Love This Giant developed like many a New York City-bred friendship. Both parties are kind of hazy about how it began, but after a couple of semi-chance encounters, David Byrne and Annie Clark, who records and performs as St. Vincent, embarked upon a creative dialogue that has flourished over the last three years.
Curious, mutually appreciative acquaintances became determined co-conspirators, and the result is an album that’s brash and, quite literally, brassy. Byrne and Clark spin their intriguingly enigmatic tales, by turns whimsical and dark, backed by a large brass band in lieu of a traditional rock lineup. There is a magical urbanity to Love This Giant: It’s as if they’re dancing in the streets, their voices soaring over the rhythms, the melodies, the barely contained cacophony of the city.
Though Byrne and Clark each have an unmistakable sound and persona that have made them such compelling performers on their own, their voices manage to blend naturally, effortlessly, here. Sometimes they trade verses; at others they sing in unison. Like friends who can finish each other’s sentences, when one takes the spotlight alone, it’s often with words that the other provided. The brass lends the songs an appealing theatrical sheen while programmed percussion provides a contemporary feel. The inventive arrangements have clearly sparked some remarkable vocal performances—check out Byrne on the syncopated I Should Watch TV or Clark on the grand Optimist. Though there’s no overarching theme to Love This Giant, surreal images of nature dominate the lyrics, most of which were worked on in tandem by Byrne and Clark. The threat of natural disaster promises an emotional epiphany; urban apocalypse gives way to a garden party.
Happenstance brought these artists together, but the work they’ve made together feels more like fate. David Byrne’s own boundary-erasing approach to pop music had arguably laid a broad foundation for a new generation of independent-minded artists in Brooklyn and beyond, including Clark, who’d been constructing bedroom recordings for several years before publicly assuming the moniker of St. Vincent. Byrne, a peripatetic concert-goer who can often be glimpsed arriving at New York City venues on his bicycle, reckons he first caught St. Vincent in 2008 at Bowery Ballroom, not long after she’d released her debut Marry Me, and he continued to follow her career since then. Clark thought of him as “a ghost figure,” who would discreetly come to her shows: “I wouldn’t really see him, but I’d hear he was there. And I’d get really excited.”
They were “officially” introduced on Mary 3, 2009 at the maverick charity organization Red Hot’s Radio City Music Hall concert for Dark Was The Night, an indie all-star compilation album produced by Aaron and Bryce Dessner of the National. Merely days later, at the tiny Housing Work Used Book Store in Soho they met again at another benefit: a one-off collaboration between Bjork and the Dirty Projectors, showcasing material composer David Longsreth had written for the Icelandic singer. The organizers of that event approached Byrne to inquire if he would ever consider doing something similar with Clark. That became a catalyst for a musical exchange that went on for the next two and half years, via email or in person, when the pair’s crammed schedules put them both in New York City long enough to book some studio time. Byrne also invited Clark to sing on Here Lies Love, the score for a musical he’d co-written with Fat Boy Slim about the life of former Filipino First Lady Imelda Marcos.
At first there was no structure or goal to their back and forth; it was purely a “What if” situation. But then Clark had the odd but ultimately brilliant notion that they write with a large brass band in mind, and that’s when they began to collaborate in earnest. Byrne reasoned that if this was going to be work they’d present in an unusual live setting like a bookstore, then a brass band would make more sense than a rock group for such an acoustically challenged space. As Byrne explains,” We took that as a starting point, we passed musical ideas, lyrical ideas, back and forth. It took a while, a year or so—we both had other things to do, tours and records and all that—but after a year we had about four songs. We thought, let’s see how these come out and see if we want to move forward. We recorded those and I sang one of them when Annie did a show at Jazz at Lincoln Center…then somewhere along the line we decided, let’s do some more,”
Their ideas, says Clark, “came in various forms. Sometimes they would be very skeletal—David would send me a melody and chords, and I would try to write words to it or rearrange it for horns. Sometimes I would send him arrangements that didn’t have melodies and he would write melodies over it and send it back. This is an honest–to-God collaboration; there really is no delineating what the roles were.”
To cut basic tracks with a dozen or more brass players, most of whom had to be in the same space performing together, they decided to use the large studio of Water Music in Hoboken, New Jersey, one of the few remaining “live” rooms in the greater New York City area. That also afforded Byrne the opportunity to take the ferry across the Hudson each morning, bicycle in tow (only $1 extra). Recalls Byrne, “Every six months or so we’d do a session and the same guys and girls would show up and they’d say, what’s it going to be this time? It was kind of like, how great a variety of sounds and textures and colors and grooves can you get with that set of instruments? Can they do an orchestral ballad, can they do a funk groove, all the kind of stuff?” Indeed they could. Love This Giant opens with “Who,” which swings like Ethiopian disco, and concludes with the stately and dramatic “Outside of Space and Time.”
