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St. Vincent Has Crafted a Magnificent Mythology on Her Own Terms

There is performance art. There is rock ‘n’ roll. And then there are St. Vincent dress rehearsals.

Everyone in the showcase room of Prospect Heights’ Complete Music Studios seems to know this, because even at 4 p.m. on the last frigid Friday of January, the end of two months’ worth of 12-hour, five-day-a-week rehearsals, each person (four musicians, two managers, a lighting designer, a guitar tech, and a choreographer) dutifully occupies their station.

On a low platform, framed by about a dozen lighting apparatuses, St. Vincent herself, née Annie Clark, stands downstage in a glittering cocktail dress made of a gold vinyl that makes her look like a bionic Metropolis figurine, her frizzy, dyed-gray curls framing her face like an electrified storm cloud. Working her guitar up and down with her signature severity, she stares intently at the opposite wall of windows, twitching her head and limbs robotically as she and her band march through “Rattlesnake,” the jittery opening track on her forthcoming fourth solo record, St. Vincent. After three songs, she thanks an invisible crowd in her soothing, singsong lilt.

Then things get weird.

“You were born in the 21st century,” she intones, a priestess communicating with spirits. “The corners of your mouth turn down when you laugh. Your favorite word is . . .” She pauses for comedic effect. “Molecular.”

Offstage, a crew member begins reading sentences aloud. She repeats them. Clark has written this eerie stage banter in advance, and is now rehearsing lines. “You once tried to make a hot air balloon out of bedsheets. You were disappointed when it did not fly, but you did not give up.” The stage bursts to life as Clark and Moog player and guitarist Toko Yasuda commence a robotic dance, skittering forward and backward at opposite intervals like wind-up androids; the lights strobe terrifyingly, turning their moves into a stop-motion play. The lights slow their flicker, and suddenly it looks like there are two Clarks, a dark and a light, fighting over her body while she bends and twangs her strings.

Once in a while, between songs, she speaks to the invisible crowd again. Another song begins, a new ballad, and Clark retreats, guitarless, to the stage centerpiece: a massive powder-pink throne made of stairs, where she lies down, brushing the ground with her fingertips as one might the surface a reflecting pool. Later, she’ll return to the throne and throw herself down its steps, headfirst, in strobe-lit slow motion.

Every downbeat, every dead-silent transition, every poke battle over a ther-emin in this proceeding is immaculately scripted, down to Clark’s explosive, Byzantine guitar solo on Strange Mercy‘s “Surgeon.”

Reminder: This is just the rehearsal.

“It’s sort of like training like a professional athlete,” Clark, 31, says two days later, sitting at a table with a small glass of sparkling Italian wine. Somewhere in the world beyond, it is Super Bowl Sunday, but here in the bar of The Standard, East Village, for Annie Clark, it is the end of a bizarre press day, one in which she was asked to go about a normal day with a photographer in tow. (Did they truly want to go to the dry cleaner’s with her?) She wears neutral colors and her curls are tucked neatly into a dark beanie; it’s a stark contrast from the wild, supernatural Ursula coiffure that has become the iconic centerpiece of St. Vincent since its cover art was revealed in December.

“People have spent money on a ticket, and maybe that money is the equivalent of them spending a day of their life at their job, or half a day. Money is absolutely time,” she says. “I feel, now, that it would be disrespectful to work out the kinks on the people who spent a day of their life making the money to buy the ticket to come and have an experience.”

For Clark and everyone around her over the past few months, that experience has been everything. St. Vincent is an evolution unlike any other the guitarist has made in her seven years as St. Vincent. She’s left 4AD and Beggars Group, her artistic homes since 2007, for Loma Vista, a nascent label backed by the major Republic. She’s making music in the wake of a massive collaboration with David Byrne, one that produced Love This Giant, an album that involved marching bands and facial prosthetics, among other wacky experiments. With St. Vincent, Clark wields multiple new swords: a creative director in Willo Perron, the artistic mastermind behind live shows like Kanye West and Lady Gaga; a choreographer in Annie-b Parson, who orchestrated dances on the Love This Giant tour as well as Byrne’s previous collaboration with Brian Eno; and, of course, a host of her own innovative guitar-masquerading tricks, twisted pedal-and-synth explorations that add wattage to anything she’s made before.

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“It’s more confident,” she says of the record. “I’m extending a hand; I want to connect with people. Strange Mercy, which is a record I’m proud of, [was] definitely a very accurate record of my life at a certain time, but it was more about self-laceration, all the sort of internal struggle. [St. Vincent] is very extroverted.”

