Texan multi-instrumentalist Annie Clark may have the fragile features of a china doll, but when she’s on stage under her moniker St. Vincent, she is a musical force to be reckoned with.
Her influences range from Patti Smith and Pink Floyd, to Iron Maiden and Kate Bush, and despite commercial success opening for the likes of The Black Keys, Arcade Fire and Grizzly Bear, and penning two songs for The Twilight Saga soundtrack, St. Vincent’s own music has always sat – rather proudly – on the fringe of mainstream pop.
Although she is a style chameleon with obvious pop art aesthetic influences, St. Vincent is unlike her contemporaries Lady Gaga or Katy Perry, in the sense that her skills as a mean guitarist are the focus of her live performances.
St. Vincent was born Annie Clark in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She began playing the guitar at the age of 12 and, as a teenager, worked as a roadie for her uncle and aunt, the guitar-vocal jazz duo Tuck & Patti.
She grew up in Dallas, Texas, and attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston for three years before dropping out. During her time there, she released an EP with fellow students and formed choral rock band The Polyphonic Spree in 2000. On the back of multiple collaborations, she joined Sufjan Stevens‘ touring band in 2006 – the same year she began writing and recording under the stage name St. Vincent (taken from a line in a Nick Cave song).
She released her debut album Marry Me in 2007, which was described as a mix of Kate Bush and David Bowie by critics. She made an album with Talking Heads frontman David Byrne in 2012 entitled Love This Giant, and she has been exploring and experimenting with her own style ever since.
Although St. Vincent loves the sound of a 70s Les Paul, her demure frame prevents her from playing one live, so she typically opts for a Music Man Albert Lee model axe (a division of legendary string manufacturer Ernie Ball).
Alternating between sunburst, red and black coloured versions, St Vincent’s Albert Lee is small and lightweight, and is often flung around with ease on her many solos and choreographed chaos.
At the 2014 Rock and Roll Hame of Fame, she played the Nirvana song ‘Lithium’ alongside members Dave Grohl, Krist Novoselic and Pat Smear. In that performance, she played a funky, thrift-shop Harmony solid-body.
On last years’ self-titled album, St. Vincent recorded her guitar parts on a modified Fender Jazzmaster, which boasted some of the most alien, distorted lead breaks of 2014.
Stylistically, St. Vincent likes to break the rules. While her guitar can sometimes be best described as an extension of her strained and soaring vocals, her often haunting, ethereal and erratic guitar intros and solos are also idiosyncratic and unexpected.
While most other indie pop-rock acts merely strum or finger pick straight rhythms, St. Vincent favours cleanly picked and jarringly jagged arpeggios. She also deliberately breaks up her own melodies and riffs with distorted hooks and explosions of fuzz-powered noise.
Her self-described “party trick” techniques include two-handed tapping licks and synthesised electronic effects, both of which are always on display live.
Each St. Vincent song is obscure and unique, but the one thing they all have in common is an eccentric guitar component.
There’s the double picking style of ‘Cruel’, the sonic aggression and experimentation of ‘Bring Me Your Loves’, the slide one-string solo of ‘Rattlesnake’ and the random tuning of songs like ‘Birth In Reverse’ and ‘Regret’. The effect pedal power of the ‘Northern Lights’ riff is another stand-out, as is the heavy filters of ‘Surgeon’s’ sliding chords, the slugish metal bends of the middle section in ‘Psychopath’ and the textured acoustic breakdown of orchestral anti-ballad ‘The Apocalypse Song’.
Performance wise, much of St. Vincent’s concerts and festival appearances have been condensed into TV spots and fan videos on YouTube.
On Pitchfork’s official video page, St. Vincent’s full 50+ minute set in 2014 can be found, and as of last month, her recent stint at the Scottish festival T in the Park in also worth a watch.
The best video, however, is St. Vincent’s appearance on Guitar Moves, hosted by musician Matt Sweeney. It was shot in 2013 (in the middle of her tour with Byrne) and is an in-depth interview telling and playing through the licks, riffs, and solos that inform her style, influence her playing, and define her sound. Check it out below: