"Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man's character, give him power."
This quote, attributed (possibly erroneously) to Abraham Lincoln, came up toward the end of a 30-minute phone conversation with Annie Clark, the guitarist and singer / songwriter behind St. Vincent. Well, partially, anyway— Clark stopped herself before finishing the quote, on the off chance she might potentially misquote Lincoln.
"Better to remain silent and be thought a fool," to bring up another specious Lincoln quote.
In context, she was in the middle of an explanation about the image that adorns her new, self-titled fourth album, which was released Feb. 25 on Loma Vista Records. The image—a silver-haired Clark, clad in a reflective purple and blue gown, perched upon a pink throne and looking dead-eyed at the camera—is indeed a powerful one. And power, it turns out, was the primary motivation behind this presentation of the next phase of her career.
"I was wanting to communicate a sense of power, and that led me down the rabbit hole of what power is and what power looks like," Clark says from a tour stop in North Carolina. "Different people wield power in different ways. And power to me seemed like symmetry and order and intention."
Musically, St. Vincent is nothing if not powerful. Since 2007, with the release of her debut album, Marry Me, Clark has been continually building on her bold, shape-shifting art-pop sound, taking greater risks and putting new twists on conventional pop songs with each permutation. On 2009's Actor, she juxtaposed abrasive, deftly performed guitar riffs against lush string arrangements, and on 2011's Strange Mercy, Clark stripped away some of the excess, revealing some of her most stark arrangements to date, as well as some of her best.
Clark—who'll perform at House of Blues on March 19—takes another stylistic turn on her latest record, feeding live performances through a heavy filter of processing and effects, yielding what she refers to as "the feel of human beings but the sound of machines." The album's first track, "Rattlesnake," begins with a skipping electronic beat before ramping up into a hyperactive video-game arrangement, while "Digital Witness," which lyrically examines ideas of surveillance and documenting a life online, transitions between exclamatory horn-section hooks and a big, distorted chorus. There are few moments throughout the album's 11 tracks that don't hit with maximum impact, whether it's the opening couplet of "Oh what an ordinary day / Take out the garbage, masturbate" on "Birth in Reverse" or the noisy, climactic finish to "Huey Newton."
St. Vincent is very much a rock album, just one that—by design—doesn't much sound like a conventional rock album.
"I wanted to make it groove," Clark says. "And when I think about what's interesting to me, sonically, now, especially from a rhythm section standpoint, hip-hop is where it's at. And I think people take a lot of risks in hip-hop from a sonic perspective.
"I'm not interested in preserving, like, the canon of the past in terms of rock," she continues. "All music is cool music, and I'm interested in all of it. But from a rhythm perspective, what happens in hip-hop is way more interesting than what happens in rock."
Before getting to work on St. Vincent, however, Clark in 2012 released Love This Giant, an album recorded with David Byrne that—in a situation that happens so rarely in pop-music collaborations—fits in comfortably in both artists' catalogs. In the year that followed, Clark and Byrne maintained a heavy tour schedule, playing stages around the world, from North America to Europe, Iceland to Australia. And maintaining a busy schedule isn't necessarily new to Clark—tour-date aggregator Songkick lists 503 shows under her belt so far, not counting her performances as a musician in Polyphonic Spree or Sufjan Stevens' band.
But when Clark reached a break after a long trek with Byrne, she didn't seize the opportunity to relax for a month or two. In fact, as she told NPR's "All Songs Considered" in January, she started writing her new record just 36 hours after the tour ended. And while she says that inspiration is something that comes to her as she works, rather than spontaneously ("Songs will tell you what they want to be," she says), there's a simple reason for what led her to pick up her guitar so quickly after logging so many miles: It's her job.
"When I sit down to write a record, I think about it like [I'm] a person putting on a suit and tie and going to a day job," Clark says. "If you call yourself a songwriter, you better spend a lot of time songwriting. But inspiration is the kind of thing that happens sometimes four hours in, when you've been working on a Rubik's cube for a while, and then suddenly you're like, Oh, I get it!'"
For Clark, that job entails a lot more than simply writing songs. You don't catalog as many live shows as she has without being, above all, an entertainer—which is perhaps the best title to print up on her business cards. She has a dynamic live presence, pulling off the tricky task of being both a charismatic frontwoman and a skilled guitarist. Put more succinctly: She shreds.
With this new phase of St. Vincent, that stage presence means the addition of new elements: couture wardrobe, elaborate lighting, choreography and her unmistakable crown of argent curls. As jobs go, Clark acknowledges that hers is peculiar, though she's just as quick to express her gratitude for being in the position to which she's ascended.
"It's a strange job," she says. "Here, construct a castle out of the ether and then hope that people want to live in it for 40 minutes, every once in a while. It's a really strange conceit, and it's an amazing one that I feel so lucky to be involved with, and to get to give back to music some tiny sliver of what music has given to me over my entire life."
St. Vincent is certainly an enchanting castle—and Annie Clark is its benevolent ruler, commanding her surreal empire from a glossy pink throne.