It’s pretty rare for a bona fide guitar-nut—we’re talking Berklee College of Music-level guitar-a-holic—to rack up interviews on NPR, rave reviews from indie music mags like NME and
Pitchfork, and guest appearances on the IFC’s hit comedy Portlandia.
But Annie Clark, the singer/guitarist who performs under the name
St. Vincent, isn’t your typical guitar geek. In fact, she’s sort of a guitar
hero for people who hate the whole idea of guitar-hero worship.
If that last statement—as well as the revelation that Clark dropped
out of Berklee in her third year—inspires you to roll your eyes and
start skipping to the next feature faster than you can mutter, “Oh,
she’s one of those artsy ‘indie’ guitarists,” you owe it to yourself to
visit You Tube and check out her harmonically captivating and ultra-badass playing first. Go ahead—we’ll wait (we’ve even pointed out
some highlights for you in the “You Tube It” sidebar on p. 126).
Back? Okay, now that you’ve witnessed Ms. Clark and her vintage Harmony Bobkat conjuring mesmerizing hammer-on riffs and
corpulent 6-string glory, let’s delve into the delicious details. Like
how her uncle, Tuck Andress (from the jazz duo Tuck & Patti),
inspired her to consider a career in music. Or how the multi-instrumentalist’s love of harmony, Steely Dan, and Iron Maiden culminated in the rich compositional tapestry that has made this 29-year-
old from Dallas, Texas, one of the most talked-about renaissance
women in modern music. Or how her new album, Strange Mercy,
was at No. 19 on the US charts at press time.
We recently spoke to Clark about all these things, as well as
her reasons for quitting music school, her complex-yet-liberating
MIDI-controlled pedalboard, and her thoughts on guitardom’s
I LEFT SCHOOL TO BE IN A ROCK BAND. I WAS JUST, LIKE,
“I’m through studyIng thIs thIng.” And no one
hAs Asked me, EVER, to see A college degree.
What first got you into playing guitar?
I was obsessed with it from a pretty young
age. I was, like, 5 years old and saw La
Bamba—the Ritchie Valens story—and
I was captivated by that, and then I just
started playing when I was 12. My uncle is
an amazing guitar player, and we had some
of his old guitars around. I was big into
classic rock—Jethro Tull and these more
guitar-y bands—and I thought, “I want to
do that—I want to know how they’re getting those sounds.”
You probably get questions about Tuck
all the time, but how instrumental was he
in you getting hooked on guitar?
They were on tour forever—from, like, ’ 88
to ’ 96. So, he was this distant figure who I
didn’t see very often but who was a famous
musician. I’d see him maybe once every
two years, but I think even just having his
spectral presence around was really powerful, because I saw him and thought, “Oh, I
could do that.”
Who were some of the first guitarists that
you remember really getting into?
Probably the really obvious ones—Hendrix
… the Doors … I really liked Jethro Tull
… I really, really, really loved Steely Dan.
To have that kind of harmony in your ears
from a really young age—I mean, Steely
Dan was my favorite band from age 8 until
… well, I just saw them two nights ago
here in New York!
Were you more into the bands as a whole
or the guitar playing?
I was into the bands as a whole. I was really
into lyrics and melodies. But some of the
solos on the Steely Dan records are rock-solid. Denny Dias and Larry Carlton …
that stuff is great.
You eventually went to Berklee College of
Music. Did you study in the guitar program?
Yes, I was a guitar major.
Even though you left after three years, how
important would you say that whole expe-
rience—the studying, the interaction, and
the stepping away from it—were to your
journey as a musician and songwriter?
I think I got a bit more knowledge of har-
mony—or at least I could put names to the
harmonies that I already had in my ears. But
the way in which an institution can teach
art is not necessarily the way I like to experi-
ence art. I mean, they have to do things like
have grades and have this codified way of
experiencing things, and that’s not the whole
picture. A lot of people can get caught up
in getting the best scores on a guitar exam,
and they can be technically very good gui-
tar players or instrumentalists, but there’s a
difference between athleticism and artistry.
The best place is where those two things can
really meet. But the school can’t teach you
anything about how to be an artist—they can
teach you how to be an athlete. School inad-
vertently made everything competitive, and
made music—which is so powerful and so
joyful—completely analytical. That’s not how
I want to experience it, and that’s not how I
want to make it, either. I can go there, but it’s
not that fun.
So you felt like they were making you
study the soul out of the music?
Yeah. They’re not going to have a class on
the soul of music. But, actually, I would
go to school if there were some kind of
cosmological class—like, “The universe
resonates on a B%.” That would be amazing to me. Or, something about, like, the
first sound in the universe being very low,
but if you pitch it up many, many octaves,
it would be a root pitch with some other
note that’s in between major and minor. If
there was something like that, that would
Despite what you’ve said about formal
music education, are you glad you went to
Berklee? And was there a final straw that
made you say, “That’s it—I’m out of here”?
[Long pause.] No, I left school to be in a
rock band. I was just, like, “I’m through
studying this thing.” And no one has asked
me, ever, to see a college degree.
Like, “Let me make sure you’re qualified
to play this club … ”
[Laughs.] Exactly. It’s like, “That guitar
sounds pretty good, but … I don’t know—
there’s no diploma attached to it.”