St. Vincent looks on the bright side of dark times

On <em>Actor</em>, St. Vincent’s Annie Clark looks desperation right in the eye and remains disturbingly chipper

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      Annie Clark has never read—or, for that matter, even heard of—The Day of the Locust, Nathanael West’s 1939 novel about the dark and despondent side of golden-era Hollywood. But after the book comes up during an interview with the Georgia Straight, the Brooklyn-based singer alternatively known as St. Vincent ends up more than a little intrigued.

      That won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s heard her sophomore album, Actor, which was rightly hailed by critics as one of the standout records of 2009. The songs on the 11-track release were partly inspired by some of Clark’s favourite movies, including The Wizard of Oz, Fantasia, and Pierrot le fou. If those flicks have anything in common, it’s that they have a decidedly dark side, which might explain why Clark is on record as saying desperation is a big part of Actor.

      Nowhere is that desperation more vividly drawn than in “Laughing With a Mouth of Blood”, a more-beautiful-than-a-spring-day-in-Prague serving of orchestral dream-pop in which we meet a going-nowhere hopeful who has fled his hometown for Los Angeles. His letters back home lead his friends and family to believe he’s well on his way to having his own parking stall at 20th Century Fox. The reality is that he spends his days watching televangelists on cable in a shitty motel. Which brings us back to The Day of the Locust, West’s brilliant ode to a Hollywood where, for every glamorous star, there are a thousand hellishly frustrated wannabes.

      Clark says the book is now on her to-read list. She figures that West is someone that she might have something in common with.

      “I felt really inspired by the idea of Hollywood glamour,” she says, on the line from home. “And I realize the idea of old Hollywood has been done, but I like that it’s sort of like our American aristocracy. I don’t mean that in a cheap paparazzi kind of way where people want to aggrandize and then destroy celebrities. More like there was something repressed but also really exciting about old Hollywood. There was a human dichotomy where it was glamorous but also really tragic.”

      Clark continues with: “ ”˜Laughing With a Mouth of Blood’ is about that old story of going to Los Angeles to try to make it and ending up in a motel with a swimming pool with all the water out, writing letters back home going, ”˜I’m really doing great out here.’ I like the idea of all of us having the idea of self-delusion about our lives.”

      Clark has no reason to be deluded about where she finds herself today. A former sidegal for Sufjan Stevens and one-time guitar slinger in the feel-good army that is the Polyphonic Spree, she lit out on her own with St. Vincent’s 2007 debut, Marry Me. A left-field bedroom recording that sounded like something grander, that album culled songs that stretched back to when the singer was a teenager, which didn’t stop critics and fans from hailing her as an artist to watch.

      Recorded on GarageBand, Actor finds Clark refusing to make the same record twice.

      “I tried to do something more orchestrated and less linear and less literal in terms of instrumentation,” she says. “With Actor, I wrote it all by drawing notes on the computer and then adjusting those notes. So if someone said, ”˜Hey—play that on the guitar,’ I’d be like, ”˜Uhhh, wait a second, I think it goes like this.’ After writing it I had to figure out how you play it on guitar or piano, if that makes any sense. A lot of it was all by mouse click, which isn’t a very immediately satisfying process.”

      Time-consuming as that might have been, the results are as gorgeous as they are original. Even the album’s most beautiful moments have a dark underbelly. Check out “The Strangers”, where Clark’s hyper-ethereal layered vocals and what may or may not be microchip-generated woodwinds are wiped out halfway through by a tsunami of black-hearted distortion. Through it all, sounding as disturbingly chipper as can be, St. Vincent repeats the mantra “Paint the black hole blacker.”

      Later on, “Black Rainbow” starts out sounding like a lost act from Franks Wild Years and then ends up swamped by symphonic squalls of white noise. “Marrow” offers up six-string–savaged robo-funk for fans of space-odyssey electronica, and “The Bed” suggests that someone might have a thing for ’40s jazz, ’30s musicals, and progressive new-age. From start to finish, it’s monumentally impressive stuff.

      Actor is the second near-perfect release for Clark, which goes a long way toward explaining how she’s gone from indie obscurity to with-a-bullet contender in just over three years. The singer is happy to report that Vancouver was one of the first cities to embrace her, something that won’t shock anyone who was lucky enough to catch her eerily captivating performance at the old Lamplighter in 2007.

      “That particular show I remember as being awesome,” Clark says. “On that tour it was one of the few really sold-out, really excited crowds. It was just like, umm, teen spirit. I’m not just saying this—I really, really remember that night. It was something special.”

      Back then, Clark was pretty much the show, alternating between Zen-like alt-pop princess and scarily possessed sonic experimentalist. This time out, St. Vincent is determined to give the audience something more. And no, a night of soul-sucking desperation that would impress Nathanael West isn’t what Clark has in mind.

      “It’s a recession right now and things are tough out in the world,” she says straightforwardly. “So if people are going to spend 12 or 14 or 16 dollars—or however much tickets are—I want them to feel like they got every ounce of what they paid for for their ticket. Like they’ve seen a show that has a dynamic arc.

      “So I’ve got a bunch of lights,” Clark continues. “And there might be a laser machine. If those lasers make someone feel that the show was totally worth it, then that’s totally worth it to me. I want people to have an experience, instead of walking away going, ”˜Well, that was just okay.’ ”

      St. Vincent plays Venue next Thursday (February 4).