From the early days of touring with indie luminaries The Polyphonic Spree and Sufjan Stevens, to releasing six albums as St. Vincent and recently wrapping up production on a record for Sleater-Kinney,Annie Clark is much more than a modern-day guitar hero. Her left-of-center approach to songcraft, joined with a unique sonic aesthetic, has made her a reckoning figure in contemporary music. I was lucky to meet Annie last year while engineering Sleater-Kinney's upcoming album, The Center Won't Hold, while Clark produced. The two of us ended up forging a great producer/engineer rapport and have been working on numerous recording projects since then – mostly at her home studio in Los Angeles. We've joked about the creative mind-meld we've developed from spending so much time working together, so it seemed like a natural fit for me to interview her for Tape Op.
Tell us about how you got into recording music and your recording journey.
My recording journey started in seventh or eighth grade with a Tascam cassette 4-track. We were talking about it the other day, when we were chasing that sound. It's so nostalgic. My stepdad was into computers. My uncle was an amazing guitar player and had a science/engineer brain. My stepdad talked to my uncle and they helped me build a PC-based recording system in my bedroom – I was 15. That was when you had these massive A-to-D converters, and everything was weird and outboard. I was using Cakewalk Pro Audio. My friends in high school would call me "Missing In Action". Instead of going to whatever party at whatever dirtbag's house and smoke weed, I was in my room with this recording setup, writing songs and trying to sing along to practice Billie Holiday riffs.
Oh, wow. So you basically used the recorder as an avenue to learn and practice different kinds of music?
Yeah, as well as learn how to arrange, I think. But it was a little different. It was right at the beginning of that home studio world; a prosumer thing, but before, "Oh, I've got a Mac and it has GarageBand."
Back when there were a couple of extra steps involved...
There were a couple of extra steps involved. But it was different in that I had played in some bands too, but suddenly I could do it all myself. I think that I did more of that than jamming with people, in those days. It's neither here nor there. But yeah, it was always a more solitary confinement. What about you? How did you start?
Same thing, but playing in my garage. I was a drummer, so I relied on other people… sadly.
But yeah, same thing. I always had computers, but I never had the musical ability to create something all on my own. I had ideas, but then I started meeting people in high school and college who could actually write songs. The idea of starting and finishing a song was so foreign to me.
Mhmm. Is it okay to say that your dad worked for Apple?
You've talked about how he was always bringing prototypes home. Did you ever experiment with any early Apple recording software programs?
Even though I had access to so much Apple equipment, I had this rebellious streak growing up where I would get a Windows laptop… just to try something different.
Oh, my god! What a nerdy rebellion too. I remember using Windows 98 and feeling like it was punishment. I remember going to college and still having a PC.
This was Berklee [College of Music]?
Yes, Berklee. Judge me. You couldn't possibly judge me harder than I judge myself. [laughter] But I got a Yamaha 16-track digital recording unit. It was big and heavy, and I remember being so impressed because it had motorized faders. I was like, "Fuck, yeah. Check out this fader recall." Great for showing off! The interface was all in that hardware box. I don't think it was particularly compatible with software. Also, I remember there was Cubase, but Apple still hadn't come out with GarageBand and Logic. I used that to make a lot of my recordings in college. When I think back to the Tascam 4-track, I feel a warmth and a vibe. When I think back to the recordings that I did on the Yamaha, I don't think of them as vibey. But maybe that was the kind of stuff I was writing at the time.
Yeah. Do you think that's the simplicity of the early days, combined with not knowing?
Yeah, it's possible that there's just so much nostalgia wrapped up in those early days of hearing yourself recorded back. "I'm making the thing that I love." But then, after the Yamaha, I got a Mac, and I remember getting so excited. I got a Mac and got Pro Tools.
Straight into the deep end.
Yeah. It was Pro Tools LE with the first Mbox. I recorded a lot of my first album on the Mbox. I did the classic buy: a preamp from Guitar Center, record, and return it. Oddly enough I did a lot of my first album recordings in my childhood bedroom with an Mbox. The same place I had started.
Then you evolved to working with other engineers and producers. Did recording in solitude still factor into that process, or was there a real shift between the earlier work and where it is now?
It was more like a comfort level. There's still a level of comfort that is unparalleled with being able to write alone. It's really vulnerable to try to come up with ideas, because it's like you're diamond mining. It's uncomfortable to have someone be in the room watching you not hit the mark. So, as far as writing goes, I think that's still a solitary process.
How did that factor into the new workflow of making records with other people?
Well, it was always like a file exchange. I'd start an idea and bring it in. Either we'd start from scratch, or we might use some things that I recorded by myself. A real mixed bag, still.
I find it common now with artists that they feel because something was recorded at home or on an iPhone that it's not legitimate.
