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The 26-year-old Dallas-raised chanteuse (real name: Annie Clark), a former member of the Polyphonic Spree, received universal adulation for her independently made, far-reaching 2007 pop debut, Marry Me. Now she’s back with the even more ambitious ACTOR (4AD).
How did you get the music bug?
My uncle is an amazing jazz guitar player; he and his wife are a jazz duo called Tuck and Patti. In the summertime, when I was about fifteen or so, I would go and travel the world with them—China and Japan—and basically be their roadie. I saw not only that music was a possible, viable career choice but also that the travel was exciting.
Were you in bands yourself at that age?
I was thirteen or fourteen when I started recording myself on the computer, so I think I developed a do-it-yourself attitude, because I was able to be my own backing choir and add my own bass and really compose.
Then you went to Boston’s Berklee College of Music. You were obviously serious about music as a career at that point.
I think I always wanted to do this. I didn’t really tell anyone, because sometimes you want to keep those things private and quietly work toward your dream.
What did you learn at Berklee?
Truthfully, I’m of the mind-set that reading [Charles] Bukowski or knowing about film or reading Susan Sontag is just as valuable to knowing music as learning about scales. I mean, the nuts and bolts are necessary, but it’s also necessary to forget what you’ve learned and to never sacrifice athleticism for style.
How long were you with the Polyphonic Spree?
From the summer of 2005 until the spring of 2007. I played guitar.
When did you start calling yourself St. Vincent?
I was making the Marry Me record, and I wanted it to be something bigger than myself. It’s a family name, so I thought it was a nice way to honor where I come from.
You released Marry Me in 2007. How did you feel about it once it was out, and how did that shape your follow-up?
Playing Marry Me live, I became aware of how much I love groove, when there’s a beat that feels good. When you have something rhythmic and constant, you can get away with all kinds of esoteric arrangements and pretty things on top without it seeming pretentious. So I wanted the follow-up to have a good-feeling groove on it, and also enough violent guitar that I would get to attack the guitar when I play live.
The new record has a lot going on. Can you describe your creative process?
Before I wrote any songs, I spent a lot of time carving out arrangements, writing instrumental music on the computer. I had all these intricately carved puzzle pieces, and compared to my normal process, this was extremely backward. It was like I had all the icing but needed the cake. But by using the computer, I also felt like I was making music that was smarter than me.
You’ve said that you approach songs as sound tracks to your favorite films. How’s that?
I start by watching a film I love and zeroing in on a scene, then I put it on mute and think about how I could score it. I come up with ideas by the cadence of someone’s voice, or by thinking about what a character embodies—you know, what does Woody Allen sound like?
You’ve received a lot of acclaim for your work. Did you expect it?
You always hope for the best, but you don’t really expect anything. On the Marry Me record, I wasn’t signed; I funded it myself and put it together with the help of friends and calling in favors, so I didn’t know if anyone would hear it. I just knew I wanted an album that people would like. There’s no guessing what someone else’s palate will be, so you focus on the only thing you can do and make something that is beautiful and exciting to your own ear.