Interview with Annie Clark
Prior to her performance at Dark Mofo in Tasmania last Friday, Greg Phillips caught up with Annie Clark on the phone for an exclusive interview.
Charting the progress of any successful artist, there’s a point in the graph which indicates a moment of real significance. For Annie Clark, aka St Vincent that moment is now. Sure, Clark has already delivered 5 albums under her own name, one collaboration with David Byrne and had a great deal of success in the last decade but there’s a sense that with her current album Masseduction and the associated Fear For The Future tour, that the global St Vincent vibe has kicked up a notch. The show, which has just played Vivid in Sydney and Dark Mofo in Hobart, is presently one of the most acclaimed, must-see performances in the world. As a consequence of her artistic credibility, major movie companies are now wanting to tap into Annie’s unique, wonderful creative spirit too by inviting her to direct their feature films, such as Lionsgate’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray, due to begin production next year. Additionally, in an era where guitar gymnastics have become passé, replaced by a more inventive, experimental, approach to the guitar, whether she knows it or not, St Vincent has become somewhat of a modern day guitar hero.
The folks at Ernie Ball Music Man were quick to recognise that fact in 2016 when they worked together with Clark to design her own signature model guitar. This month more models of the signature guitar were released, featuring new colours; Charcoal Sparkle, Blue Dawn and Sea Breeze (See our video preview of the models from Winter NAMM in January). The original signature guitar even featured Annie’s own, hand-mixed colour, St Vincent Blue. It was an element of the design process she enjoyed immensely.
“It’s so fun!” she says of the colour mixing process. “I mean you have to put on the mask and the gloves (laughs) or else you will pass out. There’s a big intersection of guitar colours and classic car colours. I kinda wanted it to look like a vintage corvette or something.” While the colours were important to Annie, they were only part of the focus of the design as a whole. “I think the most important parts were probably the neck feel, making sure the design was really cool, and that it was comfortable and lightweight,” she adds.
For the record, the Ernie Ball Music Man St. Vincent signature guitars now feature premium roasted maple necks with rosewood, ebony or maple fretboards with two pick up configurations, including three Dimarzio mini-humbuckers or the all-new custom-designed Ernie Ball Music Man dual humbucking pickups. Both feature a 5-way pickup selector for a unique offering of tonal options. The SV guitars are available in St. Vincent Blue (the aforementioned hand-mixed colour by Clark), Tobacco Burst, Polaris White and Stealth Black, and now for 2018 in Charcoal Sparkle, Blue Dawn and Sea Breeze.
For any guitarist, being honoured with your own signature model by a major guitar brand is a career highlight. However, signature model guitars didn’t really appear on Clark’s radar until she used one on her debut album. “I first really got into a signature guitar when I played a lot of the Thurston Moore Fender (Jazzmaster) on the St Vincent self titled record,” she tells me. “I really liked that but probably from the David Byrne tour on, I was playing the Ernie Ball Albert Lee guitar, which was very cool. I more or less fell in love with that guitar and that was the first time I’d played Ernie Ball guitars. That really opened the door to first, a friendship with the Ernie Ball team and then I designed my own guitar with them. Now my guitar is the only electric guitar that I play. And Sterling (Ball) is so wonderful, he is such a character. He is funny and family … it really is a family company and basically I am one of the family at this point, which I love. I love having things like that”
Working with a guitar you are comfortable is one thing but to have at your disposal an instrument totally created to your own specifications must be a huge creative bonus. How different would be it working with your own designed guitar as opposed to maybe pulling a Strat or Les Paul off a wall and working with that? It’s a question I put to Annie.
“Strats and Les Pauls are great classic guitars but they really vary from guitar to guitar,” she offers after a contemplative pause. “Sure, there are some inspiring Strats and some inspiring Les Pauls but not just one that you pick up off the wall at a guitar store. Usually newer stuff is not inspired. With my guitar I can pick it up and still be excited about the design … the retro, future style and I get excited by all the little details. Even the tone knobs … they are triangular. We took everything about a guitar and thought, what is it currently and does it have to be like that? If the answer was no, then there’s no functional reason why this needs to be this shape or this way. I just thought, well great, let’s rethink it. I love playing my guitar. It’s really friendly. Some guitars are like well made suits, they make you look better than you are sometimes. They make you look good… a well designed guitar makes you look good and you play up to it.”
