The Totally Original Sound of St. Vincent

The singer-composer brings new sophistication to pop composition, conjuring ethereal dreamscapes from her suburban roots

(Alessandra Petlin)
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After graduating from Lake Highlands High School in 2001, Clark went off to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, where one of her classmates was Esperanza Spalding (last year’s American Ingenuity Award winner in the performing arts). The emphasis there was on developing your chops to the point where you got hired as a sideman and worked your way up to bandleader. But Clark wanted to write her own songs and lead her own band, so she dropped out.

She returned to Dallas and, ironically, got hired as a sideman, first in Tim DeLaughter’s rock ’n’ roll big band Polyphonic Spree, and later with the whimsical folk-rocker Sufjan Stevens. While Clark was touring with those two acts, she was working on the songs that in 2007 would become her first solo album, Marry Me. To create a distinction between her private and public self, she released the project as St. Vincent, after the hospital in New York City where the poet Dylan Thomas died in 1953.

Marry Me was followed by Actor in 2009 and Strange Mercy in 2011. The second album attracted gushing media attention, and the third landed inside the top 20 on the Billboard album chart. Clark introduced Strange Mercy with a rare concert in the Temple of Dendur room at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Stranger still were the reports she was getting that David Byrne was showing up at her Manhattan shows. “When I first heard and saw Annie,” Byrne recalls, “I could see that she could write a memorable and beautiful melody—something a lot of younger artists shy away from, intentionally or not. So I sensed she’d accepted that part of music—a part that is welcoming and inviting to us as audience members. But then she tempers that with fierce guitar playing and often dark and perverse lyrics delivered in an affectless tone. It’s really quite disturbing, but in a good way. I could sense that beyond the above Annie was pushing at her limitations and trying new things—adding new textures, instruments and ideas to her writing.”

The two songwriters finally met in 2009 and a few days later rendezvoused at SoHo’s Housing Works Bookstore, where Björk and Dirty Projectors were doing a one-off collaboration. The organizers asked Byrne if he would like to do something similar with Clark. Yes, he would, but what shape would it take?

“We decided to limit the arrangements to a brass band,” Byrne told me. “Once we got cemented into that, every time we started on a song, it was like, ‘What’s the trombone going to play here? What’s the tuba going to play?’ It helped us focus on what questions to try to answer....Another decision we made was we were going to make pop songs. So we knew we’d need 11 or 12 songs for an album. And we knew if we’d gone three or four minutes, we should say, ‘Shouldn’t this be over?’”

These decisions led to Love This Giant. Every song is set inside a brass-band arrangement, and although there are hints of jazz, salsa, R&B and New Orleans parade music, the album doesn’t fall into any of those categories but emerges as a kind of chamber-rock for brass. This was liberating for both partners: Clark could prove that her songwriting was strong enough to thrive outside of guitar-based rock, and Byrne could get away from his reputation for arch, cerebral irony and explore beautiful pop songs again.

“That’s the only way you grow,” Clark says. When “you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, when you have to try something you haven’t done before, you’re forced to take inventory of [your] strengths and weaknesses and see if you can update them....One of the great thrills of my life was to stand on stage with David playing [Talking Heads’] ‘This Must Be the Place.’ If I could have told my 17-year-old self that that would happen, she would have worried a whole lot less."


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