The Restless Saint

Annie Clark's debut CD makes a play for pop immortality.

Annie Clark/St. Vincent Glenn Branca torch songs country cabaret bossa-nova new wave Kurt Weill Burt Bacharach the Roches Edith Piaf Björk Patsy Cline The Beachland, 15711 Waterloo Road 9 p.m. Saturday, July 21, $10, 216-383-1124
St. Vincent (aka Annie Clark) is a modern chanteuse in a Gap model's body.
St. Vincent (aka Annie Clark) is a modern chanteuse in a Gap model's body.
It's the summer of 1988. Annie Clark is in the backseat of the car, on a family trip, returning from Minnesota to Oklahoma. Everyone is sick with stomach flu, and frequent pit stops are necessary. But Annie will not be deterred. She writes a song -- her first. She teaches it to her sister, insisting she sing the melody while Annie provides the beat. This goes on and on until Annie's sister becomes annoyed.

But again, Annie, the middle child of nine brothers and sisters, will not be deterred.

"It was just fun to me," she says 19 years later. "It was more fun, in a different way, than just going outside and playing and riding bikes and doing kid stuff."

It's now the summer of 2005. This time, she's leaving Manhattan for Dallas, where she moved when she was seven, after her parents split and her mom remarried. She had saved some money and moved to New York, because she thought she was supposed to. The city is "a bastion of culture," y'know? She played with avant-gardist Glenn Branca -- not the place to get noticed.

Annie spent most of her time recording her first demos -- a collection of torch songs, country, cabaret, and bossa-nova new wave that would eventually garner her comparisons to Kurt Weill, Burt Bacharach, the Roches, Edith Piaf, Björk, and even Patsy Cline.

Turns out, though, she hated every song.

"I listened to it, and it was heartbreaking. It was totally heartbreaking. So I did what any young girl on the wild streets of New York would do, and I went out and partied," says Clark. In person, she looks the way she does in her publicity stills -- small and fragile, pale skin and wide eyes beneath tousled black hair. "Then my money ran out," she adds, "and then I came with my tail between my legs back to Dallas."

Annie Clark the 5-year-old had fun writing songs. Annie Clark the 22-year-old almost quit writing songs. And now, Annie Clark the 24-year-old, better known as St. Vincent, has just released Marry Me, her debut for Beggars Banquet, home to Radiohead's Thom Yorke, Voxtrot, and the National.

She could have picked any label. Capitol Records courted her a few months back, and others tried to date her as well.

She really didn't give up in the summer of 2005. When she came back to Dallas, she signed on with the Polyphonic Spree, some members of which she'd known since high school. "It was like getting nursed back to health," she says.

Clark toured with the band and played on The Fragile Army, its new album. But she kept on writing and recording. She had the entirety of Marry Me finished before she met with those record labels.

Turns out it's hard to shake the confidence of someone who's been writing songs since she was five. What else was she going to do with her life?

"I learned a lot about what I wanted, but I also learned a lot about what I didn't want," she says of dealing with the labels. "I love playing music. I love doing this thing. This is all I've ever wanted to do, so I wanna do it for a long time."

Marry Me sounds like nothing and everything, like the whole history of modern popular music and the end of rock and roll. Ethereal and frail (the piano intro to "We Put a Pearl in the Ground"), gritty and apocalyptic ("Your Lips Are Red"), Clark's debut is still a constant surprise a dozen listens in. It's everything you've ever heard and nothing you've ever been able to pin down -- the kaleidoscopic sounds of yesterday, today, and tomorrow made by a woman just at the beginning of her career.

"It comes from being sort of restless and ADD. If you listen to the record, it's like, 'I wanna make a jazz standard. I wanna write a song like this. I wanna write a song like that,'" explains Clark. "I was listening to Billy Strayhorn's 'Lush Life' and going, 'This is the best lyric I've ever heard. I wanna do this.' It's all these little challenges. I wanna be the kind of person who can really write a song that has continuity, and maybe my taking on the sort of traditional American realm was my way of making a catalog for myself of what I could do.

"I'm not really necessarily motivated by 'That's gonna be my name in lights on the marquee!' I'm more interested in 'What's the next song I'm gonna do that I really can be invested in and feel proud of and feel like it's a place that people can go?' So much of life can be really boring and tedious and hurry-up-and-wait and pay-your-bills. That's modern existence, I guess. But I still think there's so much power in art. I know -- it's like, OK, kid, get back to '69, or whatever, but I think that it's vital. I don't think I would do this if I didn't think that music in some way was a vitalizing experience, a validating experience, like, oh my God, we're fucking alive, and isn't this insane that this is happening? It's a reason to live, I guess."

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