Annie performs under the name St. Vincent because that was the hospital in which dear doomed Dylan Thomas succumbed. Onstage, she can be too fey by half or deliver herself of a shredding guitar solo Dewey Finn would be happy to extol in the School of Rock. Conservatory trained but neither a reader nor writer of music, a fashionista who was content to be just another robe in The Polyphonic Spree, Annie creates alchemy from her contradictions.
Only two albums into her own career, this ridiculously talented composer is on the verge of something, and whether the result is gold or lead you may discern for yourself when she returns to the Magic City October 5.
BW: Youíre coming back to Birmingham on a bill with Andrew Bird, playing the soundstage at WorkPlay, so that should be a pretty good show.
AC: Yeah, Iím excited. I think I actually saw a film at WorkPlay one time, because, you know, working on the first record [Marry Me], I worked a lot with Brian Teasley [of Man or Astroman?] in Birmingham. I did a lot of recording there. I know the town a little bit, so Iím excited to be coming back.
BW: Have people here bugged you to death about seeing our hospital named after St. Vincent?
AC: Oh, when we were recording, we would drive back in the wee hours of the morning, and weíd drive past St. Vincentís Hospital every single time, because Brian lived over near Bottletree.
BW: Youíve toured with a lot of groups ó have you ever gone out on the road with Brianís band?
AC: No, I never did. I toured with Brian when we both played in The Polyphonic Spree, but I kind of started doing my own thing a little bit after Man or Astroman? slowed down doing their thing.
BW: [A recording software query ensues.] Why do you like Appleís Logic Pro better than Pro Tools?
AC: Hereís the thing. Actually, I donít like Logic Pro better than Pro Tools for some things. I recorded the record in Pro Tools, but for arranging. Logic just has a better sound base for all the MIDI stuff. So I use Logic as an arrangement tool. You can set the Sibelius [software for musical notation] better and print out scores for other musicians. So I composed in GarageBand and Logic, but we recorded it in ProTools. And if youíre a nerd, youíll call ProTools GrowTools.
BW: As far as arranging goes, how did you ever manage to get into Berklee [College of Music, Boston] without being able to read or write music?
AC: [laughs] Actually, the tag line they coined for their sort of ad campaign while I was at Berklee was ďThereís nothing conservatory about it.Ē So Iím sure a lot more people than me got out of there never quite knowing how to read or write music.
BW: The new album, Actor, was inspired in part by Disney themes. Is there any chance youíd ever write a song inspired by a Warner Brothers cartoon?
AC: It would be kind of sound effect-y.
BW: But youíre a fan of quirky instrumentation, and if you listen to Carl Stallingís scores for the old Warner cartoons, you canít beat that for quirk.
AC: Yeah, those are really, um---I think the cool thing is, when youíre a kid, you get exposed to really sophisticated music themes through cartoons, early cartoons. I donít know about SpongeBob or whatever, thatís cool, Flaming Lips or whatever, but I donít know about modern cartoons because I donít watch them. Those old Warner Brothers and Disney cartoons---if you wanted to be cynical about it you could call it hokey, but I think itís really beautifully composed music.
BW: And they had to perform those cues live.
AC: Right, yeah. Imagine the budget for a cartoon.
BW: When you were a kid, what was the first computer you had?
AC: It was a PC.
BW: Was it a Dell? Tell the truth.
AC: Oh, because Iím from Texas? Yeah, probably. It was a PC and I ran a Layla interface and Cakewalk for audio.
BW: And what was the first guitar you played?
AC: It was a Peavey Raptor, which was the kind of guitar that comes in a kit with the box and the amplifier and the cables.
BW: Is that a three-quarter scale guitar?
AC: I donít know if it is or not, to be honest. I was twelve, so itís like when youíre little and you play basketball and you donít realize that youíre using a tiny child-sized ball.
BW: Well, youíre a extraordinarily good guitar player. We particularly like your solo version of ďI Dig A PonyĒ thatís online and we wonder how the Beatles fit into your musical worldview.
AC: You know, I kind of got something backwards. I started listening to the Beatles when I was about 13 or 14. And people donít just have Beatles phases, itís like Beatles lifetimes. The Beatles isnít something you listen to in high school and then put away and listen to once in a while nostalgically. Itís like something you can keep discovering and keep discovering as you grow and grow. I love the Beatles, I love Wings, I love Paul McCartney, all of it. John Lennonís solo records---hearing Plastic Ono Band for the first time, it just seemed so forward...
BW: With your considerable musical capabilities, and I hope Iíve sucked up sufficiently by mentioning them so often, you wouldnít tour with just any old band, so tell us about the musicians youíll be bringing to town.
AC: Well, itís the same guys as before when I came through at the Bottletree. Iíve got a great drummer and a woodwind player who plays everything but keyboards and then a violinist whoís a really great guitar player. Weíre doing a little bit of sampling, of looping, in musical ways, but for the most part weíre playing the songs pretty true to the recordings. Obviously, thereís a little flavor crystal here and there.
BW: Hereís a little broader philosophical question: how important is artifice to your music?
AC: I think the thing I went back to on this particular record was that it ought to be emotionally true but factually fictional. Itís all to get at a larger idea, which is, on this record, a lot about deception and what we can admit to ourselves and what we can give to the world and how everyone has this strange dichotomy. Basically, everybodyís got something to hide.
BW: Do you consider yourself a spiritual person?
AC: I think Iíll respectfully not answer that question.
BW: And howís life in Brooklyn? After growing up in the Lone Star State and touring around the world, how do you like the borough?
AC: Actually I moved to Manhattan not too long ago. Itís great. Unfortunately I donít get to spend tons of time here, because this year thereís lots of touring, which is great also, but when I come back itís fantastic.
BW: Is it difficult to decompress from the road in a place that has as high an energy level as Manhattan?
AC: Yeah, yeah. But you can always spend a day in bed kind of anywhere you are and turn off your phones. But itís been creatively so great, because there are so many musicians here, people whom Iím excited to work with, dance performances to see and theater to see and all kinds of stuff. I love other places ó I was just back in Dallas seeing my folks ó but thereís really no place like New York.
BW: Itís the epicenter of everything.
AC: Oh, yes.
St. Vincent performs at 8 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 5, at WorkPlay, with Andrew Bird opening. Tickets cost $25 in advance and $30 at the door. Call (205) 380-4082 or buy online at www.workplay.com.