For all her onstage virtuosic flair — which existed in the form of stage dives long before she added modern dance and a giant pink throne — matching the words “extrovert” and “Annie Clark” feels a bit odd. Though she’s played music for at least a decade, first as a touring member of the Polyphonic Spree and in Sufjan Stevens’s band, then as a solo artist, St. Vincent has managed to craft a public image that is eloquent, thoughtful, and has virtually nothing to do with her personal life as Annie Clark. Questions from the press about her family — she grew up Catholic in Dallas as one of eight children, and has lived in the East Village for much of her career — or her friends or who she dates are shut down or nimbly redirected toward more “interesting” conversation; rarely do St. Vincent Q&As broach topics beyond her creative process, her gear (her signature axe is a Harmony Bobkat), or her artistic pursuits. She sticks to many of the same lines of dialogue in interviews (which explains why almost every feature about St. Vincent reads the same). Small personal details are pieced together over time, of course, but unlike many artists of her caliber, she’s created an anti-cult of personality, a media-savvy mystery determined to keep all eyes on the art instead of the artist.

Even behind the scenes, she remains the consummate professional, rarely exposing more to her team of collaborators than she would an interviewer on a good day. For example, when I suggest to David Byrne over email that Clark is a private person, his first response is, “Ha ha, that’s an understatement.”

“Despite having toured with her for almost a year I don’t think I know her much better, at least not on a personal level,” he writes. “We’re more relaxed and comfortable around each other, for sure. You could call it privacy, or mystery or whatever — I know a few isolated things about her upbringing, school, and her musical likes and dislikes — but it’s nice that there are always surprises, too. Mystery is not a bad thing for a beautiful, talented young woman (or man) to embrace. And she does it without seeming to be standoffish or distant.”

That talent for controlling her own narrative without alienating anybody has become, more or less, the crux of her essence and success as St. Vincent. In 2009, Clark told the New York Times that she likes “things that are unsettling.” Every subsequent profile, it seems, has extolled her ability to straddle two distinct identities, one warm and one profoundly unknowable. Her lyrics flirt with the candid and the esoteric without committing to either; a review of Strange Mercy lauded its “emotions that are as cryptic as they are genuine and affecting.” She creates a dystopia in the video for “Digital Witness,” then films a how-to clip demonstrating a soccer trick she learned in grade school for Rookie, a website for teen girls.

And when you interview her, the conversation is always good — she might tell you an unrelated story about her house in college, where a dead rat on the porch once left a visiting older sister weeping for her quality of life — even if she ends up picking the topics most of the time.

“I’ve learned a few things,” she says of her time in the public eye. “I realize this lovely conversation is artificial; [in a real conversation,] I wouldn’t talk about myself this much, I just wouldn’t. I also know that being too sarcastic or too self-effacing doesn’t translate in the press because it’s devoid of context. Sometimes journalists ask [female artists] more personal questions.” (The questions asked of Clark can get as personal as how much she weighs.)

“From the beginning of her career as St. Vincent, Annie Clark has succeeded in avoiding the confessional in her music,” says NPR pop critic Ann Powers. Clark is one of a select few slated to play NPR’s SXSW showcase in Austin next month. “This is not easy for a female artist — women in the arts are almost always assumed to be more naturally emotive than men, and less in control of what they produce. So it’s a huge accomplishment that St. Vincent [has] succeeded as a construct, and as one that still could hold emotion and deep meaning while still highlighting Clark’s mastery.”

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“You just have to have your own boundaries about things you’re willing to talk about and things you’re not willing to talk about,” Clark says. “Everybody has lives and heartbreaks and disappointments and great joys and all this stuff. But that’s what I put into the art. There’s an intimacy and a full commitment in the art that makes me feel like it could potentially do a disservice to the art. ‘Martha My Dear’ is about a dog. I wish I didn’t know that.”

The power Clark wields isn’t just relegated to her art; it resonates, among the people she works with, the people who write about her, and her fans. It’s such a strong force that when her commitment to boundaries is questioned, the blowback from her public is immediate: When a comedian condemned Clark’s refusal to discuss her love life on a recent podcast, for example, fans and journalists swiftly criticized the move as cruel and contemptuous, and within 48 hours of the podcast’s going live, it had been edited and re-uploaded, sans critique; in the following episode, the comedian apologized. (The same comedian wrote a feature about the guitarist a few years ago, a story that, though she’s quick to note no hard feelings, Clark says “kind of fit [me] into an agenda and [another] concept of the world, when we had sort of diametrically opposing ideas about the universe.”)

“To say one of the corniest things you can say about an artist, [Clark] is a storyteller,” says Ann Powers. “I am always curious to follow where her songs go, because they go farther than most by current artists in terms of creating worlds. . . . It takes the listener outside of herself, and I think that makes us less interested in Annie’s personal details, too; we want to go on the trip she’s charting, which is about dreaming and thinking big, not getting stuck in autobiography.”

“As St. Vincent, Annie has very much done this seemingly impossible thing of getting over the women-in-rock hump by being bulletproof; it’s allowed a post-gender freedom,” says Rookie music editor and frequent Voice contributor Jessica Hopper. Hopper has interviewed Clark (often the subject of agape “women in rock” trendpieces) many times since 2007. “And I think, in some regards, that was her mission: not to be the exception but to be the new rule.”

