There’s a lyric on Annie Clark’s new album, Strange Mercy, that’s been stuck in my head ever since we met a few weeks back in the lobby of a drab hotel in Shoreditch, and it’s this one from ‘Neutered Fruit’: “Did you ever really stare at me like I stared at you?” Considering that the cover of her 2007 debut album Marry Me, and again with 2009′s Actor, zoomed right in on Annie’s lightly freckled china doll features, her saucer-like pale green eyes gazing mesmerisingly outwards, who would bet against her in any kind of staring contest? Still, I think she nearly met her match in me when our conversation took a rather unexpected turn. Annie Clark, to me, has always seemed a very proper kind of indie-rock star; not uptight so much, but demure and “ladylike”. Really one of the very last people you’d ever imagine finding yourself talking to about fried vaginal discharge, semen cook books, and men who get their sexual kicks from women peeing on cats. Not a word of a lie; it happened. But first, let’s get some formalities out of the way.
Annie Clark had a horrible 2010. An absolute stinker of a year, “really tough and terrible”. She doesn’t say why, exactly, and there’s no sense combing through the album lyrics looking for clues: Strange Mercy is so cleverly written that for every part that nails her personal upheaval to the wall there are multiple others that are reconfigured and kinked into opacity. But among the mass of perpendiculars and parallels, there’s one glaring synchronicity that feeds into the album in a large way. In the Chinese calendar, the period from February 2010 to February 2011 was the Year of the Tiger; the Metal Tiger, to be more exact, an attribute associated negatively with grief and positively with courage. Strange Mercy is all about grief and courage.
“I always had a knack with the danger,” sings Annie teasingly, resignedly over a tense, plodding drumbeat on album closer ‘Year Of The Tiger’, almost as if having accepted her experience as inevitable, fated, yet still “living in fear” of what might come next. Providing a fascinating contrast, then, is the polar opposite celebration of a “champagne year”, which keen ears will pick out among the fizzing tension of ‘Northern Lights’ as well as in, as you’d expect, ‘Champagne Year’ itself. That’s where the courage comes in, says Annie: “It’s kinda like saying, ‘Next year is gonna be your year, kid. It’s all gonna turn around!” A momentary flicker of a smile crosses her face, and seeing me catch it she adds with a laugh, “Really, I think ‘Northern Lights’ is just about being drunk and seeing the year away.”
For around six months following the first impact of the event – or series of events – that befell her, Annie stopped writing songs. Stopped, it seems, doing almost anything. “I spent the summer on my back, another attack,” she sings in ‘Surgeon’, perhaps the album’s clearest hint that she went through some kind of depression. (That said, the provocative chorus of “Best, finest surgeon, come cut me open” was lifted from the diaries of Marilyn Monroe, so once again the personal and fictional combine to deliciously obscure the meaning.) “I think when you’re in the midst of grief you can’t really write or be too close to the source,” she explains. “I started writing again in October, then six months later a baby was born! It’s a boy.”
Really? A boy? “No, you’re right, this album’s a girl. I think I’m way more comfortable exploring female archetypes. I don’t know if maybe Steven Meisel’s fashion photography has burrowed into my eye sockets but I have this unquenchable fixation with, like, ’60s housewives on barbiturates.” Like in ‘Surgeon’, just “something to get along”? “Mmm hmmm,” she says distractedly, watching as one of the hotel staff covers up the remains of a sorry looking buffet. (“Putting a white sheet over the dead bread,” as Annie so poetically describes it – a strange mercy if ever there was one.) “I definitely wanted ‘Surgeon’ to have that glazed over housewife sort of feel to it.”
The more Annie talks about the writing and recording process for Strange Mercy, the more apparent it becomes that she approached this project determined to shake things up, to do things differently in every way from before. Rather than heading into the studio with meticulously constructed demos, Annie took “skeletons of songs” into the studio where she and producer John Congleton “put them through the meat grinder”. If that sounds agonisingly brutal, Annie reassures that it was much less labour intensive than the writing of Actor. “Now I know why people do it this way!” she laughs. “Alexander McQueen once said that he spent years learning how to immaculately construct something so that he could deconstruct it. It’s only now that I realise it’s way easier to have the songs first and then deconstruct them.”
It’s also way easier, she tells me, to not have to work out lyrics to a pre-planned melody, but just to write through singing. “Your body wants the path of least resistance,” she explains. “Your body just wants things to sound good coming out, whereas your brain – especially if you have a narrative or something to superimpose upon the melody – will sometimes make words that are too chewy or constant to even sing. So with this album, unlike the last one, I was really trying to make sure that it sounded good actually coming out of my mouth, first and foremost. Like, let the easy parts be easy.”
