Today, Annie Clark, better known as St. Vincent, releases her self-titled, fourth album — fifth if you include her 2012 collaboration with David Byrne, Love This Giant. In the seven years since her debut, she's joined the pantheon of contemporary guitar virtuosos and, in the climbing, become a goddess to music nerds on /mu/ and reddit, the fashion world, the art world, and now the major label pop world.
But St. Vincent marks a transformation. Gone is the doe-eyed Clark that graces the cover of Marry Me or Actor. If it wasn't already apparent that she was playing a character (as if this whole rockstarring business isn't performance art in the first place), St. Vincent sees Clark adopt the role of the steely, grey-haired oracle, the "near-future cult leader," as she puts it — her very own Thin White Duke. It's a persona befitting the more sinister whims that have always been latent in her classically pretty pop.And this outfit change got us thinking: where did she even come from? It might seem like she burst out of the gates, a fully-formed star dropped right out of the air and onto blogs, but it's been a long journey to St. Vincent, and even to St. Vincent. We'd heard the rumours that she was a hired gun for freak folk bandleader Sufjan Stevens or that Texan baroque cult The Polyphonic Spree, that she'd played guitar with no wave legend Glenn Branca. But as they say, seeing is believing, so we decided to hit the searchbar in pursuit of pre-St. Vincent Annie Clark. Below is a YouTube history — high school bands through angel-winged backup singing — of how the reigning queen of art pop came to be.
Tuck & Patti
Music runs in the family. Clark's uncle is Grammy-nominated guitarist Tuck Andress, half of the jazz duo Tuck & Patti. When Clark picked up her first guitar at 12, uncle Tuck turned her on to Miles Davis and Coltrane (a hint as to where those blurted solos come from), at about the same time that her older brothers and sisters were playing Pavement and Pink Floyd around the house. When she turned 15, Tuck & Patti began taking Clark on tour with them, to China and Japan. She was their roadie and, by her late teens, managed their tours.
Lake Highlands High School Jazz Band
It's unsurprising that Clark was a band geek, but let me say upfront: she probably isn't playing in the video above. While she attended Dallas' LHHS, Clark played in the school jazz band, not the marching band (though this is a clip from when Clark was enrolled and might tell you something about the size and quality of the school's music program). Nevertheless, this little tidbit evidences Clarks budding interest in large bands, complex compositions, and the sort of John Philip Sousa fanfare that would inform her later career (especially with The Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens).
After high school, Clark went to the illustrious Berklee College of Music in Boston, which is basically more Ivy League than the Ivy Leagues for musical education. She attended for three years before dropping out. In 2003, while still at Berklee, she recorded an EP called Ratsliveonnoevilstar (streaming above), which, while still pretty rough-hewn, exhibits some of the jazz and pop sensibilities that would define the St. Vincent aesthetic (along with some surprising dashes of Jeff Buckley and Kate Bush). If you go for mystery, the end of the recording below contains a 12-second sample from another pre-St. Vincent Annie Clark tune named "Good Morning," which doesn't seem to exist anywhere else online.
Glenn Branca's Symphony for 100 Guitars
Like Lee Ranaldo and Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and Michael Gira of Swans, Clark's budding musical career ascended through the apprenticeship of Glenn Branca. After first performing his 100-guitar symphony Hallucination City in 2001, the avant-garde master wanted to set the piece to tape. The first attempt at recording his Symphony No. 13 took place over two October days in 2004 at the Kaufman Astoria Studio in Queens, New York. Though the sessions were eventually scrapped, Clark was one of the 100 performers recorded. Above is an excerpt of a later rendition of the piece. Again, no Annie, but you get the point — a big, fat underscore to the ever-inflating art in her art pop.
The Polyphonic Spree
After dropping out of college, Clark moved back to Texas and started up with former Tripping Daisy frontman Tim DeLaughter's robed cult choir The Polyphonic Spree. She played guitar with the Spree for a 2005 European tour before joining as a full-time member, performing on the record The Fragile Army.
Paris is Burning
Clark says she had half of Marry Me already written before she joined DeLaughter and co. Somehow, Sufjan Stevens heard what Clark was doing apart from Polyphonic Spree, and invited her to open for him on tour. So she packed a crateful of tour EPs for that 2006 outing: Paris is Burning, the lesser-known first release under the St. Vincent moniker. Along with the title track "Paris is Burning" and "What Me Worry?" — which both appear on her debut LP — Clark included a breathy cover of Jackson Browne's "These Days."
While opening for Sufjan Stevens in 2006 — just after Illinoise, around the time of his first Christmas box set — Annie Clark replaced My Brightest Diamond's Shara Worden as his back-up singer and lead guitar player. Behold the masterful skronking, still recognizably Vincentian, even while donned in the Soof's requisite angel wings. It was through that year that Clark recorded Marry Me — an offhand reference to Arrested Development — which she released the following year.