"David and I also dance – the show has a really nice dramatic art, combining modern theatre and modern dance and, I guess, modern music."
It's been a busy couple of years for Annie Clark. No sooner had the dust settled on touring for her third album, 2011's Strange Mercy, when seemingly out of nowhere Love This Giant lands. A record of remarkable proportions, it was born from a killer collaboration of St. Vincent herself and former Talking Heads' frontman David Byrne, a couple of akin spirits it would seem who are both not only new to the collaboration, but also completely unconventional in their approach to pop music.
A guitarist since the age of 12, Clark began her career as a member of the symphonic pop outfit The Polyphonic Spree and was also part of Sufjan Stevens' touring band before departing in 2006, starting her own band and dropping the remarkable debut album, Marry Me, in 2007. A couple more followed – Actor (2009) and Strange Mercy (2011) – as did critical acclaim and notoriety from audiences and peers alike, including one David Byrne.
“We first met at a charity concert for Dark Was The Night, which was an AIDS charity,” Clark explains her first interaction with Byrne. “Then we actually saw each other at the after-party for that. David came up to me and told me he liked my video, Actor Out Of Work; he said it was very creepy, which I took as a very big compliment. Then we saw each other again a few days later at another AIDS benefit concert. That charity – called Housing Works – asked us if we'd like to collaborate with each other on a night of music.”
It may have seemed like a little piece of fate, but the sessions for Love This Giant didn't fall into place right away; in fact the two had to learn how this collaboration would unfold before doing anything more.
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“Well, we wrote pretty much every song together and how it worked was he would send me music or I would send him music over email and the other person would add to it and send it back. It was kind of like musical tennis,” she laughs. “It took about three years because at first we were best trying to figure out [how] to work together and what our mission would be. And then he was on tour and I was on tour for most of it, so it took us a little while but we were finally able to get it together. We started recording songs, maybe three or four at a time over 2010.”
With these two behind the wheel, you'd expect an absolute myriad of ideas to be floating around, even leftover, as the two traded music, lyrics, ideas over the internet.
“We had a couple of songs left over but for the most part we used what we had,” she explains. “There were a number of ideas that landed on one or the other that, for whatever reason, the other person didn't bite on.”
When you're dealing with a pair of unconventional artists like David Byrne and St. Vincent, little rules or challenges are bound to be put in place. Thinking they were going to be playing in small spaces with a lack of amplification, they decided to work with a brass band in place of a traditional rock format.
“I came up with the idea to work with a brass band for a few reasons. Originally we didn't set out to make the record together, we just set out to write some songs that could be performed in a book store for charity one night only. Then I thought, 'Well the bookstore doesn't have very much PA, so we might as well use acoustic instruments that sound good in a small space.' Obviously we outgrew the bookstore, but also I thought it might be a good idea to have this record sound like its own specific thing and not have it sound just like a David Byrne record or just like a St. Vincent record. So I thought that the horn band was a great equalising force.”
But once the album was complete, Clark admits she lost perspective of it and couldn't really decide if she thought it was going to be successful.
“I didn't have any idea. You never know about a record – there's no guarantee with any record. The thing that I am proud about is when we started this record and walked around telling people, 'Oh David and I are writing songs' and 'There's going to be a brass band,' you would see people's eyes glaze over a little bit because they'd be thinking 'Oooo-k it's going to be an 'art' project.' It is artful, but the thing that I get most excited about is being able to merge 'art' music with things that are accessible and memorable and, if you want to use the word, catchy. David is great moving in that space too so it probably did start as more of an art project and as time went on we pulled it closer to a good pop record. My version of pop music is probably quite different to a lot of people's, but I think it is a really good pop record.”
Highlights are aplenty on Love This Giant – from the opening horn hook of the infectious first single, Who, to the calm and collected Lazarus, there is much to hold onto for any listener. For Clark, her fondness of specifics lies in something a little more personal.
“I am really fond of the song The Forest Awakes because that horn part, that rollicking horn part is something I'd been kicking around for a long time,” she explains. “I remember I could never figure out how to make it a song or even what kind of melody would work over such a moving horn part. I remember sending it to David and he sent it back probably within 24 or 36 hours and all of a sudden it was a song. He added that melody and added a second vocal melody that made it feel like a verse and a chorus. He u-turned it from an abstract horn piece into a song; I was so excited by that.”
Only in Australia quite recently on her own tour for her Strange Mercy album, Clark returns with Byrne this month for a couple of shows, horns and sharp suits in tow.
“I have great times in Australia, it's always so relaxing – you can go to the beach, we went to the koala reserve in Brisbane – yeah, I've had great times down there,” she laughs. “As for the tour, well it'll be most of Love This Giant, but then also an even amount of David's songs and St. Vincent songs – David's ones include Talking Heads songs. It's a very choreographed show – there's a lot of thought put into it. The horn players, of which there are eight on stage, have choreographed dance moves, not in the Janet Jackson Rhythm Nation-way but in their own strange way. David and I also dance – the show has a really nice dramatic art, combining modern theatre and modern dance and, I guess, modern music. And yes, it really is as fun as it looks!”
David Byrne & St Vincent will be playing the following dates:
Monday 14 & Tuesday 15 January - Hamer Hall, Melbourne VIC
Thursday 17 & Friday 18 January - State Theatre, Sydney NSW
Sunday 20 January - Princes Wharf, Hobart TAS