Perched atop a speaker on stage at October's ACL Music Festival in Texas, Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, throws her head back and casually runs two fingers across her elongated neck before she steps down and stalks the stage. With lavender-tinged, gun-metal gray hair and wearing a black dress with billowing gold fabric on the shoulder, Clark is wrapping up her mid-day spotlight-stealing performance, which culminates with her climbing up the scaffolding.
That performance, part of an ongoing tour in support of her Grammy-nominated album, St. Vincent — Clark will be at Time Warner Cable Arena on Dec. 12 as the opener for the Black Keys — is a stark contrast to the Bonnaroo performance I saw in 2009. At that time, she was almost demure. Sure, there were slight head-bobs and some musical experimentation, but, for the most part, singer/songwriter/guitarist Clark stood steadfast at her microphone, sang her songs and kept things simple. Her curly dark hair was pulled back, and the flowery print on her blouse was the brightest element of her wardrobe. There was no need for pomp and circumstance. The then-26-year-old was then touring in support of her sophomore album, Actor, and solidifying her place as a solo artist after stints performing as a member of the Polyphonic Spree and in Sufjan Stevens' touring band.
Over the course of four albums — plus a collaboration with David Byrne — St. Vincent has gone from indie-rock darling to art-rock icon. Her performances provide a series of curveballs, both sonically and visually, that leave critics and fans talking long after the show is over — and more than any headliners.
The day after the ACL Fest performance, reviews weren't focused on Outkast, who closed out that first day. Bloggers were writing about St. Vincent, who climbed the stage supports before heading to the barricade to take articles of clothing from the audience (glasses, a hat, a crutch) during her final song, "Your Lips Are Red." People were also talking about all the dancing she's doing. Dancing? Perhaps you can call it that — a combination of arm gestures, deep waist bends, jerking head movements, peacock-stepping and foot-shuffling.
"It ties in with the theme of the record, of everything as performance, from the mundane to the exquisite, you know? Life as performance," Clark said in a March 2014 interview with Nashville Scene's The Cream. "Music is powerful in and of itself. But it's more fun to acknowledge that there are other things at play than just the music when people come to see a show. And to have more fun with that idea of performance."
On first glance, the movements Clark and her band make on stage might appear as stiff, but it's all calculated. The performance gives viewers something to look at while offering a slap at so many pop artists who choreograph all of their dance moves — making everyone look robotic in their symmetry is kind of the point.
The "dancing" was choreographed by Annie-B Parson, who spent considerable time with Clark going over the moves. "She wanted this show to be something powerful, and at the same time, something very supernatural," Parson says in a story in the Village Voice. "Maybe not the first day you teach her the movement, but the third day, she totally embodies it. She's a very natural performer, so when you give her a movement, she knows what to do with it. That's not typical of a non-dancer, not at all. She's very special."
A May appearance on Saturday Night Live offered St. Vincent the opportunity to get her music in front of a national audience, though the performance was, not surprisingly, polarizing. Commentary on Twitter ranged from "Pure genius. She is ahead of us all" and "Totally bad-assed modern music" to "That was trash noise that only got worse and worse as I watched it" and "St. Vincent's music just sounds like someone who is really, really atrocious at Guitar Hero."
Clark herself was thrilled by the varying opinions. "A lot of people were very confused," she said of the SNL appearance in an August interview with the Guardian. "There were certainly a number of people who were like: 'Yay, that was cool, I've never heard of you, I'm going to buy the record.' Then there was a whole other wide swath of the American public that was just scratching their head. I think that's great. You might be doing something wrong if you're beloved by everyone."
ST. VINCENT'S CAREER has been on a steady uphill climb since her debut album, Marry Me, was released in 2007. Actor was released in 2009, followed by Strange Mercy in 2011 and a collaboration with David Byrne, Love This Giant, in 2012. Her eclectic musical style has been present from the start, but it's the release of self-titled album in February of this year that has furthered her indie-darling status.