Everything you ever need to know about Annie Clark, the artist reckons in an email a week later from Europe, is already being sung by St. Vincent.

“There is so much autobiography contained within the songs that I don’t see the need to deflate them with the mundane,” she writes. “I’m not very interested in the ‘behind-the-scenes’ sacrifices at the altar of the god of content.”

Not that there’s much room in Clark’s schedule for a personal life even if she did want to spill her guts. Twelve-hour practices, all-day photo shoots, days of national and international press, and, presumably, sleep seemingly dominate her life. (Our two-hour conversation will be the only time we’ll be able to meet.) It’s been this way since at least 2011, she says, when she embarked on the Strange Mercy tour. From there, it was straight into Love This Giant and that tour; throughout that year and a half, she picked up the “experiences, images, ideas, and people” that became St. Vincent and came to life in longtime producer John Congleton’s studio back home in Dallas in the fall of 2013. If it were up to her — and for the most part, it is — this is how life would be all the time: consume art, make art, discuss art, perform art, repeat ad infinitum.

“I used to think, at some point, there would be one day when I would learn how to be a well-adjusted person with a home,” she says. (Her New York apartment, she says, is full of “deeply uncomfortable, horrifying art” — it’s the only thing she likes about it.) “But then I made peace with the fact that I’m not interested in that. I’m not excluding it for the future, but [right now] I would rather be making records.”

And at the moment, with a new label, different resources, solid sales (by the end of 2011, Strange Mercy had sold over 50,000 copies), and the potential for massive visibility (she’s now been on the Colbert Report twice, and has appeared on Gossip Girl, Comedy Central’s @Midnight, and friend Carrie Brownstein’s Portlandia), she’s gearing up to be able to do that for a long time — far longer than many of her ’00s indie-rock compatriots, anyway.

“To come from the world she’s come from and to be able to make four albums is almost unheard of nowadays,” says Adam Farrell, creative director at Loma Vista. Though now a part of her new label home, Farrell has worked with St. Vincent since her debut, formerly as vice president of creative and marketing at Beggars Group. “Annie fits perfectly with what we are trying to do as a record label. [She] is a unique talent and a vanguard across art and culture.”

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What’s more, Farrell says, Clark understands what her success means to the people who see her succeed.

“She’s inspiring to anyone, women and men both, and she knows that,” he says. “My seven-year-old daughter is obsessed with her. She saw the photos we took out in L.A. and, from that point on, called her the ‘rock-star lady Daddy works with.'”

“The first conversation I ever had with Annie, when I was potentially interested in becoming her agent, was the first of a series of very long phone calls that were absolutely a joy,” says David “Boche” Viecelli, president of indie touring agency Billions and senior partner at Lever and Beam, Clark’s management company. Boche, like Farrell, has also worked with the guitarist from the beginning. “She was so intelligent and expressive and inquisitive and everything about it just struck me as, ‘This is the kind of artist I want to work with.’ Now I think she’s learned what to pare away as unimportant and what to emphasize as the absolute essence of what she does.”

For her fourth album cycle (fifth, if you count Love This Giant) she’s wielding that essence and the power that’s come from boiling it down in a new way: to create a “stylized,” “intentional,” and “heavily referenced” experience that’s far more incisive than ever before. (Don’t call it her Ziggy Stardust, though; “I think it’s cohesive but I wouldn’t call it a concept album,” she says.) Perhaps in part thanks to her work with Byrne, she’s intentionally left most of her “orchestral” instrumentals behind, in favor of more angular guitar and synth distortions.

Songs like “Rattlesnake” — a naked communion with nature gone horribly awry — and “Huey Newton” — an Ambien-tripping encounter with the Black Panthers cofounder’s ghost — have basis in fact. But even the most banal lines — even, for example, when she sings her to-do list, “take out the garbage, masturbate,” on “Birth in Reverse” — are bathed in a science-fiction glow, an effect blown out with the help of Congleton and additional percussion by Dap-Kings’ Homer Steinweiss and Midlake’s McKenzie Smith. As Clark said in her announcement of the record earlier this year, St. Vincent is “a party record you could play at a funeral”: a characterization that, if multiple subsequent interviews are to be trusted, “sounds like myself.”

While most of St. Vincent was masterminded alone, her art direction was born of collaboration: a partnership, negotiated by Farrell, with Willo Perron.

“The indie vernacular is always marred with this kind of unintentional, laissez-faire, I-don’t-give-a-fuck [attitude]; it’s just a snapshot,” says Perron. “But in our conversations, we were like, ‘Let’s do something for that audience that’s super intentional.’ The performance, the look, everything thought through to minutiae. There’s a story, maybe not a narrative-narrative, but an aesthetic story, a through line.”

