying to play different melodies on just one string. And I have a slice in my finger to prove it! I remember, in the studio I cut my finger on my left hand really bad trying to do the “Rattlesnake” solo.
Just from sliding up and down on one string.
Yeah. My uncle Tuck Andress talks a lot about this kind of thing. You always have to have a contingency plan. If you blow a generator or something, you have to have a backup. So I just used my other finger to do it. But it was a painful process, that’s for sure.
You mentioned that Thurston Moore Jazzmaster. Are you very influenced by the New York avant-noise kind of thing—Sonic Youth, Marc Ribot, Arto Lindsay…
Yeah, absolutely. Marc Ribot is definitely one of my favorite guitar players. Nels Cline is incredible too.
So it’s Marc Ribot and Dimebag, eh?
Yeah, there’s a riff on my song “Bring Me Your Loves” that’s so “Cowboys from Hell” that I feel like I’m going to be sued…just in my mind.
If I didn’t know that, I never, ever would have guessed that you listen to that kind of music.
But that’s what’s really cool. You utterly transform your influences.
That’s the goal, right? The goal is to have your own voice as much as possible. For instance, there are plenty of people who can and should play the blues. But I’m not one of them. I had this period where I was super into Albert King and really trying to cop some of those licks.
There’s a section in the live show where we stretch out and jam a bit, and I was trying to throw some of those licks into the song. I listened back to a recording of the show and I apologized to my band. It was like the worst white-blues hell! It was really bad. Not because it was poorly played—it was played well enough—but it felt so corny. It felt like I was trying on somebody else’s clothes. And that’s not a great way to go. I mean, it’s one thing to stretch and pull things from different influences. I try to do that everywhere, and with everything. But this was just like, “Ooh, maybe not.” That suit didn’t fit me quite right. And that’s fine.
If you want to play like Albert, you have to play upside down and tuned to some kind of open, dropped minor tuning anyway.
Which brings up the question, do you always play in standard? Do you use alternate tunings or anything like that?
Yeah, I use a lot of alternate tunings. I never play in standard E. I drop everything down a whole step, so it’s D G C F A D. That just ends up being better for my voice. And for songs like “Regret” and “Birth in Reverse” I was playing around with some tunings—and I honestly can’t remember exactly what they were now—that had multiple strings tuned to the same note.
When I played with Glenn Branca a million years ago, what made it so interesting was that he has a lot of guitars and they’re all tuned to the same note. And there’s a whole other section of 10 more guitars tuned to another note. So I was really liking the sound of that natural chorus and I tried to approximate it with one guitar. Alternate tunings are also a great way to get out of your lizard brain. It’s a great tool for me if I’m feeling stuck, like my fingers are wanting to travel down the same old roads. It’s like, “Okay, you can travel down the same roads, but I’m gonna mess with the map a little.”
What are some of the important things you learned from working with David Byrne?
Oh, um, gosh. I just saw him last night. I think the collaboration worked well because he brings so much buoyancy and fun to his music, and I brought a little more of the melancholy side. We met somewhere in the middle. That’s what I think was fruitful.
And also, he’s just such a wonderful showman and so good at constructing shows that are both entertaining and touching, but also strange. So I just sort of watched how he worked—the nuts and bolts of how he put the show together. And what I was able to bring to the show was a sonic palette.
Sonically, there’s kind of analogy between your work with him and the time when he was working with someone like Adrian Belew, who really brought an interesting guitar palette to the expanded version of the Talking Heads.
Yes, I love Adrian Below! And Robert Fripp is another one of my absolute favorite guitar players.
A lot of your own music employs a very contemporary digitized palette to critique digital culture in a way.
Well, I think it’s any artist’s job to take in the world, filter it through their lens and comment on the times that we’re living in now. But I don’t mean comment in some big, sad, moralistic kind of way. I’m a person just like everybody else, trying to sift through the big question of where are we now? And so I was finding myself being very Pavlovian about technology. I was salivating at the sound of a text message. And I wanted to ask, “Okay, what is this? Where are we now?”
We’re living our lives so performatively. We take a picture of our food. We have to tell everybody about every experience we have and post a picture to show for it. And that drew me to the issue of, “Okay, it’s all performance, but very little of it is art.” But also, are we living for ourselves? Are we able to self-choose? Or are we living in order to project an image of life on the wall? Are we becoming a digital version of ourselves?
Photo: Chris Casella