Clark’s St. Vincent cohort John Congleton, who co-produced 2009’s Actor and 2011’s Strange Mercy, programmed percussion long-distance, emailing files that the pair would pull apart and reconstruct. A few friends came in for overdubs: drummer Anthony LaMarca and percussionist Mauro Refosco, but once the horn parts, arranged mostly by Tony Finno, had been laid down, Byrne and Clark did the rest themselves. Says Byrne, “Often when we could, we didn’t use any bass. The tuba or the baritone sax would do the job of the bass and Annie and I would play guitar. I was more the rhythm guitar guy. And she was the incredible lead guitarist.”
The album, Byrne feels, might surprise those who assume the pair simply gathered a bunch of tunes they wanted to record together. Love This Giant truly became more than the sum of its parts: “It’s going to be confusing to some people. They will think, as people do, that the person who is singing the song wrote the song. In most cases, the gestation of the music and the words was very collaborative. ‘The Forest Awakes,’ for example, was a song that I originally was singing, and I had written the words. But then I thought it might sound less pretentious if Annie sings it. Her vocal quality will put a different spin on it, a little bit of lightness. And most of the tracks are like that, very collaborative.”
“It was incredibly interesting to see how David works and realize how I work as a result of ricocheting my ideas off another person,” Clark admits. “It’s a fun collaboration, for a lot of reasons. David is always looking to the future of music, and he’s not nostalgic about anything. People tend to think of nostalgia as a sweet notion, but I think it’s a little cynical, as if what happened in the past is better than what can happen in the future. People can end up just doing these genres studies. I’m not interested in doing that and neither is David, so we kept pushing each other.”
Three years after they were first introduced, the pair had a finished album—but they still hadn’t done a proper gig together. That will be rectified in the fall, when Byrne and Clark embark on a tour in support of Love This Giant.
“I am thrilled to announce the record David Byrne and I have made together, Love This Giant. We started our collaboration around the fall of 2009 after being approached by Housing Works to write and perform a night of new music for charity. We decided to center the music around a brass band and began sending ideas back and forth in every form: wordless melodies, melody-less songs. After a while we had enough of a body of work that David, not one to do anything halfway, suggested we record it and put it out. I am very proud of what we created and excited for it to hit your ears.”
“I had seen St. Vincent a couple of times in concert here in NY, and first met her after the Dark Was The Night benefit concert at Radio City organized by the Red Hot Organization. I was a fan and told her I loved her then recent video—it’s pretty creepy and disturbing. By coincidence, not long after, we both caught Dirty Projectors and Bjork at their collaborative benefit at Housing Works on Crosby Street. Soon after, Housing Works approached us separately about doing a similar event. We agreed (but the event has yet to happen). Annie suggested we use a brass band rather than the typical rock ensemble—which would brilliantly solve the sound problems inherent in performing in a small joint like Housing Works. A brass band wouldn’t need mixing and could be heard acoustically in a room that size. They’d balance themselves. Easy. We’d only need vocal mics. I loved this idea—we immediately restricted ourselves given all the possible directions we could have taken—and suggested we write some tunes based on this brass concept, just a few to see if we could actually work together and to see if we both liked the results. That was a few years ago. The writing was truly collaborative: sometimes Annie would send me some synthesized versions of brass or guitar riffs and I would arrange them a bit and write a tune and words over them; other times this process would be reversed and I would send some musical ideas to Annie for her to write over. This material would get passed back and forth—each of us adding and elaborating on it. There are songs on which one of us sang on the demo and the other ended up singing the finished version. Eventually we had a handful of songs and mutually decided that the concept was working and we would continue. I found that writing words to this brass-centric sound meant I had to re-think my lyrical approach. Brass has many associations—marching bands, Italian banda, New Orleans bands, classical chorales, RnB and funk. In general it’s not a subtle sound, so the words had to respond to that. We worked with a group of great arrangers, usually passing them midi versions of the parts that we had created on computers. They did their arrangements and often sent us synthesized versions to hear before the real players came in. The process involved a number of steps, so it took a while. On some songs I re-wrote the words about three times before I hit a direction I felt worked! We both had other records and tours in the works, so this project was done in fits and starts, and each series of recording sessions involved a lot of players. It was an education that involved figuring out the variety of sounds and approaches one could come up with using more or less the same group makeup on every song—we could go funky or majestic with the exact same band. When John Congleton added some beats we could see a surprisingly song-centric record emerging. A lot of people, hearing a description of this project, assumed that it might be an artsy indulgence, but somehow it didn’t turn out that way. It’s a pop record—well, in my book anyway. I started to sense that we were ending up with a sound and approach I’d never heard before. There were elements that were reminiscent of things I’d heard, but a lot of it was completely new. Very exciting! By the beginning of 2012, we could see the end in sight and became more serious about wrapping it up and planning a series of performances. We did a photo session with photographer Richard Burbridge and Gabe Bartalos for the cover art and invited artist Steve Powers to create some typographical work to go over that. The record will be out September 11 (wow, auspicious date!), but you can download the song 'Who'—one of the first ones we wrote and completed—by clicking here. Tour dates can be found on the Love This Giant site. Kelly Pratt (Bright Moments) is leading a brass group that will travel with us. And, joined by drums and keyboards, we’ll be doing many of these songs and a bunch of songs that we suspect people will already know—all played by this group."