The pair exchanged a steady flow of cultural talismans and assembled a “visual bible” that has guided every artistic element of the newly reborn St. Vincent, from costumes and lighting to videos and, of course, the instantly iconic album art.

“I’m very drawn to symmetrical images, and I wanted to make sure that the cover conveyed a sense of power. That leads you down the rabbit hole of ‘What does power mean? What does that translate to? What does that look like?'” Clark says. “In this instance, it seemed as though power was in intentionality. So 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. 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.”

The result: an aesthetic Perron describes as “postmodern-meets-new-cult-leader,” a commanding new identity that takes cues from touchstones like Alejandro Jodorowsky’s shamanistic The Holy Mountain (she says she had no idea that Kanye West had picked up on the 1973 film around the same time); the angular, colorful Memphis furniture design movement of 1980s Milan; and (of course) old David Bowie YouTube clips. It’s more than a few jumps from the guitarist who wailed, “I don’t want to be a cheerleader no more” on her last record (and played a life-size ceramic doll in the corresponding “Cheerleader” video to boot).

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The art, as rehearsal showed, doesn’t disintegrate when it meets the outside air, either. With the help of lighting designer Susanne Sasic and throne architect Lauren Machen, that otherworldly aura is translated to the tour’s stage design. There’s little accompanying St. Vincent onstage other than Toko Yasuda, keyboardist Daniel Mintseris, and drummer Matt Johnson, but despite the minimal collection, she says, “everything you hear is made by a human.” That means while Mintseris is teasing horns and strings out of his keyboard, the synth tones are coming from Clark’s guitar pedals; and when Clark relinquishes her instrument for a melancholy throne lament, Yasuda assumes guitar-picking duties. And of course Annie-b Parson’s artfully stiff choreography — for which she mined her own past work designing routines for a fleet of guitar-strapped dancers on David Byrne and Brian Eno’s elaborate 2008 tour — fills each and every moment where Clark’s limbs are free of instrumental imperative (as well as many moments where they’re not).

“She wanted this show to be something powerful, and at the same time, something very supernatural,” says Parson, from whom Clark requested frequent notes at the ends of their long-winded rehearsals. “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.”

Of course, despite all the professional high-art talk, Clark’s still got a soft spot for the extemporaneous. (She’s a crowd-surfing, rip-soloing Dallas-to-New York rock guitarist, after all.) For all her refined tastes, she’s still using Netflix and a fourth-generation HBO Go password to binge on Scandal and True Detective. (“I love Matthew McConaughey now. He’s a Texas boy. There’s something comforting to me about his accent. The only thing I don’t like [about the show] is that the women are only prostitutes, nagging wives, or mistresses.”) She and Yasuda sometimes use Louis C.K.’s Louie theme song as a vocal warm-up. And the inspiration to bleach her hair came from The (“totally insane”) Bachelor: She took the plunge after watching recent contestant Sarah Herron leap off a 30-story building, despite a crushing fear of heights, to stay in the running. “She fucking did it!” Clark exclaims. “She faced her fear. The reasoning is questionable maybe, but she faced her fear, maybe for no good reason, but maybe it’s admirable. She had blond hair and I was like, I think I’m gonna go blonde. If she can [go] off a building, why not?”

Yet, true to her paradoxical nature, there’s still something profound about her more pedestrian endeavors. At one point, our conversation inexplicably turns to high school sports; when I explain how water polo is played, she responds, eyes wide in amused disbelief: “We distract ourselves from death in so many creative ways.”

A week after our meeting at the Standard, Clark and her band are on a very different stage. This one is in Tribeca, at design house Spring Studios, on the occasion of Diane von Furstenberg’s Fashion Week show. At the back of the runway, off to the side, St. Vincent and her trio occupy a small platform against a wild backdrop of black and white. It could have been the light before, but her hair — wild again — is definitely lavender at the roots now, and she’s traded her gold vinyl frock for a short black wrap dress. Instead, the models are in metallics; as they begin parading looks down the platform, the band opens up and plays a few songs as accompaniment to their strut. While most eyes are on the women sashaying past, Clark performs Parson’s choreography through the two or three songs that soundtrack the show, and at the end the models and von Furstenberg take their bows and dance to St. Vincent.

A few minutes after the show concludes, Clark and the band move to a larger stage in a members-only lounge, where high-threshold credit-card holders cluster to watch a live stream of the show projected on a white wall. Everyone is young and dressed as relevantly as possible; supermodel Coco Rocha is here. Now, as guests sip pink cocktails and regale each other with tales of Fashion Week shows past, St. Vincent and Co. rev up again, under deep blue and violet lights. There is no pink throne here tonight, but a small platform takes its place, and as St. Vincent moves back and forth between the edge of the stage and the back, she and her bandmates perform their robotic choreography just as methodically as they did at rehearsal.