Of course, part of what we love about St. Vincent is that Annie’s idea of simple is generally quite some measure away from everyone else’s idea of simple. She frowns jokingly when I point this out, running a hand through her dark curls. “Oh my god. Honestly, a lot of times I’m trying to write conventional things. Like, I’ll think ‘Oh, this is a pop song’ and I’ll take it to John and he’ll say, ‘No, it’s really weird’. I’d be like, ‘But really? I thought this was like Janet Jackson’s ‘Rhythm Nation’ and he’d say, ‘Errr, no’. But that’s okay. You just follow that thread wherever it leads.”
Across an album’s worth of songs those threads can connect in surprising ways, and so it proved for Annie again with Strange Mercy. Having written the title track as the first of the songs, it was only after zooming out to look at the whole package that she realised that “each song, in its own way, was about that: a strange mercy. You’ve got the housewife numbing herself in ‘Surgeon’; then you’ve got a song like ‘Chloe In The Afternoon’, where somebody’s looking for an emotional healing through a little bit of consensual, sexual pain.”
What about ‘Cheerleader’? That seems to be a very key song to the album. “That, to me, is about the idea of going along with things you don’t really believe in. I was never a cheerleader in high school; I was a theatre freak. But, to me, to be a cheerleader is really just to be non-essential. You’re not in the game and have no bearing on who wins or loses. You’re just an object. The idea of it has really deep ritualistic roots in human sexuality, actually.”
Speaking of sexuality, how does Annie explain that album cover? She’s been quoted as saying that she’s trying to create a more “human” album each time, yet Strange Mercy is splashed with an almost inhuman, alien portrait of a mouth: is it gasping for a dying breath or just getting off? “It’s a little bit of a riff on a Krautrock record by Can called Out Of Reach. I liked the idea of all-white, and to actually have to pull latex over somebody’s mouth is kinda beautiful but also pretty creepy.” So that’s not her mouth? John’s? “I will never tell!” she laughs. “I’ll never say who it is.”
“I’ll tell you what though, John is such a delight. He sent me a picture the other day of…” she trails off, laughing. “Okay, we’re just gonna go there. He sent me a picture the other day of a semen cook book. Recipes that all involve semen. I love him so much…” Reminds me of an article I recently read in a magazine about a woman who decided that her vaginal discharge looked like egg whites and wondered if it would taste like egg, too, so she fried it and ate it. What does Annie think of that? “Oh, come on! Come on!” she shrieks… “What did it taste like?” Horrible. Apparently it’s not recommended. “That is wrong. That’s not good. Oh god, that’s so gnarly.”
Further conversation reveals that Annie is friends with New York-born, London squat-dwelling sex columnist Karley Sciortino, author of the infamous Slutever blog. Karley even appeared in one of the Strange Mercy teaser videos. “She’s amazing,” Annie grins. “She’s got these slaves who just love to be demeaned on her blog. I’ve gone pretty deep into it. It’s pretty remarkable. There was a great one where she was interning with a dominatrix and she basically talks about all these prostitutes she’d met who were sharing their war stories, like it was ‘Nam or something. She said one woman had this guy who wanted her to pee on his cat! So she ended up chasing the cat around the apartment trying to spray on it!”
Warming to her topic now, Annie asks me if I’ve ever seen the documentary ‘Zoo’ about men who like to get fucked by horses (I gawp at her, no. She hasn’t either; apparently it doesn’t end well). Or if I’ve seen the Mexican movie ‘Leap Year’, because John Waters recommended it for the pissing scene (I haven’t). “The piss sequence is great but the movie is manically dark. Fucking dark sauce. You should see it though, it’s amazing!”
Is that what the character in ‘Chloe In The Afternoon’ is after? A good pee? Perhaps on a cat? Annie laughs. “No, no, no!” Something worse? “No. Something run of the mill I think.” Well, I say, this has been… gynaecological. “I can’t wait to read it,” she grins as she hugs me goodbye. On the bus home I have to pinch myself a few times. Mostly I just stare out the window, getting in some practice.
Strange Mercy is out now on 4AD. Annie returns to the UK and Ireland in November to play five shows. Catch her at the following venues:
10.11.11 Queen Elizabeth Hall, London
11.11.11 The Fleece, Bristol
12.11.11 Sound Control, Manchester
13.11.11 Workman’s Club, Dublin
16.11.11 Brudenell Social Club, Leeds