Mainstream articles often refer to
St. Vincent as a shredder. This is neither fair to
shredders nor to St. Vincent. Annie Clark, who
adopted the alias St. Vincent for her solo projects,
may admit to playing in Iron Maiden cover bands
and to attending Berklee College of Music, but her
guitar style eschews anything resembling rapidfire
scale-based licks. Instead she favors haunting,
cleanly picked arpeggios broken up by distorted
hooky riffs and explosions of fuzz-powered noise.
Her latest record, Strange Mercy [4AD], is the
most guitar-oriented of her three releases. “On the
last album, I could play about three songs solo on
guitar. On this album, I can play every song that
way,” she says. Strange Mercy contains hints of
prog, disco, and Bjork, in a mashup that remains
pure St. Vincent.
Freed from fanzine questions about her keen
fashion sense and love life (“I much prefer talking
about gear”), Clark describes the joys of
pawnshop guitars, boutique fuzzes, and “disgusting
What, if anything, did you get from your time at
I got some more jazz harmonies under my
fingers—jazz inversions and voicings.
Do those harmonies work their way into your
Yeah, there are major 9 chords and minor
6 chords in what I do. But the most valuable
experience I got was from being in bands and
touring. I played in a noise band at school
where the point was to be as loud and as
bloody as you could possibly be. I played in
Iron Maiden cover bands when I was a kid.
I started touring internationally with bands
when I was 22—school can only take you so far.
You play keyboards as well. How do you decide
which songs need guitar?
With my new record I wrote everything
on guitar. Of course I put it through the meat
grinder when I got into the studio. But it is all
coming from a place of being a guitar player
first and foremost. I wrote the previous record,
Actor, completely on the computer without
touching any instruments, I found it was compelling
to write away from the guitar and then
play the pieces on guitar. There is a lot of stuff
that you would come up with that is counterintuitive—
your fingers just wouldn’t go there
naturally. We all have a lot of these muscle
memory things, like pentatonics. To get out of
that rut I wrote everything on the computer.
How did you avoid falling into those ruts
My producer John Congleton and I discussed
tuning the guitar in a way I was not used to,
and then playing normal blues licks or whatever.
You come up with really strange things
when you tune your guitar in a random way.
Do you leave it in that tuning or do you work
those licks out in normal tuning?
You tune it back to standard and learn it.
Your songs have a cool, controlled vibe until
the wild guitar solos. Are the solos cathartic
My favorite guitar players are people
like Andy Gill from Gang of Four and Marc
Ribot—people who can make a guitar sound
like it is being strangled or really make it
sing, sometimes both in the same breath. I
am a fairly slight person, so I have to throw
my whole body into the guitar when I play,
and that is very gratifying.
How do you feel these noisy solos fit in the
context of your highly melodic songs?
The guitar gets to be the monster in terms
of having this periodic burst of aggression.
On the “Northern Lights” solo I used a Sitori
Sonics Tapeworm pedal. It is a delay pedal
with two synth oscillators built in to it. I
use it a lot live during the more chaotic bits.
Take us through the recording process.
There really wasn’t any live playing in terms
of being a band recording in a room together.
I stuck with a pretty consistent guitar tone
compared to the other records. I played a ’67
Harmony Bobkat through a Death by Audio
Interstellar Overdriver Supreme pedal, usually
straight into a late-’70s Fender Princeton—
not lots of pedals, more driving the
amp pretty hard.
You work the Bobkat’s vibrato arm pretty heavily.
How do you keep it in tune?
I own two of those guitars and they are
surprisingly solid. Once they are set up with
.011s, they stay in tune pretty well and you
can really go to town. The tremolo arm is
the real secret weapon of that guitar. You
can really dive bomb stuff—one of the guitars
is set up go down a fifth or so. On the
other one, I let the tremolo out a little bit
and it can be pulled sharp.
I switched to .011s for this record. Things
sat better if I tuned the guitar a whole step
down, so I tune down to D. I have one song,
“Year of the Tiger,” that needs to be sludgy
and almost metal, so the low E is a low F#
[a seventh below standard E], and I had to
put a .056 on there. The cool thing is that
you get this really disgusting tone, really
pitchy and grimy—it sounds great. Sometimes
I will even put a low octave effect on
so it gets really gnarly.
Describe your live setup.
I got so tired of missing cues, trying to
push pedals at the right time. The sounds
were often not exactly right, or properly
balanced, with good gain staging. So I have
an RJM Mastermind that controls the RJM
MIDI Effects Gizmo [loop switching station]
and handles all my pedals. Two of them are
MIDI-capable Eventide pedals, and the Mastermind
also controls their parameters. My
keyboard player controls the whole pedalboard
remotely, through MIDI. That way I
no longer have to click pedals left and right
and pray that the gain staging is correct.
This helps me play complicated guitar parts,
sing, and be invested in the performance—
it allows me to be a performer instead of a
pedal tweaker and a shoegazer.
Do you have your pedals in a rack drawer?
No, they are on the floor in front of me
because I still wanted to be able to change
some parameters manually. There is a fine
sonic line between something working or falling
flat. So much of it is about tone.
You were quoted as saying that joining the
Polyphonic Spree made it necessary for you to
learn to use delays and distortion. What sort of
stuff did you learn?
Early on at Berklee—and because my uncle
is fingerstyle guitar player Tuck Andress of
Tuck and Patti—I was more of a fingerstyle
jazz-esque player. With Polyphonic Spree
they would say, “This part needs to be sparkly,”
and so I had to figure out how to do
that, or how to make another part sound
like it was on acid. I had to get the tools to
do that. I really started investing in pedals—
and once you start down that road there is
no turning back.
You have learned well. What is that great distortion
sound at the beginning of the opening tune,
“Chloe in the Afternoon?”
That was the Interstellar Overdriver
Supreme, doubled. Then we added a low
octave in Pro Tools on some lines.
Your clean tone on “Chloe” and the title song
has an evocative, distant, almost underwater sound.
How do you get that?
I think that is the Electro-Harmonix
Cathedral Reverb pedal.
On the beginning of “Cheerleader” you embrace
and process the kind of string squeak others might
eliminate. What led you to that decision and how
did you process it?
The string squeak is dear to my heart,
because if you’re playing quietly by yourself
in your room on an electric guitar, mostly
what you hear is the squeak. I don’t see it
as a flaw to be eliminated. I was playing this
’69 Silvertone Esplanade guitar, picking right
at the bridge, so I was getting mostly these
strange harmonics and overtones. It’s just
At about 1:00 into “Surgeon” there is a sliding
chord part. Is that guitar? And if so, how did
you make that awesome sound?
The Silvertone on the treble pickup and
then through the Interstellar Overdriver. On
my original demo for that song, that guitar
part is processed through an Eventide Eclipse.
I used one of their really heavy filters on it
so it would sound like neurotic little beats.
When you do repeating parts like the line at the
end of “Cruel,” do you go for a performance or cut
and paste one perfect pass of the line?
I never cut and paste. I utilize technology
in a lot of ways, but I never cut and paste.
That seems like the Barcalounger approach.
I’m not saying I’m not lazy but, but I’m not
How do you foresee the guitar’s role in your
Now that I’ve kind of fallen back in love
with the guitar there will be more and more
guitar, in more and more unconventional