Only now there’s a spark in Clark’s angular joints. Where the robotic moves were truly dead-eyed as she trained, that dance seems just slightly bigger, pumped with the kind of understated adrenaline that historically has preceded fearless leaps into crowds. Of course she doesn’t jump, but as she gazes out into the sea of cocktail dresses and tailored blazers, many of whom have probably never heard of St. Vincent, her eyes flicker.

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tUnE-yArds, PJ Harvey, and St. Vincent Get Physical

Merrill Garbus had to get over being stared at this year. “I’m amazed at my capacity to look at myself in pictures and see myself on YouTube and not do to myself mentally what I used to do,” she said in November. But if Garbus proved anything in 2011, it’s that she’s able to plow past her insecurities when faced with a larger mission. Like a motherfucker. “Women . . . need to see a woman doing more on her own [and] being really weird and bizarre and loud.” Thanks to w h o k i l l, the 39th Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll #1 album, lots of women (and men, too!) saw and heard Garbus doing exactly this, but you know, virtuosically. More than any artist this year, male or female, Garbus reinserted the body back into body politic, crafting a feral feminist manifesto that refused to bow to the binaries framing pop discussions about gender, sexuality, and power.

“I gotta do right if my body is tight, right?” At the end of each verse of “Es-So,” Garbus’s voice splits into two to ask this question, a sharp bit of soft psychosis masquerading as self-help and a stark shift from the soulful, high coo surrounding it. But she doesn’t stop at body image; she aims much higher. Think of the song’s title as both a play on Esso, the trade name for Exxon Mobil, and “is so,” a statement of assumed fact implying “Of course, that’s the way things are.” When she confesses, “I run over my body with my own car,” she parallels the junk we put in our bodies with the war-starting crude shit that powers our automobiles.

Equal to its political force, pop music has always been about the human body: its capacities to create music, to register and display the effects of that music, and its sui generis potential to narrate all of this while it happens. 2011 indeed was a remarkable year for the pop body in all of its beautiful, ugly, complex, and grotesque forms. w h o k i l l might be the best of the bunch, but Garbus has contemporaries who crafted career highlights out of the corporeal. PJ Harvey both has and hasn’t come a long way since daring a lover to rub it until it bleeds nearly two decades ago. On the stunning Let England Shake, which finished a strong second to w h o k i l l, Harvey floats over the English battlefields of the 20th century’s first Great War, reframing her penchant toward unflinching accounts of bodily extremes to address the blunt impact of political conflict. Less expressly political but not lacking in force was Strange Mercy, on which Annie Clark forcefully challenges the archetype that her demure physical appearance suggests by finally perfecting the self-reflexive form of musical theater she has created as St. Vincent.

While Harvey, Clark, and Garbus pushed ideas of the body in new directions, and Occupy Wall Street’s human microphone displayed the capacity of lungs and larynxes alone to circumvent public noise regulations, the most prominent musical narratives were marked by more traditional tropes. Adele’s curvy frame and Beyoncé’s “baby bump” (is there a less humane phrase for a nascent human?) were translated into evidence of these ladies’ ostensible “realness,” while upstart chanteuse Lana Del Rey’s noticeably engorged upper lip was given as state’s evidence to the contrary. It took the cocky come-on “I guess that cunt gettin’ eaten'” to elevate the pigtailed Harlem rapper Azealia Banks to her first taste of stardom after years of label limbo. When she wasn’t paralleling her heartbeat to a dude’s trunk rattle on “Super Bass,” Nicki Minaj was detailing the myriad virtues of her own lady parts. Then there was the fashionable misogyny of Kanye West and Tyler, the Creator—the former joined in his gothic mansion by many dead models dangling from chains in the long-delayed video for “Monster,” while the latter unleashed his goulish, boyish id on Goblin, which detailed, among other things, the pleasures inherent in punching pregnant women.

Then there was this line, which topped them all: “I’ve seen bodies fall like lumps of meat/Blown and shot out beyond belief/Arms and legs were in the trees.” This terrifyingly mundane account of war, which could have been drawn from a soldier’s journal at any time over the past five centuries, is perhaps the most powerful single lyric of 2011, delivered by PJ Harvey in her highest vocal register and buffeted by a ghostly autoharp on “The Words That Maketh Murder.” Let England Shake might end with a moving ethnographic portrayal of Iraq’s more recent life during wartime, but the album needs little current context to register powerfully. England poetically captures a visceral reality that applies to all armed conflicts: They are waged not only between competing ideologies of nation-states but also between human bodies and the technologies we design to destroy them.

Harvey’s 10th album is notable for exposing the bodies we don’t see. Her words ring so true because the imagery—limbs dangling from trees, verdant European hills sown with the blood of young boys, the smell of rotting flesh covered over by thyme—lists the human remains that are carefully cut from war nostalgia. Official accounts of war are about validating and protecting life, not the decomposing corpses left in the wake of battle. Yet Harvey cuts England‘s stark reality with an aching sense of beauty—even wonder—at what she opens herself to. She splashes and laughs in the fountain of death, finding a morbid poetry amid the brutality of war.

