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St. Vincent: All-Star Dropout

Indie-rock Renaissance woman Annie Clark—aka St. Vincent—muses about her vintage Harmony Bobkat, her Silverface Princeton Reverb, and how having the guts to leave Berklee jump-started her career and landed her new album, "Strange Mercy," at No. 19 on the U.S. Charts.

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.

Clark with her three-pickup Silvertone 1488 Silhouette at a February 2010 date at the
9:30 Club in Washington, DC. Photo by Brandon Wu

You eventually went to Berklee College of Music. Did you study in the guitar program?

Yes, I was a guitar major.

Even though you left after three years, how important would you say that whole experience—the studying, the interaction, and the stepping away from it—were to your journey as a musician and songwriter?

I think I got a bit more knowledge of harmony—or at least I could put names to the harmonies that I already had in my ears. But the way in which an institution can teach art is not necessarily the way I like to experience art. I mean, they have to do things like have grades and have this codified way of experiencing things, and that’s not the whole picture. A lot of people can get caught up in getting the best scores on a guitar exam, and they can be technically very good guitar players or instrumentalists, but there’s a difference between athleticism and artistry. The best place is where those two things can really meet. But the school can’t teach you anything about how to be an artist—they can teach you how to be an athlete. School inadvertently made everything competitive, and made music—which is so powerful and so joyful—completely analytical. That’s not how I want to experience it, and that’s not how I want to make it, either. I can go there, but it’s not that fun.

So you felt like they were making you study the soul out of the music?

Yeah. They’re not going to have a class on the soul of music. But, actually, I would go to school if there were some kind of cosmological class—like, “The universe resonates on a Bb.” That would be amazing to me. Or, something about, like, the first sound in the universe being very low, but if you pitch it up many, many octaves, it would be a root pitch with some other note that’s in between major and minor. If there was something like that, that would be powerful.

Despite what you’ve said about formal music education, are you glad you went to Berklee? And was there a final straw that made you say, “That’s it—I’m out of here”?

[Long pause.] No, I left school to be in a rock band. I was just, like, “I’m through studying this thing.” And no one has asked me, ever, to see a college degree.

Like, “Let me make sure you’re qualified to play this club … ”

[Laughs.] Exactly. It’s like, “That guitar sounds pretty good, but … I don’t know—there’s no diploma attached to it.”

But do you feel like it changed you as a player, even if you felt their priorities were in the wrong place?

I got some new things under my fingers. It wasn’t a wholly bad experience, but they’re in a tricky position: They’re teaching a music industry that is changing every second—and that massively changed in the early 2000s with the internet and the fact that it’s harder to monetize a record. So they’re in this position where they’re, like, “Here, kids, come on in—go into debt to go to this school that’s going to teach you the secrets of how to make it in the music industry.” But the only way to make it in the industry is just to go out there and do it—because it’s changing every second. [Secondary music education] is very much steeped in this major-label model. I signed to an indie label, and [schools] don’t really account for that in their Music Business 101 classes, or whatever. They don’t account for the fact that barely any of us will go out there, sign to a major label, and get hundreds of thousands of dollars for our first record. That’s not where I was, and that’s not where I wanted to be. That’s what they’re selling, though—how to go out there and make it on a major label. That’s a way to do it, but the statistics are stacked against you.

Because your music is very indie, it’s kind of surprising that you studied in a formal guitar program. Do you still think in terms of theory when you play?

Not really. If I needed to communicate with somebody—like, “No, I’m sorry, this chord is actually an Ebm(b9) chord”—I could tell them that.

But you’re not worrying about stuff like, “Oh, this scale can’t go with that chord …”

No, it’s all by intuition and all by ear.

Clark digs in on her go-to 1967 Harmony H15V Bobkat at a 2009 gig at the El Rey
Theatre in Los Angeles. Photo by Lindsey Best

Let’s talk about the new album. How did you get those distorted sounds with a really sharp attack on “Cruel”—they sound almost like a guitar turned into a keyboard?

That’s my ’67 Harmony Bobkat with two gold-foil pickups and a Death by Audio Interstellar Overdriver Deluxe through a late-’70s silverface Fender Princeton Reverb.

The fuzzy solo in that song is somehow otherworldly and raw and beautiful. Was that off the cuff?

Yeah. I just played the melody of the chorus lines, and I used a Boss Super Shifter to get that [hums] rrrun-rrrun-rrrun—that portamento thing.

How many guitar layers are you using there?

I double-tracked the [sings chorus riff] duhduh- dut duh-duh-duh, duh-duh-dut duhduh- dut duh-duh dut dut dut parts and the part that mimics the vocal melody, and then I was like, “What would Frank Black do—what would the Pixies do in this song?”

Do riffs like those come to you when you first write a song, or do they come up later as you’re developing a song in the studio?

Well, what I did for this album is I wrote very simple songs, first and foremost, and then I just kept this arsenal of riffs on hand. I wasn’t [initially] worried about, like, “Oh, what will the riff in this song be?” but I knew there had to be some kind of riff. So I basically have a scrapbook of riffs, and then once I had a song written, I would mosey over to the scrapbook and go, “Oh, this will work—let’s put this on here.”

You play a lot of instruments. Do you usually write on guitar, piano, or something else?

