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- Posted on Dec 6th 2011 1:06PM by Eric R. Danton
'Strange Mercy' is the Texas native's third album as St. Vincent and, she tells Spinner, so much easier to make than her second, 2009's 'Actor.'
Clark tells us why 'Strange Mercy' is different, coins a good name for a Swedish metal band and muses on what third albums have in common with third children.
You approached 'Strange Mercy' differently than your previous records. What changed?
I wanted to make a transition from super-cerebral to more down to the core of it. I found in touring the 'Actor' record that my favorite parts of playing were getting to play guitar, which I've been doing for 17 years -- something I do well and like to do and have a voice with. So I thought, let's just take away all the accoutrement and get back to just playing guitar. I wrote songs on guitar, really simple songs on guitar, and they kind of morphed into the record.
You were 12 when you started on guitar. What was the attraction?
I was always just kind of obsessed with guitar, even before I started playing. My uncle, Tuck Andress [of Tuck and Patti], is one of the most amazing guitar players that has ever walked the planet, and I'm not being hyperbolic. He really is. So I saw that and I thought, that's a possibility. That's in my family. I think a lot of people who want to be musicians terrify their parents because they don't have a living example of it in their families, and I did. So I always knew that it was possible. And if I'm honest about it, I was obsessed with Nirvana and Pearl Jam. This is like '92, right in the throes of Soundgarden and Pearl Jam and Nirvana. I think I probably wanted to be Kurt Cobain.
The press notes describe this album as being about relief from pain. What kind of pain?
Oh, dear! There's so many kinds of pain. There's existential crisis pain, the physicality of grief, there's losing people and reeling from that. There's self-induced, there's externally induced. It's a smorgasbord of pain.
Smorgasbord of Pain actually sounds like a good album title for some black metal band.
[Laughs] I was just going to say, that's totally a black metal band. Swedish, not Norwegian.
There's a difference. But seriously, was there a specific kind of pain you wanted to get away from in writing these songs?
Yes, there was.
Do go on.
No, no. You've got to keep something for yourself.
All right, then. What does your third record represent to you?
The third record. Golly. I guess with this one, I knew when I was working on this record, moreso than with records past, I just sort of let the record be what it wanted to be. I know it's a little trite when people talk about albums or songs like children. For me, I don't have any actual children -- that I know of [laughs]. Just kidding. But in my experience of both being raised and also making music, I feel like the first one, you're kind of "all hands on deck" at all times, and the second one gets lost in the shuffle a little bit, and the third one, you're like, let it be whatever it wants to be. So with this record, I let it be what it wanted to be more than the other records, which I was more white-knuckled about.
Do you feel more relaxed about this one?
Yeah, oddly. I think it's because I was working with John Congleton from the beginning. He helped save 'Actor,' but we worked together on this one from Jumpstreet, and I love him. He's my dear friend and collaborator. He took the hand wringing out of the process, and I can hand wring for days.
What needed saving about 'Actor?'
I didn't mention this at the time of making 'Actor,' but I had started that record with another producer and it went really, really off the rails. I was working on it so much, and working on it with probably the exact wrong person to be working on it with. I sort of lost my way with it. I had recorded these beautiful woodwinds, I had all these orchestral passages that I really loved, and not enough songs. And I called John kind of in a panic and said, "Hey, I don't know what I have here. I don't know what I'm working with. Can you take a listen? I might need to start over." And so we did.
How did that process affect the making of this record?
I wanted it to be painless. 'Actor,' too, was all cerebral and theoretical music. I'm not a very great piano player, so I was literally drawing in MIDI notes on a mouse pad on a laptop, one by one by one, inching closer to carpal tunnel. I was being both very macro and very micro at the same time, and I couldn't really rest until I heard it being what I wanted it to be sonically, arrangement-wise. At the same time, I couldn't hear exactly how I wanted it to be because I was working with all virtual instruments. With this one, I just wanted to write songs, because that was the last thing I did on 'Actor.'