Within a warren of former TV studios in an ungentrified Berlin district with bare cobbles and graffiti, Annie Clark is tweaking her live set. The artist known as St Vincent is filming in what was the base of the former East German state broadcasting company.
It is a jaw-dropping, wood-panelled space, capable of hosting a full orchestra – yet Clark’s slight figure is comfortably the centre of attention. Not only is she fronting a minimal, three-piece backing band, but her use of choreography – a recent addition to her live show – means that you are transfixed.
This is just another leg of a hectic promotional jag in the lead up to the release of her fourth, eponymous album that has the frisson of a game-changer. A New York-based art-rock protagonist, Clark has won critical plaudits and a growing number of fans since her 2007 debut, Marry Me – though the stark emotional openness and rhythmic pulse of her latest work should find wider interest.
St Vincent tellingly opens with the alarming “Rattlesnake”, which features Clark wandering naked in the desert – though the most direct emotional clarity comes with the filial affection of “I Prefer Your Love”. Sitting in a Soho private-members club the morning before, the 31-year-old explains that greater transparency was a key aim, something partly inspired by Miles Davis’s autobiography. “He said that the hardest thing for a musician to do is to sound like yourself – and I think that’s true. That’s really the end goal, to have a voice that’s purely your own.
“I’ve said before that I wanted to make a party record you could play at a funeral,” Clark says of St Vincent. “I wanted it to have the groove and accessibility of dance music, but also have the pathos and empathy. That was the criteria for every song: it may sound cool, but does it have a heartbeat? Nothing got past the smell taste without that.”
With a new major label-supported deal adding higher expectations, Clark is taking the pressure well (despite her dyed grey hair). She is a guarded interviewee, careful of letting slip details of her private life, but thoughtful – long pauses usually leading to informative answers. As when we turn to on-stage choreography, an intriguing step for a musician known for her stunning guitar sound – not just an accompaniment to her songs, but crunching riffs and solos that often steal the show.
The introduction of jerky moves for both Clark and her band stems from two inspirations. Firstly, when touring her third album, 2011’s Strange Mercy, she found herself moving more on stage. This then fed into her collaboration a year later with former Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, on the brass-based album Love This Giant – itself inspiring a live show with a dancing band. “I didn’t really get the chance to be choreographed in that show, so I felt a bit left out,” she giggles. “I’d started stage-diving and generally inhabiting the space a bit more, stretching out as a performer.”
Clark has maintained her relationship with the contemporary dance choreographer Annie-B Parson, who has worked with Byrne since his 2008 tour with Brian Eno. She has also been inspired to make her music more danceable. “I wouldn’t point to specific musical things, because David and I have distinct voices,” the artist says. “It wasn’t so much about process or musicianship – but he’s very fearless and insatiably creative. Playing the Love This Giant shows, where there was an undercurrent of real joy and where people were inspired to get up and dance, affected me; it was powerful to feel a part of something very communal.”
So Clark has sought to bring similar rhythmic sensibilities into this work, something most apparent on the jerky funk of the album’s first single, “Digital Witness”, a skewering of online over-sharing, and the effervescent “Birth in Reverse”. While Clark proclaims herself a fan of funksters Parliament and The Meters, she has also been listening to more esoteric material, notably the Turkish folk singer Selda Bagcan. She also admits to “going back down memory lane” to her formative experiences, such as with rock giants Pantera and David Bowie, an artist whose history is enmeshed with the German capital.
Clark tangentially alludes to its history on the dreamy album track “Prince Johnny”, in which she remembers that they “snorted that piece of the Berlin Wall”. In truth, the singer is more respectful of the city’s past – though she has no need to seek inspiration in distant places. Having amassed jottings and musical sketches, usually while on tour, she wrote much of and recorded St Vincent in Austin, Texas, last February, primarily to escape the New York winter. “I’ve never been particularly superstitious about place or setting when writing. I come more from the school that I imagine Nick Cave to be in. Just put on a suit and tie and get to work every day.”
When not touring, Clark divides her time between New York and Texas, the state where she was raised. A precocious music fan, she was arguing the primacy of Steely Dan at the age of eight, before the impact of Nirvana and Pearl Jam a couple of years later made music her life. In her teens, Clark was sent to work on tour with her aunt and uncle, the jazz duo Tuck & Patti. Much of her uncle’s advice has set her in good stead over the ensuing years. “He’s a very shy person and I was very shy and he just said, ‘pretend like you’re not [shy]’ – which sounds like an odd thing to say, but it really helped. Then you become that person.”
And it is that person who a select group catch in Berlin, mounting a rickety-looking pile of rostrum blocks for the next stage in her musical journey: connecting with audiences, while keeping her distance.
St Vincent’s self-titled album is out now on Loma Vista/Caroline International