I wrote my last record, Actor, completely in a box—I wrote it in GarageBand. In some cases, I just drew in notes with my mouse. I didn’t touch any instruments to make it—which was a long process. With this record, I went back to my roots and wrote on guitar. Just simple songs on guitar.

Just chord progressions first?

Yeah. I’m kind of impatient and I want to hear the whole product when I start, but I just forced myself to keep it very barebones with the chords and everything.

You play the Harmony Bobkat and the similar Silvertone 1488 a lot—what drew you to them?

What drew me to them is part practical and part aesthetic. One, they’re really light. I’m a pretty small person and, even though I love the sustain of a Les Paul, three songs into a set, my back hurts because it’s too heavy. I know that was the thing in the ’70s—the heavier the guitar, the longer the sustain—but I just can’t do that. But also, the Bobkat and Silvertone have this amazing vibrato bar that’s super sensitive—you can dive bomb on it and it will stay in tune. The neck is not the most hospitable—it leaves a little something to be desired—but they’re really solid guitars. I like the tone, and it’s really balanced—and I really love that vibrato bar.

Do you have any special tricks you have to use to keep it in tune?

It works pretty well. I tune down a whole-step and use a little heavier strings, and that keeps it in tune a little bit better. On “Year of the Tiger,” I actually do a super-metal tuning—down to a low F#, super sludgy and slimy—with .012-gauge strings and a .054 on the bottom.

What’s going on with those robotic chord stabs in “Neutered Fruit”?

I really mostly played the Bobkat with that Death by Audio Interstellar Overdriver Deluxe through the Princeton.

Alternating between quirkily sultry vocals, bouts of fuzzed-out mayhem, and jazzy lines,
Clark is always in control. Photo by Lori Paulson

So that’s pretty much your whole rig?

Live, I have this bonkers pedalboard that’s MIDI controlled—because I was spending so much time not even performing, just making sure I was hitting the right pedals at the right time. So I went to this guy named Mike Vegas, who has a pedalboard company called Nice Rack here in New York, and I had a pedalboard custom built that syncs up MIDI with my keyboard player—who’s running Ableton Live. I have to program it, but it sends MIDI commands to change my sonic parameters on different cues. I don’t even have to touch the pedalboard anymore—it’s amazing!

What’s on that ’board?

I have an Eventide Space, an Eventide PitchFactor, the Death by Audio Interstellar Overdriver Deluxe, the Boss Super Shifter, and a Z.Vex Mastotron fuzz.

Which MIDI interface are you using?

An RJM Mini Effect Gizmo and an RJM MasterMind.

What about other guitars and amps?

Right now I have the Harmony Bobkat and the Silvertone, and then I have a 1979 Hagstrom Super Swede—which plays really well. Those are my three touring guitars this time out. I’ve been playing through a Music Man bass amp from the ’80s that has a lot of really specific EQ controls—like, 1.6 kHz or 510 Hz—which I really like.

Are you using that in addition to the Princeton?

No, I use the Princeton in the studio, and I’ve been using the Music Man live. But I may switch that up. The Music Man has a limiter in it that you can turn on and off, but I feel like it’s on no matter what—which is not good. [Ed note: At press time, Clark had switched from the Music Man to two handwired TRVR amps for live playing. See the “Annie Clark’s Gearbox” sidebar below for details.]

We’re running this article in our annual pedal issue, so I wondered if you could talk a little about your philosophy on getting interesting sounds?

I think probably the best distortion still is overdriving a tube amp, or—in the studio—going straight into the console and getting board distortion. That’s a very satisfying distortion. But if you’re touring and you need to be practical and you have to have a lot of different colors in your guitar palette, you probably shouldn’t just bring, like, a Fender tweed amp for a great overdrive sound—that’s just not going to happen.

You mean because it’s too limited, tonally?

Just logistically. Even if it’s my ideal sound, in my current configuration I’d need a pedalboard that could switch between two amps on a dime. Y’know, it’s like, “Okay, here’s the distorted part, but the chorus is really clean, so I’ve got to go over here.” It’s just tricky.

So the main reason you’re using the Music Man is for clean headroom, and then you can use pedals for your distortion.

Exactly. As far as the effects philosophy … in my former years, I was traveling with a pedalboard that was huge. It had Moogerfoogers and I was controlling them with expression pedals, and I had two or three distortions, and this and that and the other, but I’ve come around to having a fuzz and a distortion, and then a lot of flexibility in a couple other pedals. The Eventide pedals are really great for that, in terms of how much space they take up versus what they can give you. I really like them because, if you’re not needing to travel with rack gear—like the Edge or something—you can get a whole lot of mileage out of these pedals that don’t take that much space on your pedalboard.

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

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

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

YouTube It...

With her Harmony, Silvertone, Music Man bass amp, and pedalboard in full view, Clark straps on her Hagstrom Super Swede and leads her band through the new tune “Surgeon” at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. BONUS: She replaces the studio version’s closing synth solo with a jazz-rock guitar freak-out.

At the 2005 All Points West festival in New York, Clark begins by launching into a Hendrix-inspired “Star-Spangled Banner,” stops and says, “Just kidding,” and then dives into an amazingly bluesy version of the Beatles’ “Dig a Pony.”

In this 2009 studio performance for Lake Fever Sessions, it’s just Clark, an Epiphone Masterbilt slope-shouldered dreadnought, and a couple of fantastic mics capturing her lovely voice and deft fingerstyle work.
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