Right. However, sometimes the demo vocal that you record into – like an Mbox with a [Shure SM]58 is magic. I don't know. I go back to Duke Ellington with, "If it sounds good, it is good." I might bum out some audiophiles, but does it speak to the heart? Does it move people? Is it evocative? Then great, we're good. It's a lot of hand-wringing.
The evolution of St. Vincent was making records alone to making records with other people. Now you're making records for other people. You just produced an album for Sleater-Kinney [The Center Won't Hold].
Yeah, which you engineered. Crushed it.
Hey, thanks! But now, as a producer, you're on the other side of the glass…
I would say that the most helpful thing about my experience being an artist in studios and in the recording process is that I know how vulnerable it is to sing. I know how vulnerable it is to try ideas, and I know the ways that I have enjoyed being related to by producers, or co-producers, or whatever; and I know the ways that I haven't enjoyed being related to. So I'm able to bring that to the process; I can be really supportive and not shame anybody for missing the mark. That's the point. We're in here to try and play and have fun. Also, I don't think there's any wasted effort. "Let's go down this rabbit hole and see what happens." The best case scenario is that we break on through to the other side and there's something exciting. The worst case scenario is that we go back and realize the first thing we had was great, and we didn't beat it.
Do you find yourself ever having to withhold ideas? For instance, when you go into a project like Sleater-Kinney, who are a band, and writing their own songs, but you clearly
have musical ideas. How does that communication happen?
We were all in the room together. You met Carrie [Brownstein] doing music with her for a television show. Then she said, "I met this great engineer. I'd love to use him on the Sleater-Kinney stuff." Great. We met on that, and it obviously takes time to develop a rapport and figure out where the other person's coming from and what they're thinking. I think we got into a rhythm, which was great. There wasn't any creative gulf to traverse between us. A good friend of mine said to me, "You are the most underprepared overachieving person I've ever met." Did I give any thought as to how we were going to do the Sleater-Kinney record? No! I was like, "It's on the calendar. It's this day, at this time." You show up fucking ready to work and see what happens.
We're now working together on your own music again. Do you feel any urge to want to make records with more people?
I learned a lot working with Sleater-Kinney. I think some of the most special moments were more fly-by-the-seat-of-your pants. Like the last song on the record, which is a ballad that Carrie wrote on piano ["Broken"]. Corin [Tucker] was staying with her while they were in Los Angeles recording. Corin came up with the melody and the lyrics in one morning before they walked into the studio. If anybody had said, "There's going to be a piano ballad on the Sleater-Kinney record," probably you wouldn't believe it, but that's where their instinct and heart was telling them to go. I remember it was late at night. We made the studio vibey, and they recorded it live in a couple of passes. It's heartbreaking. Try and argue with that. It's gorgeous!
Absolutely. Now we're at your home/studio in Los Angeles. You've evolved quite a ways from a college dorm room.
It's a studio where I sometimes sleep.
I see a grand piano where a dining room table would normally be. There's a drum set where your guests would normally sleep, and the garage has been fully converted into a control room…
It was already retrofitted to be a studio. It's a spot that a musician had owned before, so the guest room was already wired to be a live room. It turned out the owners were fans, so I got the house. They saw me at Coachella once! It's been a process. I just bought a console; that is now the vibey-ist part, and it is so exciting.
Before this last run of recordings, would you say this place was more for writing?
It was more of a project studio. I did do a lot of recording for MASSEDUCTION in here, but not using the live room. I cut a lot of main vocals here. I wrote a lot, did ancillary parts, as well as some guitars. I forget which songs I recorded myself on for that project.
What do you think of waking up and being at the studio, working all day, and then literally walking to your bed?
That is wonderful for short stretches. I think if it goes past a little more than a week, then it's time to get the fuck out and go to a different place. Luckily I still live in Texas sometimes, or I can scoot off to New York and get the fuck out. I've learned the benefit – and you can speak to this too – of going, "I am working these days. This is what I'm doing. Then these couple of days, I am not working." If I don't specifically say I'm not working, I'll work all the time. Then I don't have things to bring into the work.
Yeah. I've noticed too that you're very efficient with your time. Is that just how you're wired?
I don't know if it's intentional. I think it's how I'm wired. We can talk about the Sleater-Kinney record… we were very efficient with that. We hit the right balance of them getting to explore and experiment, and also we got shit done.
Definitely. The preproduction, the writing, and the production process were almost all done in real-time.
It's all the same. It really was. The band had a number of demos. Most of them weren't full-band demos. It was Carrie writing songs, and Corin writing songs. I think they jammed a couple of them, if I recall.
Most of them were just simple GarageBand demos.
Totally. Of course, it's a very democratic process. Everybody had a say on the material. "Oh, I think we should do this or that." The best idea wins, always, ideally. Or it's the best idea that gets buried under levels of insecurity. Originally they were going to work with a few different producers and test things out. They wanted to try something different. So we booked some time at 64Sound in Highland Park [Los Angeles].
