Clark scribbles noisily and often violently across these songs, crouching into the headlong groove of “Surgeon” and reverberating mournfully on “Champagne Year.” “I’m more and more inspired by players like Andy Gill from Gang of Four, Steve Albini from Big Black, or Marc Ribot,” she says. “They can really throw their whole bodies into the instrument, and they can make it sound like it’s being strangled or they can make it sing. That’s what I’ve been trying to do – just to become more natural when I play, to throw my whole body into it and see what happens. It’s awkward to look at. It’s not graceful.”
On stage, that approach creates a dynamic that is simultaneously self-empowering and self-annihilating. “You’ve got this built-in aggression, which is more and more where I’m interested in going – pushing my own edge in terms of an aggressive show,” Clark says. “When it’s at its best, you lose yourself in the music and something else takes over. That’s a kind of catharsis you don’t get in everyday life. Maybe people spend a lot of money for therapists or do primal scream therapy or whatever. But it’s addictive. It’s the best thing when it’s a good show.”
Angular and startling, Strange Mercy reveals a deep and sad-hearted melancholy running through all of these songs. “Must have been a case of hysterical strength,” Clark sings at one point, “to stand up while the room moved off its axis.” That sense of distress – of rooms moving off their axes, of losing one’s balance amid upheaval – stems from a particularly bad time for the musician. “It’s coming from a pretty raw place,” she says. “2010 was the Year of the Tiger, and it was a turbulent year and quite a sad year for me. So okay, how do I put all of these conflicting elements together and sort through all this emotional stuff? How do I make something of it?”
When pressed to elaborate on the events of 2010, Clark responds simply and with determined finality: “losing people you love.” She is understandably guarded, preferring not to let private details impinge on the music she shares with fans. Yet that friction between the opposing urges to express herself musically and to protect herself emotionally gives Strange Mercy its unique force. These songs give away everything and nothing.
Asked if she is nervous to put more of herself out there, Clark responds thoughtfully and assuredly, as someone who has weathered a storm and emerged even stronger: “I just realized that it doesn’t scare me anymore. It used to be that I felt like I had to keep things more cerebral and a bit more guarded in some ways, but I learned that it’s more empowering to speak to my own experiences and open up a bit more. I figure that if I feel that way, then other people feel the same way. That in itself will connect us.”