“Bodies, can’t you see what everybody wants from you?” Annie Clark wondered on “Cruel,” a fitting obituary for a year in which bodies were pulled in every direction at once, for pleasure and pain, life and death. Clark’s word choice is strategic: She’s addressing not sentient beings (or “My Country,” as Garbus does), but the assemblages of flesh and bone that are prone to inhuman actions. On “Surgeon,” Strange Mercy becomes a salacious soap-opera hospital, and the invasiveness of surgery is conflated with the act of lovemaking. The song starts off dreamily, as if succumbing to a local anaesthetic, before building to the sort of orgasmic climax for which Prince should get residuals. Clark’s repeated plea “Best finest surgeon, come cut me open” could emanate from a desperately injured person or one seeking a tabula rasa for her outward appearance.

Yet it remains. Even the smartest critics were taken aback by the sight of Clark’s tiny frame slashing through Big Black’s “Kerosene” at the Mercury Lounge in May, recasting its dark, nebbish machismo as something they didn’t have language for, as if the Y chromosome alone contains the predisposition to fucking shred. In their own virtuosic manner, Garbus’s remarkable live performances extend her body’s built-in capacities with a simple loop pedal, collaging her own utterances to create an organic funk foundation with a fiercely primal urgency—the tribal face paint doesn’t feel like an affectation.

w h o k i l l is at its most compelling when Garbus unleashes her most primal desires—the “jungle under my skin,” as she calls it—particularly those that don’t jibe with stereotypical understandings of bodily empowerment. On the sultry slow jam “Powa,” she confesses her preference for ceding control in the bedroom, punctuated with the confession “my man likes me from behind,” before collapsing into a gorgeous orgasmic wail. She one-ups even this on “Riotriot,” admitting an erotic attraction to the Oakland cop she watched handcuff her brother. It’s a quietly stunning moment to hear an artist, especially a woman, so bluntly admit the most repressed form of desire: that which arises when encountering a source of power well beyond your control.

Garbus opens w h o k i l l by speaking truth to state power. By nicking the first two lines of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee,” she twists that song’s claim—that America is made up of sacrificed human bodies—by boldly asking, like Harvey, if that’s necessarily a good thing. As tribal drums layer atop one another, Garbus extends the metaphor of country as human, acknowledging her discomfort in her native land’s embrace, its misdeeds in her name too egregious to overlook. She can’t see a future within America’s arms, but Garbus’s own body politic will incorporate anyone. Most importantly, sacrificing one’s body isn’t required. The only rite of citizenship is answering in the affirmative to the question Garbus is known for yelling out in concert: “Do you wanna LIVE?!”

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Signs of St. Vincent’s Success

Annie Clark is too perfect a rock star, but she will do. She has the china doll features of a pop star. She is put-together and glamorous. For all her effort, she looks effortless. She’s delicate and refined. She’s beautiful, and you can tell she is used to being looked at and watched, as if she has been famous long before now.

Looking at her offstage, you imagine she should be doing something else, not staying up late with a guitar slung round her back and commanding a band into loud swells of her own design. It seems like the wrong job for her hands. She seems more coquettish than rock and roll as she’s curled up on the couch backstage before her show in her emerald dress.

When Annie Clark gets onstage as St. Vincent, her image is mere collateral. What fixes your gaze to her is the confidence, the ease, and the naturalness she exudes. You cannot imagine she was meant for anything else but stomping around the stage, coaxing new noise from her guitar, her eyes surveying the sold-out crowd. She solos; they scream.

“I’m not qualified to do anything else,” she says, sounding a little concerned—as if she had been browsing Craigslist ads for admin positions while casting about for a post-Berklee-dropout Plan B. “I didn’t think I needed it. Which sounds insane now, when I say it aloud.”

It’s not. It’s only reasonable. Clark’s third record, Strange Mercy, is her best and most pop album. The signs of her success are ample. For one thing, Mercy sold 20,000 copies in its first week of release. Still, she is modest, or at least presents as the earnest anti-diva—”It would be interesting to know exactly how many people have heard my songs,” she says. Her guess: “Like, 100,000?” Perhaps that would be the case if everyone who’d bought a copy of her last few albums had kept them entirely for themselves, she’d never toured, filesharing didn’t exist, and her songs weren’t presently all over radio and the blogosphere.

With Strange Mercy, Clark moves closer to her audience, lowers the transom a bit. On her previous two albums, Marry Me (2007) and Actor (2009), it was hard to tell what, if anything, was personal. Her debut seems to be made up of vignettes and stories. She cited “Pirate Jenny” and Nick Cave as her inspirations for its theatricality. It seemed the work of someone eager to impress—to show off, even. Actor, purportedly a tribute to Clark’s favorite films, resulted in Clark rhapsodizing over Woody Allen’s work as much as explaining her own. She says of her progress as a songwriter since: “I care less about impressing. Well . . . maybe. It’s no longer about trying impress people with my wit.”

