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more... ArtistsGuitaristsIndie-RockNovember 2011St. Vincent

St. Vincent: All-Star Dropout

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St. Vincent: All-Star Dropout

I have to be careful how I say this, because it could come across the wrong way, but one thing that’s interesting about your work is that very few singer-songwriters are brave enough to put an off-the-wall riff or solo into a song with commercial appeal like you do. And it’s notable for a couple of reasons: First, you’re writing these songs and playing the riffs and solos yourself. Second, for whatever reason, it seems that on the whole, women who play guitar are less likely to get into the type of tone alchemy and adventurous riffery that you do. Why do you think that is?

I think the idea of women being virtuosos at an instrument is really not new at all. If you look at classical music, there are tons and tons of really technical, virtuosic women.

That’s totally true. But I don’t mean in a virtuosic sense—I’m talking more about the visceral approach you have. In “indie” music it’s certainly more common, but across the wider musical field it doesn’t seem like it’s there as much with women who play guitar. I don’t know if it has anything to do with gender or not, but I do know that, for instance, women are a lot less likely to read a guitar website or subscribe to a guitar magazine that focuses on those things.

Rather than talking in really tricky generalizations that get really hairy, really fast, I just know my experience—which is that I loved Iron Maiden. I still love Iron Maiden. I just loved guitar, and I never really was made aware of the fact that some people think it’s an anomaly for a woman to really play guitar. I mean, you have people like Marnie Stern—who’s amazing … a crazy, crazy shredder—and Merrill Garbus from tUnEyArDs, who’s a great guitar player … there are a lot of women who can really play—even going back to Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

Absolutely—she was the inspiration for our new Forgotten Heroes feature series. But there’s no denying that, for some reason, it seems guys are more often hyper-focused on guitar—probably too focused. Maybe it’s a cultural thing.

Obviously it’s not that women are at a handicap with motor skills … it must be a cultural thing.

It’s certainly not a motor-skill thing. But don’t you ever wonder why there aren’t more women getting really into guitar?

I grew up loving Kim and Kelley Deal from the Breeders, and Sleater-Kinney. If you look for it, there are definitely women playing guitar. I was actually laughing with a friend of mine who was the guitar player in a successful band in the ’90s and 2000s—please don’t take this the wrong way—and we were kind of commiserating about getting asked the “women in rock” question. When people ask what it’s like being a woman in rock, we were like, “The only difference for us is we get asked what it’s like to be a woman in rock.” [Laughs.] It’s just natural—this is what I do. The only times you are made aware of your gender is when people make you aware of your gender. You know? Again, you are being incredibly tactful and I’m not taking offense at anything you’re asking, but I just wanted to point that out.

And I knew I was taking a risk by asking, but I had to because I love how players like you balance being totally geeked-out on guitar with an attitude of “Screw all the technical stuff—I’m just going to make badass music.” There are so many of us guys who play guitar who can’t see the forest for the trees—we’re so focused on playing technically “good” guitar and having the right gear that it’s almost the musical equivalent of what you were talking about with formal music education: There’s no soul in it, and there’s so much worry about the machismo—or whatever it is—that it’s not even exciting anymore. So I just wondered if you felt like there was something about how women in Western culture approach music that somehow makes them more fresh on the guitar—because, by and large, they’re not approaching it that way, y’know?

Well, it’s an interesting conversation. I don’t approach guitar like an ego thing—like, “I’m going to play faster than somebody else.” I’m not that interested in that athletic aspect.

Neither am I, but sometimes it seems like it’s an epidemic among a lot of male guitarists.

That’s the difference between being an athlete and being an artist, and it’s great when those things can combine. That’s the ideal—to make something that’s musically viable also emotionally compelling. That’s the happy medium. But it’s a good question. I was having a conversation with a drummer friend of mine, and he was saying, “Y’know, if I really am honest, I think I started playing drums because somewhere in my reptile brain I knew I would have a sexual competitive advantage if I was good at music.” So I’m sure there’s something in there for everybody—some kind of evolutionary thing.

Annie Clark's Gearbox
Guitars
1967 Harmony H15V Bobkat, ’60s Silvertone 1488 Silhouette, 1979 Hagstrom Super Swede, Fender Deluxe Nashville Tele, Epiphone Masterbilt slope-shoulder dreadnought

Amps
Late-’70s Fender Princeton Reverb (studio), TRVR Little Boy blackface Deluxe Reverb clone (live), TRVR Trinity 1x10 (live)

Effects
Death by Audio Interstellar Overdriver Deluxe, Boss PS-5 Super Shifter, Eventide Space, Eventide PitchFactor, Z.Vex Mastotron

Strings, Picks, and Accessories
Ernie Ball .010 and .012 sets, Fender medium picks, Nice Rack NYC cables, Voodoo Lab Pedal Power, RJM Mini Effect Gizmo, RJM MasterMind
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