If Marry Me and Actor were widescreen, Technicolor productions, Strange Mercy is more akin to an old black and white film: It may be monochromatic, but that limited palette captures more of the evocative grain of the film stock and sharpens the details in her composition. Clark worked to scale back the arrangements in order to create a more austere, but no less lively, sound for her songs. “There’s that old adage that goes, you spend so many years learning the right notes to play, and then you learn the notes not to play. Or something like that. On this record, it was important for the voice and the guitar to speak more, and that meant less adornment and more places for me and the listener and the music to breathe.”
Clark put very strict limitations on herself while writing and recording Strange Mercy, which opens the music up to new ideas and distinguishes it sharply from its predecessors. “The computer has always been glowing in the background, which has allowed me to start from a place of complexity,” she explains. “With this record, I put the computer away and just sat down with a guitar and my voice, which I know is very conventional, but I’ve never really done that. I really wanted to start from a very simple place, which for me would be guitar and voice, and make sure every song has an emotional core. I didn’t want to worry about the puzzle pieces of an arrangement yet.”
Such self-imposed restrictions extended to the studio as well. “I think creativity comes from limits, from putting really specific directives on what you do, so I walked into the studio knowing that I didn’t want to make an orchestral record. Instead, I walked in knowing that I wanted guitar on it. I walked in with some really specific directives for how I wanted the sound to evolve.” The studio she walked in to was John Congleton’s Elmwood Recording Studio in Oak Cliff, Texas, a neighborhood of Dallas (where Clark also made Actor). For her, it’s a comfortable space: Not only is Dallas her hometown, but Congleton – a veteran of the Dallas indie act The Paper Chase who has worked with Explosions in the Sky and Okkervil River, among many others – is one of those trusted confidantes who enables her to explore the farthest reaches of her sound.
“John is one of my true simpatico collaborators,” she says. “We can finish each other’s sentences, and we get along so well personally and musically.” Congleton concurs: “She’s full of ideas,” he says. “She was sending me tons of ideas in the summer before we started recording, and we would just convene and make sense of it all and arrange these really cool ideas into songs.”
Congleton helped her recruit a small group of musicians that included drummer McKenzie Smith of Midlake and violinist Daniel Hart (her former band mate in the Polyphonic Spree), and they spent long days in the studio developing ideas, experimenting with instrumentation, and putting everything together like a puzzle. “I feel like in the studio, it just comes down to keeping calm and making millions of micro-decisions when the only thing you can trust is your intuition,” she explains. “Hopefully when you zoom out, you’ve made a collectively good macro-decision.”
“She knew what she didn’t want to do,” Congleton explains. “There wasn’t a mission statement. Everything just happened because it seemed like a good idea at the time.” The only real mission they set for themselves was to emphasize the guitar as a primary instrument, equal to her voice. “Before we started the record, I told her, all the flowery stuff and all the arrangements are great, but at the end of the day, I think people want to hear you sing and play guitar. I still believe that.”