She's never aimed for top 40 sensibility or remained on the straight-and-narrow in her music. Off-kilter rhythms and odd instrumentation lean her music far closer to the experimentation of Bjork than Jenny Lewis. "Marrow," from Actor, starts in a dreamlike state with a choral curtain behind Clark's soft singing before it devolves into clanging beats and fragmented synth riffs. St. Vincent's "Bring Me Your Loves" bounces between a capella and a bouncy beat fused together with electronic squeaks that sound more like a theremin than anything guitar-based.
As year-end lists get published, St. Vincent is quickly becoming the most common denominator. Rolling Stone lists the album — its music balancing indie rock with art-pop and flashes of synth overlays — at No. 4 on its Top 50 Albums of 2014 list. The album landed at No. 2 for Paste and at No. 1 for NME. Judging by her Facebook posts, the accolades are special for Clark this time around, which makes sense given St. Vincent's meaning for her.
"I was reading Miles Davis' autobiography," she told Paste in a February 2014 interview, "and he talks about how the hardest thing for any musician to do is to sound like himself, and I was reading that, and I was like yeah, okay, that, yeah I agree with that statement and that's why I decided to self-title this record because I feel like I sound like myself."
The confidence in her self-expression led to the visual re-imagining of her live performances, as well as inspiring a different approach to the cover of her fourth release. Just as her on-stage performances have showed an evolution, so, too, has her album artwork. Marry Me was simplistic — a bright-eyed, black curly-haired Clark in a gray top — as was Actor — a similar style with Clark plainly looking off at an angle. Strange Mercy was more artistic in its presentation — an open mouth covered in what looks like white shrink wrap. Love This Giant shows Clark and David Byrne together with chiseled, exaggerated jaw and chin.
And then there's St. Vincent. Clark sits on a pink throne, facing forward with a metallic dress and that now-signature (for this tour, at least) curly gray hair.
"I'm on the cover, on this pink Memphis chair that's very structured, very symmetrical, very sturdy. But also, it's pink, a soft color," she told the Village Voice. "I experimented with different poses; it was so interesting, every micro-movement ... if I put my legs to the left, it looked like Golden-era Hollywood. If I put my legs to the right, it looked imperious and queenly in a way that was just not it. So I think the cover shot we got, it was like the third shot [we took]. Symmetrical, clean: It was direct."
"You're kind of an art-rocker — can I enjoy your music, or do I have to get it?" Stephen Colbert asked her on the Colbert Report in February. No, you don't have to get it. St. Vincent's work is not coming from an overly intellectual standpoint, she points out. It's easy to sit back and enjoy the music for what it is — Clark's at-ease vocals and impressive fret-work on the guitar, at times draped across ethereal soundscapes. "I've always tried to be at the crossroads of accessibility and lunatic fringe," she tells Colbert.
This also isn't David Bowie creating Ziggy Stardust for a concept album or Stephani Germanotta going through outfit changes as Lady Gaga. From the start, this has been the natural evolution of Annie Clark as an artist in every sense of the word.
Looking back over the years, you can see that timid musician who was working to find herself as she broke out on her own. She had flashes of what you see now in her solos at Bonnaroo as she spread her wings as an artist, in collaborations with Byrne that pushed her creativity and in that steady progression of her visual presentation. It's no surprise that, last year, the Smithsonian presented her with an Ingenuity Award for performing arts.
If the seemingly shy Clark of 2009 had set her guitar down and climbed the rafters of the tent at Bonnaroo, people would have thought she lost her mind. At ACL Fest in 2014, Clark shredded a solo with a huge grin on her face, laid down her guitar and began climbing the metal scaffolding at the side of the stage. She leaned back to look at everyone upside-down, hung on with her hands and let her feet swing back and forth before climbing down and, eventually, finishing the song. It's Clark yelling out a conclusive "I've found myself!" in a strictly visual way.
The crowd went wild with approval.