In a darkened auditorium called the San Diego House of Blues I stood absorbing the past 50 minutes of my life when a crisp, white piece of paper fell across my face and my hand swung automatically beneath it. I caught it casually while the young crowd around me regretted not being quick enough. I turned it over and read ST. VINCENT in bold letters above a list of 13 song titles – the coveted set list. The set list is a special keepsake for many for concertgoers; a bragging souvenir or a reminder of a moment in time that will not happen in the exact,same way again. In this act of creating or [re]creating, the performance of live music is a unique and sacred process that is shared between the artist and his/her receptor like a musical one-night stand.
Annie Clark knows this and when she tosses the list of songs played in one night in any-given city of her tour, she tosses it as her final offering; another piece of her for a stranger to have. Clark is the 29 year-old singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, Berklee School of Music dropout behind the stage moniker St. Vincent; a name said to be a reference to Saint Vincent’s Catholic Medical Center where the poet Dylan Thomas died in the early 1950s.
“It’s the place where poetry comes to die,” she has said. “ And that’s me.”
As ominous as that may sound, perhaps a twisted take on Barthes’ Death of theAuthor in reverse, it makes complete sense when you consider her characteristic inclination to create a style of simultaneously beautiful and eerie music. The project known as St. Vincent was birthed around 2006 after a short stint with the Dallas-based choral symphonic pop rock group The Polyphonic Spree but it was while she toured Europe playing back up guitar for Sufjan Stevens that she released her “Paris is Burning” EP and the rest was history. Since_ “Paris is Burning” she has released 3 full-length albums; Marry Me, Actor, and Strange Mercy, toured and opened for the Arcade Fire, Death Cab For Cutie, Grizzly Bear and collaborated with the likes of Bon Iver, Kid Cudi and Beck. She has been described as the musical [Plath] for a cyberpunk world, “elegant and neurasthenic – a fine crystal goblet with a bead of blood running down from the rim,“ by one Mr. Mickeybitzo, a YouTube commentator. And though I cannot entirely support the validity of Mr. Bitzo’s descriptive insights, I wouldn’t necessarily dismiss this claim as far-fetched. In fact, the overtly confessional and acute sense of wit that dominates her lyrical repertoire both in nature and delivery do evoke a Sylvia Plath-esque captivating gloom as well as an intimate uneasiness that is reminiscent of Anne Sexton’s earlier poetic work – blending the sometimes-indiscernible worlds of pleasure and pain.
The song “Surgeon” off of her recent 2011 album “Strange Mercy” is a delicious five minute treat both in the visual and auditory sense. It begins with a thick, dreamy, low Wurlitzer melody usually reserved for the opening credits of a Disney fairytale movie and it’s innocence is juxtaposed by Clark sweetly singing the words “I spent the summer on my back/ Another attack / Turn off the TV, Wait in Bed,” followed by an infectious riff accompanying the plea “Best, finest surgeon / come cut me open.“ A desperate declaration of depression and a need for assistance couldn’t be more loudly evident but paired alongside the richly,sophisticated melodic arrangements of endless guitar loops, the pleas cease to feel childish or even frantic. Conversely, they feel refined, mature and a little bit dangerous, somewhat like a sugary blade caressing your throat would feel. In the live performance, Clark’s face remains composed as she sincerely sings the above words, all the while her fingers move effortlessly below, exhausting the fretboard of her Gibson guitar as if she were easily typing 100 secret, fiery words per minute on a keyboard. The song reaches its climactic end as she engages in a fancy footwork with the arrangement of her guitar pedals to create an impressive and almost spine-chilling solo, like a dentist drilling his surgical airotor drill into the back of your mouth- it is both inexplicably painful but beautiful all at once. After the song ends I feel exhausted and a little bit used.
Immediately following the show, members of the audience squealed in joy, men and even some women shouted declarations of love and even a marriage proposal or two. Not too bad for a regular Wednesday night on tour for Clark. Of course, she isn’t being blinded by popular Grammy nominations or single-handedly selling out concert stadiums around the world with her music (which is not and should not be the defining standard for judgment of what is “good” or ”bad” music), this show was just a humble 50 minute set at the tiny House of Blues on 5th Avenue in San Diego, CA but nonetheless, a substantial audience, myself included, were there in support to witness the formation of music before our very eyes, to take photographs, to identify with a feeling and maybe even to catch a set list.
I think about the woman behind me in line before we entered the venue who was so very enthusiastic to watch tUne yArDs and St.Vincent that she begun spiraling off about artists and the artistic, prodigy of a child she had. “Arshia just has that artist soul, you know? [She’s] such a free spirit. We don’t know what she wants to do with that, but I can easily see her living a very atypical life of an artist. She followed by saying, “…but Lara, (her youngest daughter) “Oh, she’s so smart, she says she wants to be a doctor, so that’s very reassuring.”
I couldn’t help but think of the recurrent misconceptions and stereotypical approach many people take to refer to artists – “Yes, their commitment is admirable but yikes! How do they make any money?” is a common mindset. I stood in line, glancing at my phone but with one ear attuned to this Mom’s conversation, listening to her affirm the usually discouraging reality of the pursuit of a truly organic, artistic lifestyle. I was particularly reminded of a segment of a video on Noisey, Vice Music channel’s Youtube page devoted to music, in which Merrill Garbus of tUne yArDs, in conversation with Annie Clark, laughingly admits, “I’ve kind of lived out of my car from 2002 – 2010 [from] touring… like Jewel style.”
Sitting across from each other in a Pomona alleyway, both musicians describe touring and their respective musical processes. Clark asks Garbus, “I don’t know what it’s like for you but every time someone asks, ‘What’s it like to be a woman in music?’ I want to answer that the only difference is that you consistently get asked ‘What’s it like to be a woman in music?’ I mean, come on, its 2012.”
