InterviewsPaul Stokes

Q&a St Vincent - On Strange Mercy, Sufjan Stevens, freezing her clothes & 'taping nipples down' for Letterman

InterviewsPaul Stokes
Q&a St Vincent - On Strange Mercy, Sufjan Stevens, freezing her clothes & 'taping nipples down' for Letterman

stvincentManhattan songstress Annie Clark aka St Vincent was once a member of the Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Steven's backing band before becoming an acclaimed solo artist in her own right. True to its title, her new album Strange Mercy (released this week 12 September) is one of the most peculiar, daring and blogged about albums of the year so far. It's also one of the best. Q spoke to Clarke about tumbling down "technological rabbit holes" and, er, hiding her clothes in freezers. How the devil are you? "I'm really good. I've been doing promo for my new album all day. It's been a lot talking than I normally do. Is it healthy to talk about yourself for six hours a day? You definitely need a shower afterwards."

Strange Mercy is your third solo record. Having been part of bands for so long before going it alone, are you enjoying being in the spotlight yet? "Well, even whilst I was playing in the Polyphonic Spree and with Sufjan Stevens, I was always making my own music - I've been doing it for 16 years. Being in the bands I was in was a great internship, but I was always going to do my own thing. I wouldn't go back to being a side person, that was never my goal."

What was it like being on the Letterman show recently? "It was very cold. It was freezing in that studio! I don't know why they keep it so cold. I came out in this skimpy little number and had to make sure my nipples were taped down, otherwise it gets really awkward! But it was fun. [In house band leader] Paul Shaffer came up and said hello. Nice man."

How hard was it transposing what you made in the studio to a live band environment? "I wanted to go really far down the technological rabbit hole with this new album and the live band, MIDI-syncing things. The songs are quite sonically varied so unless I wanted a twenty person band, which I don't, it's easier to incorporate a computer into the live setting."

Other than being a technological Alice, what were the inspirations behind the new record? "The year of the tiger was 2010, which was a really rough, tumultuous year for me. I was dealing with that and I kind of came to this place where I had done a lot hand wringing on other records but on this record the music was the easy part - writing this record in the midst of a troubling time was the easy part. It got me through a hard part of my life. There are always bits from what I'm reading or watching that come through in the songs - the title Chloe In the Afternoon comes from an Eric Rohmer film, for instance."

Is there a theme to the album? "The song Strange Mercy was the first song I wrote for the record. I stumbled across those words, really they just came out of my mouth. It seemed to be a rich theme, and so a lot of the other songs are really examining that in various ways. I look at all the songs through that prism of Strange Mercy. There's a lot of existential questions: what does it mean to be kind? Sometimes you're cruel to be kind. How do you just exist? I think art can redeem us."

How instrumental was producer John Congleton in making the record? "John is my dear friend and my collaborator. I'm not a band. It's not democratic but I let him in. He has great ears. Engineering-wise, he's incredible, mixing wise he's incredible. More than that we just have a strong bond, I trust his ears with my work. We finish each others sentences in the studio."

It's been a gradual climb to solo success for you, do you feel a kinship with bands like The National? Acts who have got big after a few albums rather than having blowing up on a debut? "I certainly feel a kinship with The National. I adore their music and I adore them personally. I think Matt Berninger is one of my favourite lyricists. His lyrics have a sort of self-effacing, melancholy, black humour thing going on. But are also really poignant, with these images that really resonate, that a lot of people can relate to. That line from the song England is my favourite: Famous angels never come through England."

Do you think you'll ever work with Sufjan Stevens again? "No. He's like an island. He makes his own music. When I was in his band I was just a member of an orchestra. He's so brilliant and knows exactly what ought to be there. I adore him and his music, I'm not only excited to see what he comes up with."

Tell us a secret you've never told anyone else. "Here's a neurotic secret. In New York, there's a bed bug epidemic. I like to go see a lot of movies, but people are getting bed bugs from movie theatres. I don't know if this is rational or not, but what I do is keep a spare set of clothes - a movie outfit - in the freezer! The second I get home from the theatre, I disrobe in the kitchen and throw it all in the freezer. I know, it's a bit creepy but you can't be too careful. A friend was house-sitting for me recently and called in hysterics, asking Why the fuck do you have a freezer full of clothes and underwear?! [laughs] I am insane, I am going die alone!"

Finally, what is St Vincent - ie you - the patron saint of? "Oh, something single malt! [laughs]"

Al Horner

For more information, head to Strangemercy.com.