Inspiration can come from unlikely places. Annie Clark, the Dallas-raised, Brooklyn-based musician who records as St. Vincent, was reading Marilyn Monroe’s recently published diaries when she came across a sentence that stood out to her: “Best finest surgeon,” the actress writes, “Strasberg waits to cut me open.”
“I thought that was an incredibly poetic line and a strange sentiment – wanting someone to come in and make that adjustment that will heal you,” says Clark, who adds that the troubled actress “was a highly intelligent woman and doesn’t get enough credit for being very powerful.” Clark pondered the line as she finished Monroe’s Fragments: Poems, Intimate Notes, Letters, and eventually she used it as the chorus for “Surgeon,” a stand-out on Strange Mercy, her third album as St. Vincent. It begins at a dreamily unrushed pace, with Clark’s florid vocals filling the frame and her spidery guitarwork adding detail to the background. The tempo gradually tightens until the song mutates into a breakneck jam between Clark and gospel organist Bobby Sparks. When it sounds like the song might simply snap in half, “Surgeon” fades out abruptly. Roll credits.
It’s a more vigorous and abrasive sound than expected from St. Vincent, and the lyrics prove equally strained and edgy. Rather than cinematic and critical, that voice sounds like that of someone desperate to be cut open. “I took elements of what I knew about Marilyn Monroe and superimposed them with something that I knew personally,” Clark explains. “I think it’s all fair game – whatever makes the best and most compelling story with a sturdy emotional truth to it.”
That idea – that songs are stories whose unraveling reveals some kernel of wisdom beneath – is the bedrock of St. Vincent’s music, but Strange Mercy represents a change in sound and tone for Clark, who puts her cerebral songwriting toward more emotional ends. Her lyrics are pointed and direct, and her luminous vocals downcast and soulful, evoking the wild regality of Kate Bush and the alien expressiveness of David Bowie. Yet, even as she sings about her own misgivings and confusions, Clark still sounds steeled against the world, utterly confident in her point of view.
Formerly a member of the Texas-based, Texas-size indie orchestra The Polyphonic Spree and the guitarist in Sufjan Stevens’ touring band, Clark released her first solo album, Marry Me, in 2007, earning raves for songs like “Jesus Saves, I Spend” and “What, Me Worry?” that blend incisive insights with mordant humor. Her 2009 follow-up, Actor, was similarly heady both in its lyrics and arrangements, the latter of which involved complicated combinations of guitar, woodwinds, synthesizers, horns, and choirs of backing vocals. Her audience grew to include some high-profile fans: The video for the single “Laughing With A Mouth Of Blood” featured Fred Armisen of Saturday Night Live and Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney. It was essentially the pilot for their IFC sketch comedy series Portlandia.
Clark’s vision for St. Vincent can be starkly visual. Having once studied to become a playwright, Clark plumbs cinema and theater for inspiration. Most of the songs on Actor were written in front of her television, as she watched some of her favorite movies on mute. “I would try to rescore a scene,” she recalls. “I took some visual cues from The Wizard Of Oz and old Disney cartoons from the 1930s and 40s. I knew how it looked, but how does it sound? How do I transfer these colors into music, because that’s often what I’m doing [when I’m writing songs]. I’m not really thinking about chords or even music. I’m thinking about color and trying to musically paint a picture.”
In some ways, Strange Mercy picks up on this technique. The opening track is titled “Chloe In The Afternoon,” and Clark confirms the song was sparked by, albeit not based too strictly on the 1972 film by French director Eric Rohmer. “I just thought it was a really poetic title and sounded really provocative,” she says. “I took cues from the illicit factor of the movie and turned it into my own narrative.”