Pierre de Reeder's place [Tape Op #109].
We were going to tackle three songs. We did "Hurry On Home," "The Dog/The Body," and "Ruins."
Those three were mostly completed there. We recorded most of the rest of the album at Barefoot Recording [Los Angeles].
Yeah. I think we then re-recorded the drums on "The Dog/The Body" at Boulevard Recording [Tape Op #111] in Hollywood. The place that they did [Pink Floyd's] The Wall. It was a ground-up reno of that [material]. The ideas were strong, and the melodies were strong. Cool riffs, always. It was like, "Okay, how do we frame this?"
I learned very quickly that when you're recording something, nothing's done in vain. There's never like, "Oh, it's just going to be a scratch take." I enjoy that because it kept everyone on their toes.
Good, yeah! I have no patience, which is going to be a sweet way of framing that. I think Carrie and I joked at the studio, like, "Why aren't you reading my mind and doing it perfect the first time?" Yeah, that's never been my strong suit; patience.
Hah! Well, it was very involved, on everybody's part.
I liked that there was a lot of great input. When Carrie or Corin were doing vocal takes, we were all in there listening. Whoever wasn't doing the vocal take had strong reactions, like, "Yes, that was the one!" That's the thing; you see it with anything where it is a live performance. You know when it's the one. Maybe that takes a long time to cultivate. "Okay, the ghost walked through the room. That's the one. Great. We got it."
It also takes years of experience to be comfortable with making that decision. Some people are crippled by this anxiety or doubt, and it can go on forever.
Indecision becomes your decision. I've seen that – I've seen cautionary tales.
Firsthand, from your own experience?
Yeah, for sure. I've seen that. It comes down to not having the patience. I want to decide. Then I don't have to make that decision again. I can make other decisions.
Did you ever encounter pushback to that approach from people who've you worked with?
I don't know. When I was doing records with John Congleton [Tape Op #81] or Jack Antonoff – not to be so blue collar about it – but time is money. We're in the studio. We're here to work, and this is what we're doing. Someone like John is super-efficient and fast. Same with Jack; super-fast. There hasn't been a whole lot of pushback, I don't think.
I wouldn't disagree. What's next for you?
What's next? Generating material. There is one thing I was thinking about today: part of the indecision/decision world, and chasing the tail, is if you're tweaking so hard about going so far down the rabbit hole with the sound and not getting there, it's very possible that the problem is with the song. It's an arrangement issue, or a lyrical issue. The Sleater-Kinney record, and the process of doing that, my main thing was just the songs. "Let's make sure that these songs are solid." They're a band with so much energy, excitement, and anger; just kinetic. It's this funny thing where Corin could sing anything and it would sound fuckin' awesome. It would sound totally powerful. That's such a gift. So let's make sure that we're not slacking in any way, shape, or form on the songcraft side of it so that the voice can shine even more.
Sleater-Kinney are a rock trio – two guitars and drums [Janet Weiss] – and this record is a lot more than that.
Yeah. There are some dirty, dirty synthesizers on it. One thing you hipped me to was that Rheem organ. The cool thing about Sleater-Kinney is that it's two guitars, and nothing really fills out that low-end. There were a couple instances where it was like, "Yeah, we want a little bit of low-end," but we just wanted to feel it and not have it be a featured moment. Not have personality. Totally utilitarian. That Rheem was so helpful with that. That's from the ‘60s; it's not a modern sound, like, "Cool, we put a bunch of [Roland] 808s on a Sleater-Kinney record!" At 64Sound, when we were looking to track something, the band kept saying words like "corroded" or "corrosive." A couple of times I had to pull Carrie back and say, "No, no. This is a beautiful moment. Let there be beauty for half a second without ‘corroded'. Yes ‘corroded,' 100 percent, but just not here for a second." Luckily we have that kind of relationship where I can tell her anything. But you pulled out that Electro-Harmonix Micro Synth, which is that sound on "Ruins," which is just so gross. One of my favorite moments on the record is in the second verse where it breaks up. "Okay, magic!" Also having Corin or Carrie unplug or plug in her guitar; getting the sound of the jack. That was the fun thing about "The Center Won't Hold" too. We muted a Marxophone in an echo chamber, and it happened to be the exact tempo. "Okay, kismet." When I think back to making that record, it was just fun every day. I think there are a lot of people who fetishize pain and struggle in the process and think that it's not anything if…
...if you don't lose blood, sweat, and tears?
Yeah. I'm thinking about producing. I mean, writing is painful. Writing is a rending process. I get that. We should feel free to explore and chase; but [we should] also fucking get shit done, because time is money. I never made records with squillion dollar advances. It was like, "I've got these days, and we're going to do some shit."