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Brooklyn Pixie Sings Like an Angel, Shreds Like a Monster

Indie heartthrob St Vincent mines the dark side of Disney on new disc

Rolling Stone IN Jul 21, 2009

Annie Clark wanted her music to be magic, like something in a Disney film. So while she was writing her second album, the 26-year-old indie rocker, who records under the name St Vincent, would stay up all night in her Brooklyn apartment watching Sleeping Beauty and Beauty and the Beast. Then she’d dream up orchestral scores for her favourite scenes ”“ except, in her head, the fairy tales weren’t for kids. “You know when music is so elegant it sounds like the clouds are parting and feathers are falling from the sky?” asks Clark. “I’d juxtapose that with something really gross.” How gross? “I once heard Nick Cave’s guitarist play a tone that was so disgusting, it literally made me want to vomit.” She pauses, suddenly wistful. “It was awesome.”

A five-foot-two-inch pixie with big china-doll eyes and fuzzy black hair, Clark doesn’t look like your typical gross-out queen. But then, anyone who’s heard her play guitar knows she’s tougher than she looks. Today, shredding in a New York practice space, she stomps her way through a dozen guitar pedals, and it’s clear she has a composer’s ear for melody. Clark, who grew up in Dallas in an Irish-Catholic family with eight siblings, attended the Berklee College of Music and toured with chamber-pop maestros Sufjan Stevens and the Polyphonic Spree. But she can also destroy on guitar, grinding out visceral notes like ones her co-producer John Congleton once described as “abortion-y.” “I got this cheap 1967 Harmony Bobcat guitar with a sensitive whammy bar that I can bend really far out of tune,” she says. “I wanted it to sound very human.”

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On her new disc, Actor, Clark sings like an old-world chanteuse over clarinets, violins and an Indian sarangi. Each track has a surreal quality, because Clark fills them with intentional “mistakes.” On the technicolour ballad ”˜The Strangers,’ a high-hat comes in just behind the beat, making the tune sound seasick. Her own voice adds to the black comedy. Whether she’s confessing to grabbing Daddy’s Smith & Wesson or hiding Playboys under a mattress, she sings like the holiest choirgirl.

Sliding down jagged guitar runs, stepping on pedals that turn simple chords into heavy, swampy ripples, looping her own voice and smothering it beneath peals of feedback, her music is always a rush that approaches something between ecstasy and disintegration. “I have this song called ”˜Laughing With a Mouth of Blood’ ”“ it’s a term that comics use for being able to take a joke that’s insulting to you, like you’re laughing through your own shame and humiliation. Sometimes I feel that way when I’m performing.” She laughs. “Being uncomfortable ”“ maybe I’m just more comfortable that way.”

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