These days, women dominate what used to be the boys' clubby rock scene. There is a strong scent of "girl power" predominant throughout the newest albums from kick-ass groups like Wild Flag and Warpaint. Björk, Lykke Li, and Katy B are the brains and brawn behind some of 2011's boldest records. Indeed, whether they're tough like PJ Harvey, heart-on-sleeve emotional like Feist, or "Bhang Bhang burnouts" like The Dum Dum Girls, the women of indie rock continue to chip away at the power structures that once disproportionately favored men.
Near the front of the pack is St. Vincent. The 29-year-old Dallas native (born Annie Clark) is a woman of lethal sensitivity. But don't confuse Strange Mercy, her new album, for a serving of melodrama.
"I wanted this to be a more aggressive, straightforward record," Clark says. "It was about songs, first and foremost, but I wanted riffs that you could sink your teeth into."
Strange Mercy is the fiercest of her three albums, with a sound that's more guitar-driven than what's on both 2007's Marry Me and 2009's Actor. A great deal of the credit for that goes to John Congleton, a fellow Texan who previously collaborated with such weirdos as Xiu Xiu and Antony Hegarty. Clark spent almost six months recording Strange Mercy with Congleton in Dallas.
"I mean, [John and I] finish each other's sentences," Clark says of their chemistry. "It wasn't like I had some insurmountable task in explaining what I wanted to do."
As was the case with her previous discs, Clark had a hand in producing Strange Mercy. "I'm close to my records," she says. "My vocabulary isn't just one of chords or whatever, but a sonic vocabulary."
The gruff, searing title track and brassily propulsive "Cruel" bare a vision that's harder-edged than what St. Vincent fans may be accustomed to. Still, Clark is a relative softy at heart, and songs like "Northern Lights" are shaded by a melancholic hue. "I wanted to infuse some colder instruments, like the synthesizer, with more humanity," Clark says.
"All these things — passion, aggression — are very human," she says. "This time, I tried more invested songwriting, as opposed to being detached from it."
Some in the press have taken Clark to task for what they perceive as cryptic or deceptively vague lyrics. It's not a criticism that she agrees with. "It's tricky, in my experience, to speak in platitudes, unless you're John Lennon or whoever," she says.
Much like that famously self-loathing Beatle, Clark seems to write from a place of brooding sadness. It's been reported that she spent much of 2010 suffering near-paralyzing depression, which caused her to retreat into seclusion. On Strange Mercy, Clark makes repeated references to a "champagne year," a metaphor for the glossy trappings of success.
In conversation, at least, Clark stays tight-lipped about her previous bouts with depression.
"Oh, that's personal," she says after a lengthy pause. When asked if there was anything she could add, Clark replied, "Not really." (In last month's issue of Spin, Clark alluded to having "lost some people," whatever that might mean.)
What Clark does say is that she finds her chosen profession somewhat nonplussing. "It is a weird existence," she acknowledges. "Right now, I'm sitting in a hotel room, looking at the St. Louis Arch. Yesterday, I was in Chicago. But I feel immensely grateful for it."
For Clark, making music is about blurring gender, cultural, or sociological differences to create something broadly transpersonal.
"All you can really do as a songwriter is intertwine your own experiences with movies or books or visual art or other peoples' experiences," she says. "Or anything. Anything is fodder."