Last weekend, art-rock icon St. Vincent’s second album Actor turned 10, and the internet felt compelled to inform Annie Clark of its birthday. Clark responded late Thursday in an essay titled “The Story Behind Actor,” in which she references everything from Oregon Trail, the #MeToo movement and Joni Mitchell’s “People’s Parties” while reflecting on the making of her “much labored-over” Marry Me follow-up and opening up about the challenges she overcame during that creative process.
Clark opines on how she perceives time before recalling her initial attempts to record Actor: “Some of this suffering was avoidable,” she writes, “but I was unaware of how to ford the river at the time without breaking the leg or getting dysentery … ” The trouble stemmed from “a producer whose work I admired and decided to work with and who convinced me to work on tape,” whom Clark likens to “an abusive father figure” and an “idealist-cum-emotional-fascist.” She recalls then bringing her tapes to John Congleton, who helped her find her way and finish the album.
“After recording, I felt so strange and raw,” Clark writes. “And then I had to fly across the world in steerage to be another breed—a performer of a person. When I wasn’t sure what person I was after finishing this album.”
Clark recalls unconsciously discovering who she was as a songwriter during Actor’s making, continuing, “There is no time to process during process. As Joni Mitchell sang, you’re just ‘living on nerves and feelings’ before sensing you have done something. And you hope people will hear it. And hear you. And hear themselves.”
“I haven’t listened to that record in a while. I have always likened listening to older work to looking at junior high year book photos. If one is lucky, one can muster compassion for one’s younger self,” Clark concludes. “Recognize that time is elastic. Notes are elastic. Lyrics elastic. Could have been anything. Any songs, any ideas at all, anyone at that time. But it was those songs and those ideas and that process and that person. And I am (humbly) proud of it. And so happy that Actor made it to the ears and hearts it did.”
Read Clark’s essay in its entirety below, but first, watch her perform Actor opener “The Strangers” circa 2009 via footage from the Paste archives. Stream Actor itself right here and revisit Paste’s review of the record here.
The story behind Actor
The internet told me that my second record turned 10 last weekend.
I experience time as elastic. I know there are scientific theories regarding this topic that are 1) well known and 2) fascinating but irrelevant for the purpose of this brief (and metaphorical) sentiment.
So, I experience time, I imagine, like most people, as elastic. Makes sense, in its way. As musicians, all we have to get best at is timing. Macro and micro. When to sing that lyric. When to play (or more importantly, NOT play) that note. Where to feel that big and little “one.” When the song should keep going. And when the song should end.
But 10 years, however one has experienced them, have gone by since I put out a much labored-over record (some of this suffering was avoidable, but I was unaware of how to ford the river at the time without breaking the leg or getting dysentery…)
I remember having deep and lengthy conversations about 80’s 4AD and Tones on Tail and late Scott Walker records (the Mussolini and beating meat stuff!) with a producer whose work I admired and decided to work with and who convinced me to work on tape.
Turns out, neither of us really knew how to work on tape. Me, being of the burgeoning DIY digital generation with songs a work in progress, used to moving all the puzzle pieces around and he, having no patience for anything that wasn’t his burgeoning polyamorous marriage or recreating Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock. (Genius record and reference. But likely not made with an abusive father figure LITERALLY directing Mark Hollis’s every move.)
I’d spent an incredible amount of time making “no hair on its head shall be disturbed” small ensemble arrangements, brutally, on tape.
As it became clear that this process with the idealist-cum-emotional-fascist* was not going to end fruitfully, I took my reels and reels of tape to my friend Johnny C. Johnny told me some of the songs sounded like outtakes from the Lion King on Broadway. (God bless, Julie Taymor, but not a compliment in this case…). I was lost. I had all kinds of words and melodies but was so beaten up by the other process that i didn’t know how to tie them with these pristine moments.
He told me to go home and write a song in a night. So I wrote “Actor Out of Work” at my mom’s house in my childhood bedroom. I felt like a fraud. I felt like people were frauds. I wanted to be hit. I wanted to hit.
Some mid-morning Starbucks-determination at a bizarre Plano studio in a strip mall and a splash of Here Come the Warm Jets and suddenly we had a song.
Johnny didn’t like the studio gear. It reeked of a little more than a little money but definitely little taste. But we made it work.
We talked about Ramones and Iggy songs and late 70’s guitars plugged straight into consoles and blown up by compressors. We talked about Suicide drum beats. We mocked the giant bean bag chair which served as a couch which was someone’s idea of what musicians do: Lie around. Prostrate. While inspiration gets stoned and says he might strike a little later, he just has some shit to do… (u up?). No. You’re not up.
And anyway, Like eating, I prefer to stand when I “create.”
I remember recording the piano on “The Party”. Painstakingly. As I was and am somehow always confused as where my hands should go. Sometimes a gift. Sometimes a liability. But luckily, never a thoroughly modern #metoo. (Zing!)
Piece by piece, Johnny and I went through and completely reworked every song and idea. Lots of Hunky’s veggie burgers and Subway sandwiches and talking. Talking sincere. Talking shit. Making each other laugh with stories about growing up. About Texas. About growing up in Texas.
I remember finishing the record. The relief and panic. And having my mama drive me to the DFW airport immediately afterward, because I was meant to play a few shows in Australia. (Being requested in Australia felt like a cultural coup. Yet after recording, I felt so strange and raw. And then I had to fly across the world in steerage to be another breed — a performer of a person. When I wasn’t sure what person I was after finishing this album.)
There is no time to process during process. As Joni Mitchell sang, you’re just “living on nerves and feelings” before sensing you have done something. And you hope people will hear it. And hear you. And hear themselves. In the songs; I was the empty swimming pool. I was the coward who wanted an iron spine. I was the kid hiding under the bed from a predator. I was the televangelist selling lies but spreading hope. I was the ashtray with the stubbed out cigarette waiting to be cleared by the beleaguered late night bar staff. So were you. You were everything. I was just the same. But brand new. I wanted to be if not free, something just a little closer to it.
I haven’t listened to that record in a while. I have always likened listening to older work to looking at junior high year book photos. If one is lucky, one can muster compassion for one’s younger self. Recognize that time is elastic. Notes are elastic. Lyrics elastic. Could have been anything. Any songs, any ideas at all, anyone at that time. But it was those songs and those ideas and that process and that person. And I am (humbly) proud of it. And so happy that Actor made it to the ears and hearts it did.