One night almost exactly a year ago, three of indie rock's most newly hyped acts—the Morning Benders, Twin Sister, and Cults—played Neumos to an amped-up crowd of early adopters. A rumor was rippling around the room that Drew Barrymore was somewhere in the club, but though that report went unconfirmed, a less tabloid-worthy but more musically relevant celebrity was in attendance that night. Standing by herself in the back of the room, with an air of aloofness, hands in her coat pockets, with an unmistakable head of curly dark hair, was Annie Clark—alias St. Vincent, formerly heard performing with The Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens, and creator of two impeccable and admired solo albums, 2007's Marry Me and 2009's Actor.
ST. VINCENT With Cate Le Bon. Neptune, 1303 N.E. 45th St., 682-1414, stgpresents.org/neptune. $16 adv./$19 DOS. All ages. 8 p.m. Thurs., Oct. 13.
Clark is an Oklahoma-born, Texas-bred Manhattan resident, but in October 2010 she called Seattle home, precisely so she could do things like go to concerts alone. "I wanted to do a loneliness experiment and a technology detox," she said in a recent phone call, "and I don't know anyone in Seattle."
She was ready to start writing her third album, which would become the electropop album Strange Mercy, and in New York, she said, there were just too many distractions. "There's not as much energy or room to focus in on the creative side. And I was just longing for that. The older I get, the more I really, really, really like spending time alone."
So the now-29-year-old Clark flew across the country, rented a "sweet-ass baby-blue Honda Civic" and spent a month in near- isolation. "Seattle's one of my favorite cities," she says now. These are the places she loved best:
Two Sticks Audio
Clark's friend Jason McGerr, drummer of Death Cab for Cutie, offered her the use of his recording studio on North 127th Street (Death Cab recorded Narrow Stairs there, and Tegan & Sara, Telekinesis, and Rocky Votolato have all used the space, which is now closed). Clark says she spent 10 to 12 hours a day at the studio, with her cell phone switched off—"I was just outputting ideas. I kind of think of it like running the tap—like, OK, there's some brown water, because these pipes haven't been used in a while. Get the rust out!"
"I remember coming in one day and there was a bunch of aluminum foil and spoons on the piano," says Two Sticks' former recording engineer, Jackson Long. "It sounded really neat and creepy. I think I also finally convinced her that biking from Belltown to North Aurora/Shoreline was a long way and maybe not totally safe."
The Ace Hotel
Clark had her first Ace experience, residing at the Belltown hotel for her entire stay. Her room was TV-less, and every morning she went running on the nearby waterfront. As for the Ace's hipster reputation, she says, "It sounds like a fancy rock-and-roll-lifestyle hotel, but it's like, you know, you have to share a bathroom."
Clark got Stumptown coffee every day, and enjoyed dining at Lark, but it was at the 12th Avenue French bistro that inspiration for one of Strange Mercy's most visceral tracks, "Surgeon," struck. "I was actually having a day in the studio where I left early and I was, like, 'Nothing's coming out,' and I was beating myself up about what a bad musician I was, and I went [to Café Presse] and had a glass of wine, or three, and was reading," she says. She was reading a Vanity Fair article on Marilyn Monroe that excerpted a line from Monroe's diary—"Best, finest surgeon, Lee Strasberg, come cut me open." "I was, like, 'That's great,' " says Clark. "I wrote it down and the next day it was a song."
Monroe's original quote was actually more metaphorical than grisly—Strasberg was a renowned acting coach with whom she was working—but for "Surgeon," Clark, who just released a video featuring herself getting kidnapped and buried alive, transformed the words into something ethereal and disquieting—a good way of describing the entire album.
Human isolation just isn't a natural state, and Clark did end up making a new friend in Seattle—the receptionist at the Ace, who was also the girlfriend of Telekinesis' Michael Benjamin Lerner. "Michael is a good friend of my good friend. So we put it all together," says Clark. "So by the end of it, I was, like, bringing a bottle back to the Ace, being like 'Hey, Amy, what's going on?' Just trying to be like 'Hey, let's shoot the shit!' We all went out for drinks the last night I was there." She liked the fact that Sun Liquor was "a real cocktail bar!"
On the Boards
"I was looking for little escapes where I could get them," Clark says. The Morning Benders show was the only concert she checked out, but she did catch a couple of dance recitals, including one at Queen Anne's On the Boards. "I saw a dance performance that made me cry. But I might have been PMSing," she says. [It was the French choreographer Christian Rizzo's b.c, janvier 1545, Fontainebleau]. Clark says she loves dance, but sticks to being a fan, not a practitioner. "Oh, God, no," she says. "I'm really untalented in that area."