Garbus laughs and adds, “I think it’s remarkable that so many critics last year were like ‘Imagine that some of the best music this year was created by women!” [as if to insinuate the absurdity of the fact] “It’s like why are we being asked about gender in music when men don’t get asked, ‘What’s it like to be a guy in rock n’ roll?’ ”
The dismissive tone in which these women joke about the double standard regarding men and women in music doesn’t at all seem seriously furious or necessarily livid. Instead they simply laugh at the ridiculously irritating fact that there does still exist a condescending patronization and “otherness” of women in rock n’ roll and the collective arts. And to counter this patronization Clark adds “It’s like asking,
‘Oh, you poor thing, what’s it like?” And it’s like, Umm….It’s fucking awesome.
“Out of nothing comes something, “ utters author Amy Tan whilst pacing the stage of TED, the nonprofit devoted to “ideas worth spreading. “The value of nothing…that was an essay I wrote when I was 11 years old and I got a B+”. In her talk Tan, author of the Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God’s Wife, The Hundred Secret Senses, The Bonesetter’s Daughter and Saving Fish from Drowning, among other publications, digs deep into the creative process, journeying through her childhood and family history and into the worlds of physics and chance, looking for hints of where her own creativity comes from. “Nature, nurture and nightmares” she remarks, “or as my mother says, I get my material from past lives.” Tan wonders if we are all innately equipped with some abnormal chromosome that causes this muse-like effect. Brightly displayed on a projector screen behind her is power point that has just surfaced with her face doused in neon-magenta eye shadow and a sinister red smile - above it, the words “psychotic muse theory” aka Van Gogh syndrome. She mentions the inclination for artists to succumb to depression and psychosis (Proust, Plath, Poe) as a correlation of the spurt of creativity. “I will say that a part of it really begins as a sense of identity crisis. You know? The ‘who am I?’ Why am I this particular person?” Part inquiry - part childhood trauma. I have to develop a cosmology of my universe [through writing] as a creator of that universe.”
I attach the link to this video and spam it to my close friends. This conversation is one I have exhausted with myself perhaps many times before. The desire to allocate and pin point the muse is almost a writer’s birthright. She will spend endless hours chasing this wonderful, fiery fountain of inspiration and never find it until it decides to wavingly appear from nowhere. Where does this creativity hide and where is it when we need it most, at the bleakest most darkest hour of writer’s block? And sometimes the need to want to explain the process is larger than the need to want to actually create.
“You write something. Aren’t you poetic? Write a poem,” my little sister demands as I we glue down the final decorations on the cards for our philanthropy project.
“What, do you think poetry just pours out of me?” I reply.
She laughingly adds, “Yeah.”
This is a usual request. The demand and expectation to forcefully create . It is the paradox of writing. You’re supposed to know how to do it and you’re supposed to know how to do it not only correctly but beautifully all the time. If only they who do not identify as writers and artists could see the painful complexity from which creativity stems. If they could see the feeling of doubt that inevitably follows the completion of a piece of work. That need for constant validation in some shape or form.
Artists like Annie Clark and Amy Tan, conjure time after time this inner muse that leads them to creation and sustains their existence as writers. And though they enjoy the perks of relative success, it has not been achieved without a strenuous amount of dedication and sacrifice of that very artistic soul and wit.
I walk into Anna Joy Springer’s office at the University of California, San Diego during office hours and she’s sitting facing the window in the low light of the dusky 6 o’clock afternoon. Anna Joy Springer is a female writer and visual artist, author of THE BIRDWISHER (Birds of Lace) and THE VICIOUS RED RELIC, LOVE. When she isn’t teaching experimental writing courses at UCSD, she creates hybrid texts that are a combination of some beautiful and wicked elements that articulate some emotional experiences for readers and students. She’s been a singer in the Bay Area bands, such as Blatz, The Gr’ups, and Cypher in the Snow, touring the United States. Her experience as an artist in every authentic sense of the word is abundant. So at a time when I felt most discouraged I gave her one last visit.
It was her Spring 2011 Experimental Writing course that sparked my interest in creative writing again. She challenged me to tap into my third eye and break the mold of “acceptable” mainstream prose and poetry and bring the act of writing back to its bare essence. I let my self in and sat in front of her like a timid child. “How are you?” I ask.
“I am well, and yourself? All ready for graduation?” The inevitable question curves at the end like the tip of a curious cat’s tail… ”What do you plan on doing after?”
“You see that’s what I don’t know. I want to [make] something. I have this need to want to create something tangible with my own hands but I just don’t know what it is yet. Do I have to slap a graduate school certificate on it to make it happen?”
“No, not at all you need to write. You need time to write”
“You know what I mean right? How do you explain need to express that which you don’t know how yet?”
“There is no rush.”
“But there is. Everyone keeps asking what I’m doing with my life.”
“Just living, you should answer. Or not answer at all. There can’t be a time schedule. It doesn’t work that way for artists. It doesn’t help your writing, it hinders it actually.”
“So what keeps you going, when the odds are against you, even when there is nobody writing you a check or big clapping audience?” I ask.
And this is how Professor Springer gave me the best advice I’ve received yet, “The only validation I need is found in the pleasure of making and exploring my own consciousness. That far surpasses the need for money or success. My personal success is measured in the connection I establish with my imagination. I don’t know if I would want to do much of [anything] if I could not have this relationship with myself. I could be eating Top Ramen and making art and still happy because I’m true to this calling. If you are in the truth, you can be anywhere.“
With that I walked out of the familiar Lit building as if I was walking outof the cave, the world hanging up side down and the reel of my mind lacing all the beautiful adjectives I ever knew to try to describe it. I was infinite and content. I felt smart.