Audiences want confessional bits from rock icons and expect them from female singer-songwriters. Clark doesn’t give them up easily, but Strange Mercy is being called “candid.” The singer is still cagey, though there is discernibly more of her on here. Was it intentional?

“Was I trying to be candid? Hmm.” She munches an apple and considers what to say. “I want to give you answers, but I am also aware this is to be printed in a magazine, so I’m at a bit of an impasse. But I don’t want to give you a rote answer, though that rote answer is quite true. There are songs here that are very, actually, candid. But I won’t say which those are.”

Although she hemmed over making her art more personal, the candor came naturally, which she characterizes as scary. She didn’t have as much time or ability to dress up or intellectualize what was coming out of her, so some songs remained as visceral as they were when initially written. “2010 was a rough year. Tough stuff. Rough time. When life was actually hard, I had less time to wring my hands about music. It got to be what it should be, a great thing—a replenishing thing.” She adds, apologetically, “Not to use a spa word.”

Much has been made of the album closer “Chloe In The Afternoon,” which is somewhere between “Afternoon Delight” and Anaïs Nin, lyrically; it depicts soft sadism with a girl in a hotel room. Is Clark put off by how this one song has resulted in people calling Strange Mercy “sexual”? “It’s not like I should have called the record ‘Get Down to Fuckin,'” she laughs. “I think people focus on something like that because it’s titillating.” Given that female performers often have their work sexualized, regardless of whether their work is sexual or not, was she hesitant to make a song so blatantly erotic? “I was more reluctant to write a song about that power/sex/domination trifecta, that murky water where it all swims around together,” she says. “That felt more complicated than it being about something sexual.”

If there is a theme to be found on Strange Mercy, it involves dissolving an identity, or another person’s idea of that identity. Clark’s modesty is belied by her awareness of and use of her own image—as a beautiful woman, as a gossamer shredder of skill and confidence, as a woman in charge of her career, as popular singer of pop songs. She knows what she is working with. She understands the machinations of fame, of why her audience likes (and loves) her; she is careful but solicitous enough with the press that pokes at her. “I have one answer for you if the tape record is on, and another if it’s off,” she says when asked about her awareness of her own image. “That’s my answer there.”

Still, Clark says she feels like a fraud much of the time. “It’s complicated to exist in the world—everyone feels that, whether or not you have a modest amount of notoriety,” she says. “I was reading this Miranda July piece in The New Yorker, and it ends with a line about how feeling like an adult also means feeling like a fraud. I think if anyone has any kind of self-awareness, they’ve felt like a fraud—with other people or in relationships. I feel that way. And maybe it’s more powerful to put that out there. To just own that, then to keep being, like, ‘Watch me sing and dance, I’ve got all the bases covered, don’t worry.'”

The singer’s measured control seems to keep her from truly letting it all (or, even, some of it) hang out. She credits her politeness to her mother, whom she describes as a saint, and to her cultural inheritance as a Texan. She says she learned the value of professionalism from her aunt and uncle, the folk duo Tuck & Patti, whom she toured with as a teen. “It’s not the ’80s or the ’90s anymore; it’s not a gravy train,” she says of the music business. “If you want to have a career for a long time, you need to act right. I know it’s counterintuitive to the whole rock ‘n’ roll thing, but I have never acted like I was a person who was so great and unimpeachably great that I could afford to be an asshole to people, nor would I want to be. I take it seriously.”

To be a rock star, a real rock star achieved and bona fide, involves more than just charisma, or good songs, or talent (talent usually least of all). One must be a capable player and have an appealing image—and, perhaps, most of all, a clear confidence that one deserves to be in front of an audience. In that regard, Annie Clark is a natural-born rock star; she just happens to be working below the arena radar. She doesn’t disagree. “There are plenty of things I am not confident about, but this I can do.”

St. Vincent plays Webster Hall on November 3

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St. Vincent

Former Sufjan and Polyphonic Spree guitarist Annie Clark’s spidery indie pop was markedly less self-indulgent on 2009’s widely beloved Actor than on her debut, Marry Me. This seemingly bodes well for her eagerly anticipated Strange Mercy, which drops September 13. But, whoops, then you’ve also got last month’s elaborate Twitter-fueled unveiling of the lead single, “Surgeon,” an unhinged kegger of guitar and synth overdubs that feels a bit like Trent Reznor lending Cyndi Lauper his taste for adventure. A bit over the top, but there’s just no reasoning with the sorts of people who book rooftop gigs on top of the Met, is there?

