David Byrne and St. Vincent
8:30 p.m. Sunday, June 23, Confederation Park
TD Ottawa Jazz Festival
OTTAWA — The creative coupling of Talking Heads’ David Byrne and New York City singer-songwriter Annie Clark, aka St. Vincent, was conceived as little more than a brief fling.
The 61-year-old rock legend and the indie-pop sweetheart half his age first teamed up to play in a Soho bookstore that encourages such multi-generational musical matchmaking. Songs were written, lyrics were crafted and a brass band, of all things, was assembled for the gig.
“I’m not a big, huge acoustic guitar person,” confesses Clark, although she is a skilled electric guitarist, during a phone interview from the Big Apple. “We thought we were going to just do one night of performance for charity and maybe write 20 minutes of original music. But the idea was this has to be contained in a small bookstore, with no production, so we thought ‘Why don’t we do a brass ensemble?’ It just grew from there.”
The one-night stand went so well they were reluctant to part. So they squeezed out a few more songs until there was enough material to fill an album. Love This Giant came out last fall, brimming with zesty pop tunes driven by tight horn arrangements and lively male-female vocals. Then, as Clark says, “It’s not the 1970s anymore, people don’t just put out records and not tour them. We thought it’s an interesting enough concept, it would be a really compelling live show.”
That’s how Clark found herself in a fairly committed creative relationship with one of the most influential musicians of the post-punk era. “David is so iconic, and such an inspiration to so many people, myself included,” she says. “I still think when I look over on stage and see him: ‘Oh my God, that’s David Byrne’.”
Talk about once in a lifetime. Byrne, of course, is renowned for his seminal band, the Talking Heads, the new wave quartet he formed in New York City in 1975. The band produced a string of hits: By the time Clark was born, the repertoire included Psycho Killer, Burning Down The House, Take Me To the River and yes, Once in a Lifetime. They parted ways in 1991, but reunited for a bit when they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.
Burning Down The House was all over the radio the year Clark entered the world. Born in 1982 in Oklahoma, she grew up in Dallas, Texas, started taking guitar lessons at 12 and later attended Boston’s Berklee College of Music. After dropping out, she went back to Texas and was recruited to swell the ranks of The Polyphonic Spree. She toured with the Spree and as a member of Sufjan Stevens’ band before getting serious about her own songwriting.
Clark transformed herself into the bittersweet goddess of song, St. Vincent, with her 2007 solo debut, Marry Me. The next one, 2009’s Actor, was darker and more ambitious and earned plenty of attention. By the third album, Strange Mercy, St. Vincent was well established as a gifted singer-songwriter with a flair for melody and a willingness to experiment with rock, classical and electronic textures.
Many of her songs are moody, if not downright sad, so it’s nice to see Clark explore the sunny side with Byrne. Their songs are brighter, bouncier and more danceable.
“I wouldn’t say I’ve changed a lot as a result of working with him, but I think that from doing this record and getting to perform this music, which is frankly so fun, I think that’s correlating with a time in my life when it feels a bit more lighthearted and a bit more fun,” Clark says. “I think I’m a bit more light-hearted these days – maybe not such a wreck.”
Although Byrne was not available for an interview, Clark says he’s having fun, too. “He’s someone who does a lot of collaboration in a lot of different mediums, but I think he said he’s really happy and energized about our collaboration. I know he’s confident and excited by what we’ve done,” she says.
To demonstrate their passion for the project, it was important to mount a show that would do justice to the concept. The pair worked with a choreographer, and insisted on taking a full brass band on the road. They’re touring North America and Europe this summer, playing songs from each of their catalogues, as well as Love This Giant tunes.
“We’re at a point in the music industry when who knows how much longer people will even be able to go out and dream big and execute something like this,” Clark observes. “So we thought, ‘why not?’ Go big or go home.”