In the bar of a miserable business traveler hotel in east London, Annie Clark, otherwise known as St. Vincent, is devouring a sandwich. The 28-year-old Texan singer-songwriter has been spending the day talking about her imminent third album, Strange Mercy. Approaching the end of a day of poking and probing from an assortment of journalists, she apologises for being "tarted up" in a short, lacy black dress, as obligingly worn for an earlier photoshoot. A pale, bruised leg bobs over the table during the conversation, accentuating her slight discomfort with this strange convention of question, answer, question, answer.
On Strange Mercy, elements of juke mingle with shoe-gaze warps, Wizard of Oz-style whimsy, and a core of folk-confessional fuelled by tension. Clark describes the on-edge science fiction disco track, "Surgeon" as being, "like dancing your way through a panic attack." Though each record that Clark puts out showcases a new set of reference points, she never veers from her signature style of carefully thought-out observations, scattered with dream-rushes and that consistently present confessional rhetoric.
Clark identifies most with the classic singer-songwriter era of the 1970s. Both Marry Me and Actor, her previous albums, had Clark's face on the front. A deliberate attempt to connect herself with the records of such heroes as Neil Young, Bob Dylan and Tom Waits. "Some people do one thing for one cover and then move on to a new concept. I think for me it has been a series of attempts to refine what I do. Cut away all the fat to become more emotionally powerful each time. At least that has been my goal."
Hers is a talent born out of practice. The middle of nine children in suburban Dallas, she locked herself away in the bedroom from the age of 12 to practice guitar, eventually moving on to other instruments. "Music is still so incredibly mysterious to me but what's not mysterious is that you have to put in the hours," she says. "It is not about some random fit of lightning striking the random genius." All of which sounds very Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers. Would she describe herself as a post-Gladwell musician? "Totally! Everyone who is successful in any way is a post-Gladwell musician."
Clark was signed by Beggars Banquet after being spotted supporting Sufjan Stevens in 2006. This, after a brief stint as a member of "hometown hero" Tim DeLaughter's euphoric project, the Polyphonic Spree. Since 2007, St. Vincent has been releasing music that is near-visual, magic-carpet ride through her musical obsessions and societal hang-ups.
Recording Strange Mercy was a focused, functional pursuit. "I went to Seattle and stayed in a hotel for a month. I had to get out of New York - it was too loud. My friend Jason McGerr, the drummer for Death Cab For Cutie gave me the keys to his studio while he was away. I'd just show up at the studio every day with a briefcase, like a banker, and put in 12 hours. After that I would go out to dinner alone, have a glass of wine and read a book on my own." Though the outcome was a success, it was not without its low points. "There were moments of real revelation and peace that I haven't felt in a long time. And then there were moments of total loneliness, when I would have loved for someone else to be at the other side of the table, instead of this book."
Clark absorbs the rhythms of life in the same way a composer might - instinctively sucking them in, and armed with the training (she attended the Californian Music College, Berkeley) to be able to spew them back out in complex, challenging, but very personal musical forms. The lyrical subject that she seems to return to most on Strange Mercy is the reliance on falsehood to propel yourself forward. The ennui of having to blag your way through life in order to get the sweet little crumbs of success. "I make a living telling people what they want to hear. It's not a killing but it's enough to keep the cobwebs clear," Clark laments on "Champagne Year." "I've told whole lies with a half-smile," reveals "Cheerleader." A lyric that echoes through the windowless gloom of the hotel bar. "I don't know what good it serves."
Strange Mercy is out now on 4AD. ilovestvincent.com
visit pias.com/pias to support the labels affected by the Sony/ PIAS warehouse fire caused by London's August riots.