Would Masseduction have been a much different album without your signature guitar? “I don’t know because I honestly don’t know what guitar would have been my go-to,” she states. “I think I would have been constantly fishing around and in that way, I think I would have lost some force of inspiration just because I was hunting for the right guitar on every single song. In this case I could just pick it up and it is perfect.”
Clark views her signature model guitar as a work in progress and looks for to continuing the relationship with the Ernie Ball Music Man team. She already has some new design ideas in mind. “We have a great first couple of models which will get to evolve. Hopefully we’ll get a lefty version and get a bass in there too. I think the scale of it and everything would be great to make a bass out of.”
Being Ernie Ball family doesn’t end with just the guitar either, Annie has been a longtime user of their popular Slinkys range of guitar strings as well. In regard to recording guitar parts, musicians generally come into two categories; those who like to use fresh new strings for a bright sound or those who prefer a well worn in set of strings. Annie associates more with the latter. “Well I think my strings were pretty worn in when I was recording … I didn’t change them!” she says with a laugh. “I have been playing with Ernie Ball Slinkys since … I mean my uncle plays those, he’s a great guitar player, Tuck Andress (of Tuck and Patti fame). So it wasn’t even a question with him, it was like, you’re going to play Ernie Ball Slinkys!”
There was a time in rock and pop music history when faster and longer seemed almost de rigueur in regard to guitar parts in songs. However, If you listen to the radio currently, you would note that the role of guitar in contemporary music is changing dramatically. It’s now more about textured sounds, heavily effected, layered guitars, to the point that you may not even know that the sounds you are hearing are from a guitar. Of course there are always going to be rock bands featuring traditional guitar solos and riffs but you’re not going to hear a lot of that over the airwaves, not at the moment anyway. St Vincent is certainly one of the agents of change in that regard. Her unique, creative approach to her guitar is a large part of her music’s appeal. “Yeah, I think we’re kind of inventing and reinventing it,” is her response to the topic. “Things will come in cycles. Twenty years ago popular music was all about guitar. Now things are more beat driven. With this record I was hoping to make things like programmed beats which were not so far off from the hip hop world and conjoin it with guitar and see what happens. I think the main things is that people need to be creative with their approach to guitars and approach to guitar in song.”
St Vincent’s current album Masseduction was released in October 2017 and while she has certainly been writing, her busy schedule has not allowed the time to make any real decisions or concrete plans about locking in another one. “Yes I have been writing but I haven’t had a chance to sit down and write another record. I’ve been working on a couple of films, producing some records for other people, writing … really I’ve been all over the map. I just made a children’s record with my aunt and uncle, Tuck and Patti. I don’t think I can say yet who I am producing but I am getting a lot more into producing, which I love. I have a couple of remixes coming out that I did. I was nerding out in the studio making beats and it was really fun.”
Being such an imaginative soul in relation to the sound and vision of her recordings and shows, I wondered if she agonises over lyrics and sits with them for a long time…
“Yeah I do,“ Annie says without hesitation. “I know some people don’t listen to lyrics at all … I have recently found this out … but for me, if I am listening to a song and I am liking everything about it, the singer, the beat … a song can live and die by bad lyrics. A bad lyric for me can take me out of a song completely, so yeah, I agonise over the words.”
Like many songwriters, Annie’s inspiration can come from anywhere. For example, other artists that she is listening to. “Anything I hear eventually goes in and will come out in one way or another. You can’t help but do that.” She’s also a hoarder of ideas. “Hard drives for thoughts and ideas, voice memos and notes. I have such bad memory, if I didn’t things might be just completely in the ether forever,” she says of her creative process before make a concluding point. “I think more than anything, I just try to write the best songs that I possibly can. At the end of the day it really does come down to the songs and songs that people can see themselves in.”
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