Annie Clark at the September 13, 2011, record-release party for Strange
Mercy in Hollywood. Photo by Danny Duarte
It’s pretty rare for a bona fide guitar-nut—we’re talking Berklee College of Music-level guitar-a-holic—to rack up interviews on NPR, rave reviews from indie music mags like NME and Pitchfork, and guest appearances on the IFC’s hit comedy Portlandia. But Annie Clark, the singer/guitarist who performs under the name St. Vincent, isn’t your typical guitar geek. In fact, she’s sort of a guitar hero for people who hate the whole idea of guitar-hero worship.
If that last statement—as well as the revelation that Clark dropped out of Berklee in her third year—inspires you to roll your eyes and start skipping to the next feature faster than you can mutter, “Oh, she’s one of those artsy ‘indie’ guitarists,” you owe it to yourself to visit YouTube and check out her harmonically captivating and ultra-badass playing first. Go ahead—we’ll wait.
Back? Okay, now that you’ve witnessed Ms. Clark and her vintage Harmony Bobkat conjuring mesmerizing hammer-on riffs and corpulent 6-string glory, let’s delve into the delicious details. Like how her uncle, Tuck Andress (from the jazz duo Tuck & Patti), inspired her to consider a career in music. Or how the multi-instrumentalist’s love of harmony, Steely Dan, and Iron Maiden culminated in the rich compositional tapestry that has made this 29-year-old from Dallas, Texas, one of the most talked-about renaissance women in modern music. Or how her new album, Strange Mercy, was at No. 19 on the US charts at press time.
We recently spoke to Clark about all these things, as well as her reasons for quitting music school, her complex-yet-liberating MIDI-controlled pedalboard, and her thoughts on guitardom’s gender issues.
What first got you into playing guitar?
I was obsessed with it from a pretty young age. I was, like, 5 years old and saw La Bamba—the Ritchie Valens story—and I was captivated by that, and then I just started playing when I was 12. My uncle is an amazing guitar player, and we had some of his old guitars around. I was big into classic rock—Jethro Tull and these more guitar-y bands—and I thought, “I want to do that—I want to know how they’re getting those sounds.”
You probably get questions about Tuck all the time, but how instrumental was he in you getting hooked on guitar?
They were on tour forever—from, like, ’88 to ’96. So, he was this distant figure who I didn’t see very often but who was a famous musician. I’d see him maybe once every two years, but I think even just having his spectral presence around was really powerful, because I saw him and thought, “Oh, I could do that.”
Who were some of the first guitarists that you remember really getting into?
Probably the really obvious ones—Hendrix … the Doors … I really liked Jethro Tull … I really, really, really loved Steely Dan. To have that kind of harmony in your ears from a really young age—I mean, Steely Dan was my favorite band from age 8 until … well, I just saw them two nights ago here in New York!
Were you more into the bands as a whole or the guitar playing?
I was into the bands as a whole. I was really into lyrics and melodies. But some of the solos on the Steely Dan records are rock-solid. Denny Dias and Larry Carlton…that stuff is great.