St. Vincent on Being a Pop Artisan

August 1, 2009

ST. VINCENT (NÉE ANNIE CLARK) BECAME OBSESSED WITH GUITAR early on—a proclivity nourished by Tuck Andress, her virtuoso fingerstylist uncle. “Uncle Tuck took me on tours starting when I was about 15, and I got to be his roadie and set up his gear,” she recalls. “I learned a lot about playing and being a professional from him.” The 25-year-old guitarist, vocalist, and composer’s sophomore release, Actor [4AD], is a sometimes startlingly mature work, chockablock with sophisticated pop beats, vocal hooks and harmonies, Björk-like orchestrations, and atypical guitar parts that stemmed from composing on a laptop rather than her guitar. “When you know the guitar well, you can get locked into familiar patterns,” she explains. “By writing on the computer I was able to come up with guitar parts that weren’t something my fingers just went to out of habit.”

St. Vincent’s passion for unusual sounds is reflected in her choice of guitars. “I’m into crappy vintage guitars that have quirks and character,” she says. “The guitar I played most on the record was a ’67 Harmony Bobcat with a really sensitive bar that’s great for wiggly vibrato, but I also have a ’60s Silvertone 1446L with a great Bigsby and Gibson [mini P-90-style] pickups, as well as a Frankenstein Fender Jaguar I found for $150 that has the pickups wired directly to the output jack. My less exotic guitars include a Gibson SG and a Fender Nashville Telecaster.”

The guitarist used a Z.Vex Fuzz Factory and an octave pedal or DigiTech Whammy to get “snaky and bloody” distortion tones on Actor, and she coaxed “Hüsker Dü-like” sounds out of a mixer channel by plugging directly in and overdriving the mic preamp. An Eventide H3000 multi-effects processor also saw heavy use, and Electro-Harmonix Tube Zipper and Holy Grail Reverb pedals were occasionally deployed.

Although St. Vincent’s music is cutting-edge contemporary art-pop, she cites influences as diverse as Robert Fripp, Ali Farka Touré, and Deerhoof’s John Dieterich, and her roots are firmly planted in late-’60s to mid-’70s classic rock. “That music is so flamboyantly guitar-centric, and there’s nothing more exciting for a young guitarist than to tap into that totally peacock guitar playing,” she enthuses. “Like, am I obsessed with the Aqualung record? Yes I am!”

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