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St. Vincent on St. Vincent

The unwieldy guitar virtuoso talks feeling human but sounding machine

Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, is an artist defined by contradictions. She's classically trained with a punk rock ethos. She stage dives in high heels. Her last album, 2011's critically acclaimed Strange Mercy, reveled in the contrast between roaring chaos and easily digestible melodies. St. Vincent, her fourth album, maintains a similar playfulness as opposing ideas seamlessly move in and out of each other. The inspirations for her songs can be as literal as walking around naked on a Texas ranch and as dreamy as communing with Black Panther co-founder Huey Newton during the throes of an Ambien-induced hallucination. She decries the alienating influence of technology yet she constantly manipulates her guitar into a scuzzy frenzy reminiscent of heavy machinery. Before gracing the Tabernacle on Sat., March 8, she spoke about embracing joy with David Byrne, feeling human but sounding machine, and leading a near-future cult.

The album opens with you walking naked around a cattle ranch trying to commune with nature, but you run home when a rattlesnake slithers nearby. How does your album reflect that same middle ground between the terror and beauty in nature?

Sometimes we forget that we are nature. We can marvel at all things in the animal kingdom because they happen to be at the top of the food chain but they are all things that exist within us as well. It's not as if humans are separate from nature. We are nature. In terms of wilderness and in this case in the literal sense I was out in Texas and I didn't know anything about nature really because I come from the suburbs and cement. I moved to a bigger city and I exist in pavement all the time and I didn't have access to the Internet so I was relying on the knowledge of my own database, my brain, and I realized I didn't know anything. I think the metaphor's there, the Dante wilderness. There's a lot of different ways to look at it.

On "Huey Newton," you drew inspiration from hallucinating Huey Newton while taking Ambien. Where do you draw the connection between real-world experiences and song ideas?

Sometimes in order to write songs you have to go through your notes and go to the far reaches of your imagination to pull from. In this case, I just had to report the facts without embellishment in "Rattlesnake." In "Huey Newton," I did have a really vivid hallucination that he was in the room with me in Helsinki and I just threw in words that were totally free association so that writing process for me was really fun and I trusted that in my subconscious there was some sort of narrative. Sometimes you just get some freebies from the universe.

Did you have any notable experiences that you've wanted to turn into songs but haven't yet?

Sure, there's always those stories that you've got to save for another time. There's more songs that I wrote that didn't fit into the record. There's one particular song that I really loved and decided to play live that's a story about being baptized in the shallow end of the Holiday Inn swimming pool.

On Strange Mercy, the drums took a backseat to your voice, yet for St. Vincent you said you needed the groove to be paramount. Why make that transition and did your collaboration with David Byrne affect your decision to embrace the groove?

It was very natural. I was touring Strange Mercy and went straight to touring and writing Love This Giant with David Byrne. There was a lot of violence that emerged from the Strange Mercy shows and there was a lot of danceability and joy that emerged from the Love This Giant shows and I was bringing all that energy into the new record. I started writing about 36 hours after the first leg of the Love This Giant tour.

You've added a lot of choreography to your new songs. Did Byrne have an impact on that decision as well?

We communicate so much by the way we move and the way we dance and somebody who's really tuned into movement can even read it even more deeply. We're always communicating these conscious and subconscious ideas and if we recognize that there's this language of movement that's this major tool of communication why not refine that movement to say what you want to say instead of leaving it up to chance. It seems like you'd be leaving red off the color palette if you didn't acknowledge it. With the Love This Giant shows, which were a lot of fun, I couldn't do a lot of choreography because I was playing guitar and singing and had to hold down the fort with music. I was so inspired by watching everyone else dance that I wanted to incorporate it in my set more.

Stylistically, your latest album deviates in many ways from Strange Mercy. Do you ever feel daunted about deviating away from a sound that was so critically praised?

I never feel conflicted about it. I always try to push myself forward and make music that I like and that I believe in and that speaks to whatever time of life I'm in. I just trust it. I have the urge that I'm a human being and if I follow my own ears and if something is interesting or emotional to me by the transitive property of humanity it will appeal to some other people. I don't know how many other people, but I just trust in the universal humanity of that.

You've described the theme of your cover as you being a near-future cult leader. What kind of cult are you trying to lead?

Oh, good question. I would say a benevolent cult.

Anything technologically based maybe?

Yeah, like techno-futurist. A benevolent techno-shamanist cult, that's it.

On "Digital Witness," you lament the impact of technology replacing reality, yet you embrace electronic instruments imitating organic sounds. Why does St. Vincent strike a balance between technology and reality?

I wanted to make something that had the feeling of human beings but the sounds of machines. Everything is a real instrument played by a real person but it's just manipulated and slightly mechanized.

Why decide to have your guitar and synthesizer mimic different instruments instead of recording the real instruments?

Because it's boring. There's so many places you can go for that if you want that. If you want a guitar that sounds very literally like a guitar there are more places to go for that then I can count. I just try to get out sounds that I hear in my head and I try to make them tangible. I'm not criticizing anything. I'm just saying that this is what I do. If someone wants to play the blues or Led Zeppelin, that's amazing and I love that stuff, but that exists.

On "Every Tear Disappears" you mention being born twice and the theme of birth and rebirth constantly play out on St. Vincent. Why focus so much on birth?

I think that we never really fully arrive at who we are but there are those times in life where you feel more in tune with this idea that even on an atomic level you're new every day. You're never the same. And that's very exciting, that speaks to a great optimism about the future, that anything is possible. You can actually become whatever it is you want to become and you can grow into it.