Over the course of the past 10 years, singer-guitarist St. Vincent (Annie Clark) has built an impressive resume that includes stints with the Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens, both credible indie rock acts with cult followings. Additionally, she worked with ex-Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, collaborating with him on a terrific 2012 album. Her new self-titled album features a heady mix of electronica and indie rock and has lead to a year of non-stop touring. So it's no wonder she admits that she's "never home."
Over the phone, St. Vincent is just as esoteric as you might think, given the nature of her studio albums. And yet, when TV show host Stephen Colbert threw a bunch of zany questions her way when she was a guest on the show earlier this year, she capably handled his sharp-witted retorts like a pro and never flinched. Someone more introspective might have wilted under the pressure.
"Stephen is a lovely guy," she says of the wild and wacky Colbert. "He's a real music fan. Every late-night show has its own personality. Some are more fun than others because of the personality. Colbert is absolutely a delight to be on. I think if you take yourself completely seriously, then you shouldn't go on The Colbert Report."
And when we ask if that implies St. Vincent doesn't take herself too seriously, she responds with an articulate answer that suggests just how intelligent she is when it comes to thinking about herself and her music.
"I take music very seriously and I care about it so much, but human beings are full of grandeur and squalor in equal parts so I don't take any person that seriously," she says. "Perhaps they have a deficiency that I'm not aware of, but I'm from Texas so I value manners and politeness and all that so I tend to conduct myself that way in interviews."
Born in Tulsa, St. Vincent was exposed to the music business early on; as a teenager she worked as a tour manager for the folk duo Tuck & Patti.
"They're my aunt and uncle," she explains. "I learned so much from them over the course of a number of years touring with them. They are incredibly hard working. I saw the underbelly of being on the road, not that they lived dangerously by any means. But I saw that it's hard work and not just glamour all the time. I saw the power of the live performance. They would go in and move people to tears every night. A lot of times, they would move me to tears. I just thought that was such a wonderful way to exist in the world because a lot of people have to make a living exploiting somebody. If I'm not going to be a social worker or a humanitarian, it's better to go through life knowing you're not exploiting anyone and putting more suffering into the world than existed before."
She carried that philosophy into a solo career that began in 2007 when she released her first album as St. Vincent, taking the moniker from a Nick Cave song. She consciously decided to title her new album St. Vincent because the album so clearly represents the sound that she's always sought. The woozy opening track "Rattlesnake" features electronic bleeps and blips but never loses its steady beat and ultimately lays down a great groove with wonky guitar riffs that sound like something King Crimson's Adrian Belew might play.
"It wasn't laziness," she says of the album's title. "I was reading Miles Davis' autobiography and he said that the hardest thing for a musician to do is to sound like yourself. He was thinking more about horn players and somebody having an unmistakable sound. It's true. You hear one note and you know it's Miles Davis. Same with Coltrane or any of the great singers. You hear one syllable of Sarah Vaughan and you know it's Sarah Vaughan. The same goes for Tom Waits. The key isn't to be perfect, but to be more perfectly yourself and more singular — not somebody you can mistake for dime-a-dozen music."
St. Vincent certainly has her own sound. She plays all of the guitars on the album and sings. She also plays some of the synthesizers.
"I'm mostly a guitar player," she admits. "I've been playing guitar for 20 years."
Inspired by cult filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky, a real visionary whose films have an undeniable look to them, the current tour has a strong visual element.
"I spent a lot of time thinking about the visual aspects of the record and for the tour," she says. "I was influenced by Holy Mountain and the Memphis design movement and all manner of things. I just wanted to make a live show where the visual component told an additional story. Once you're aware of the language, how can you ignore it?"
St. Vincent with Sondre Lerche
8 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 30, House of Blues, 308 Euclid Ave., 216-523-2583. Tickets: $23 ADV, $25 DOS, houseofblues.com.
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