Thu., Aug. 25, 6:30 p.m., 2011

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St. Vincent+tUnE-YaRds+Basia Bulat

Why have Lilith Fair ticket sales been plummeting? Because in 2010, the real patchouli-scented sirens of the summer festival season are the oddball instrumentalists St. Vincent, tUnE-YaRds, and Basia Bulat. St. Vincent (a/k/a Annie Clark) is known for her dramatic love songs almost as much as her good looks, while Montreal solo artist tUnE-YaRds concocts seriously feral folk out of her “get people’s attention or die” mantra. Acting her part, Basia Bulat might be the flaxen-haired perpetuator of the auto harp, but she remains more Johanna Newsom than Indigo Girl.

Sun., Aug. 1, 3 p.m., 2010

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St. Vincent

You’ve gotta hand it to Annie Clark. At best, the pale Brooklynite’s music is as lithe and spaced-out as she appears in her promo photos, her voice submerged under the swirl of music like the best shoegaze. Her crazed chorales also recall neo-psych such as Animal Collective (whom she’s a fan of). Also, under the sonic murk, she does have a lithe set of tunes to match. Part of her pay-off is this sold out show is part of Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series.

Fri., Jan. 29, 8:30 p.m., 2010

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St. Vincent

How does she make it sound so easy? Multi-instrumentalist Annie Clark is no stranger to crowds—she’s a veteran guitarist for the Polyphonic Spree, Glenn Branca, and Sufjan Stevens—but she’s twice as engrossing solo as St. Vincent. Her 2007 debut, Marry Me, was the steel of record that singer-songwriters twice her age cannot accomplish, a musicianship marvel of convoluted, endlessly confident baroque-tinged rock. This month’s follow-up, Actor, ups the catchy dance ambition and then undercuts it with mordant wit and furious dynamic shifts. Oh, Annie, I think I love you. And to be this good, you must be mad. With Pattern Is Movement.

Wed., May 20, 8 p.m., 2009

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St. Vincent

Indie-pop heroine Annie Clark could’ve easily started her career as Annie Clark. It already sounds like a snappy stage name. But the Scary Monsters devotee went straight into Thin White Duchess territory: St. Vincent it is, and the duality fits. A virtuoso guitarist in the mold of a vintage Hollywood red carpet icon, she opens her Martian eyes wide while slyly murdering, mashing, and maiming the fools at the center of her songs. “I’ll make you sorry,” she coos, sweetly.

Thu., July 10, 7 p.m., 2008

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Admit You Want to Marry St. Vincent

In the back alcove of the Music Hall of Williamsburg, in the tiers of rotgut-stained bleachers, the lazy people squint. Reedy, bundled necks crane arduously, trying to defy physics and glimpse the stage below. Finally, a young guy in a white vest stands to stare; his lady companion, a dour, over-accessorized blonde, pulls his sleeve and barks, “Is she cute?”

Choose your words carefully, pal.

He pauses for stupidly long. Under the spotlights, Annie Clark, a/k/a St. Vincent, is an adorable, mystical little pixie, spastically stabbing frets and wriggling her gamine frame nearly out of a green silk dress. She and her equally waifish backing band meander in the feminist prog-rock squall of opener “Now Now” until the polite pop chorus calls them inside for dinner. She is young (25), and skilled at making an entire room pubescent and crush-prone again. Maybe it’s unintentional. Probably not.

“No, she’s not cute,” Whipped Cream says weakly. He sits.

Just as well: Clark has enough lovelorn men to contend with on that polar Thursday night. The erstwhile Polyphonic Spree guitarist (and former soldier in Sufjan Stevens’s touring colossus) certainly looks the part of a Stereogum Indie-Rock Hottie, but her stage show is less striking—she dilutes both the serrated and serene moments of her nervy 2007 solo debut, Marry Me, in her band’s mid-tempo squall, her throaty, hiccupping lilt dueling with bossy electric violin. She is unfailingly enthusiastic, a Brooklyn native jazzed to finally sleep in her own frigid loft again, but the evening is nonetheless a weirdly static adaptation of a Byzantine record, a performance timid at its core in spite of her charm. It gradually makes Clark appear younger than her years, no longer a sincere spirit but someone crouching inside commotion. Maybe her stint with the sixtysomething-member Spree conditioned her to seek quantity at the expense of quality; even her solo rendition of “Dig a Pony” loses itself in scabrous distortion.

The night’s only concept of “soft” comes in the first stanzas of “All My Stars Aligned,” Marry Me‘s most tortured track. It’s a fantastic portrait of disillusionment, and as Clark slides in delicately (“I set all my false alarms/So I’ll be someone/Who won’t be forgotten”), her voice quavers, dissolves, and takes some time in cobbling itself back together again. Whether or not that too is unintentional, it’s still a perfect moment, revealing Clark as kin to any twentysomething woman: drifting aimlessly, anxiously inventing, uneasily sizing up anyone who might just have it better. Maybe having fun doing it. It’s a bummer that Clark can achieve this effect but not yet control it: Nothing tonight proves as suspenseful as that sight of a boyfriend’s life flashing before his eyes.