In 2005, Annie Clark was ready to quit music for good.
Living in New York City had left her broke, demoralized and without her favorite guitar, which she had to sell to pay rent. But after moving back home to Dallas, her luck changed instantly. Within days, she joined the Polyphonic Spree, which eventually led to a spot in Sufjan Stevens’ band and prompted a solo record deal with England’s prestigious Beggars Banquet.
Now with “Marry Me” arriving in stores Tuesday, Clark has emerged as Dallas’ most original female musician since Erykah Badu. Even she has trouble believing how quickly her career turned around.
“I was losing faith, and the Polyphonic Spree was literally redemption in a robe,” said the 24-year-old singer, who records under the nom de rock St. Vincent.
“Two years ago, I had a total crisis of confidence and thought I couldn’t be a musician. So it’s pretty amazing to be sitting here now talking about my record.”
She’s eating breakfast at Cafe Brazil on Lower Greenville, a cautious eye aimed out the window at her shiny Dodge Sprinter passenger van, in which she’ll tour the U.S. this summer. “Marry M” is already generating a buzz - Spin devoted a full page to her and praised the CD as “fanciful, sophisticated indie-rock.”
Clark offers her own description of the music: “Smirking but sincere,” she says, as she shoos a fly from her French toast. “It’s a little tongue-in-cheek, and a little just plain weird.”
Weird - but provocative. With its velvet vocals, dark melodies and off-kilter arrangements, “Marry Me” is a perfect marriage of pop and avant-garde. It echoes the Spree’s and Stevens’ classical-and-choral style, but Clark pushes it further into torch balladry and free-form jazz.
After all, jazz runs in the family. Her uncle and aunt are guitarist Tuck Andress and singer Patti Cathcart, better known as Tuck & Patti.
When Clark was 13, the pair sat their niece down and made her listen to John Coltrane’s masterpiece, “A Love Supreme.”
“I started crying,” she recalled. “Hearing something like, at that age, was mind-blowing, especially living in suburban Dallas.”
Each summer, she’d grab her passport and head off to Japan or Europe with Uncle Tuck (her mom’s brother) and Aunt Patti. In theory, she was a roadie; in reality, she was their apprentice.
“They took me under their wing in a big way,” she said. “They reared me right about what to do and what not to do, how to be respectful and punctual and not just be this musician living in a big bubble.”
Andress said he’s blown away by how far his niece has come. “The depth of her vocabulary as a composer, arranger and sound designer is something I associate with people who have been at it for decades, rather than a few years,” he said. “As a musician, I was struck by how much depth there is to her songs.”
The work ethic took root as Clark mastered guitar and a half-dozen other instruments (she plays everything from dulcimer to vibraphone on “Marry Me”). While her classmates were at the mall, she was busy building a home recording studio and composing songs.
Later, when the Polyphonic Spree wasn’t touring, she holed up in her studio and began making “Marry Me.” Avant-folk kingpin Stevens heard a rough draft last fall and invited Clark to join his band and also be the opening act for his European tour.
Suddenly, record labels began circling her in the water.
“It was pretty wild,” she said. “I met a lot of people wheeling and dealing and telling me, `It’ll be great!’ But something in your intuition said, `I don’t know.’”
One of those moments came when Capitol Records flew her to LA. The first hint of trouble came when she finished the audition and the label’s president said: “What? You want to make a jazz record?”
The second bad sign was when she jokingly asked an A&R exec, “You think we can get a spread in Maxim?” - and he thought she was serious.
“It was a barometer that maybe this isn’t the situation for me,” she said.
In November, she clicked with Beggars Banquet after label reps saw her open for Stevens at London’s Barbican Theatre. With its left-of-center roster (M.I.A., Stereolab, Thom Yorke), Beggars seems like a good fit for Clark, whose songs might be a bit too daring for the Coldplay crowd.
“I wanted to make the aural equivalent of someone reaching out of the speaker and clawing at the air,” she said of “Paris Is Burning,” a zigzagging cabaret tune about war.
Even bolder is “Your Lips Are Red,” a creepy stomp with horror-film violins and the best guitar riff Frank Zappa never wrote.
“I like that it’s jarring,” she said. “You think it’s going one way, and it goes the other.”
“Lips” isn’t likely to show up on the “Grey’s Anatomy” soundtrack any time soon. Nor is “Marry Me,” which, despite its title and sweet melody, is about a philandering woman who spins a web of deception.
“You’re a rock with a heart like a socket I can plug into at will,” she sings to a would-be husband.
“It’s about a love that I’ve experienced, but at the same time, I’m playing with convention,” she said. “It’s sincere but smirking. I just hope people realize it’s as much a joke as it is earnest.”
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